PARK CITY - A huge, dense avalanche claimed between two and five people on a steep bowl just outside The Canyons ski resort Friday, officials said. No bodies were recovered from the slide, which came after two weeks of extreme avalanche warnings.
The avalanche broke near a ridgeline above Dutch's Draw, just south of the resort's boundaries, in the early afternoon on a bright, unseasonably warm day. The slide, as much as 500 yards wide at the top and half a mile long, was about 30 feet deep at its toe, or stopping point, Summit County Sheriff Dave Edmunds said during a news conference Friday.
Sheriff's dispatchers received a cell phone call at 12:57 p.m. from a man who reported that a "massive avalanche had swept away a person he was skiing with," according to a news release. The victim's name was being withheld pending notification of next of kin.
Investigators talked to several witnesses, Edmunds said, and their information led to the approximate number of victims. There were conflicting reports on whether those people were skiing or snowboarding.
Searchers found no trace of the possible victims, and the danger and depth of the slide meant there is a "strong possibility we won't have [solid] numbers for some time," Edmunds said.
Devon Aubrey, a Canyons employee, said the resort's ski patrol had said on their radios that a group of six people had triggered the slide, but Edmunds said he could not confirm that.
Gazing up from his post, lift attendant Rob Bennion said it looked like the avalanche "took down the whole side of the mountain."
Searchers and their dogs were to return to the mountain early today.
Edmunds said Friday's victims rode the resort's Ninety-Nine-90 chairlift and entered Dutch's Draw through a gate emblazoned with a skull and crossbones and warnings about the danger of leaving the safety of the resort for snowfields not subject to avalanche control.
"When you go out of bounds of any ski resort, you're on your own," Edmunds said. "These are people who were reckless."
Bruce Tremper, director of the U.S. Forest Service Utah Avalanche Center, said two weeks of heavy storms that dropped 6 to 8 feet of heavy, dense snow, combined with unseasonably warm weather and wind, created a huge potential for avalanches. The center, he said, has been issuing avalanche warnings "for about as long a period as I can remember."
"It is the same combination of factors that causes most avalanches; a pre-existing weak layer of snow with a huge slab of snow on top of it," Tremper said. "This last storm was like trying to park an Oldsmobile on top of a bag of potato chips."
He also said that the slide could have occurred naturally, but pointed out that 90 percent of avalanches are triggered by victims or their companions.
Dutch's Draw, he said, is "a very dangerous area and it always has been. It's a very steep, very large and very dangerous area which happens to be right next to a ski area. A lot of people leave the ski area boundaries and go there. They have to pass a gate that tells you in no uncertain terms what you're getting into.
"Ninety-five percent of the time it's perfectly safe to do, and the rest of the time it's not," he said.
Tyson Schwab was near the Ninety-nine-90 lift just north of Dutch's Draw when he heard a thump and a rumble and turned to witness the avalanche. "All you could see was white and mist," he said. "It was like a fog just rolled in."
From KUTV-Channel 2's helicopter, searchers and dogs could be seen slogging through the slide, the tips of pine trees poking through the snow. Edmunds said the searchers were spending the evening fashioning probes 10 feet longer than the standard 20 feet.
Dean Cardinale of Wasatch Backcountry Rescue and the Snowbird Ski Patrol, said dogs from at least six Wasatch Front ski resorts had been called in, and Wasatch Powder Guides flew teams to The Canyons from Snowbird and Alta, where another backcountry avalanche was reported. Officials flew over that slide and declared it clear, he said.
Before the searchers took to the mountain, he said, other helicopters dropped explosive charges to release any remaining dangerous snow.
"The number one concern is the safety of the rescuers," Cardinale said. "They were not involved in the decision the people were making to be in that area at that time. We can't complicate the rescue with the possibility of another slide hitting the rescue team."
Edmunds also implored outdoor enthusiasts to stay out of the back country in Summit County because all of his resources are focused on the avalanche.
"You are coming into some very perilous country," he said. "We are asking you not to come in."
This isn't the first time a deadly snow slide has struck in the area. In January 2000, Greg and Loren Mackay, who lived in the nearby Snyderville Basin, died in an avalanche below Square Top Mountain, another out of bounds area also accessible from the Ninety-Nine-90 chairlift. The next winter, Sharon Reinfurt also died below Square Top while on a family vacation from New Hampshire.
The Canyons reopens for business today.
Brent Harkins, 17, of Lake Forest, Ill., said he and a friend would be skiing today and Sunday and would ride Ninety-nine-90. He said they had considered going off resort runs, but "that's out of our heads now."