A 27-year-old Salt Lake City woman died Sunday, Dec.14, after a major inbounds slide at Snowbird Resort buried her for nearly an hour. Rescue crews rapidly rallied to probe for the victim in the North Baldy slide, discovered the body two feet under the snow, and "life-flighted" her to University Hospital around 1:30 p.m. where she later died.
Heather Gross had been skiing Baldy - on the same terrain that the U.S. Freeskiing Nationals are held - at about 12:30 p.m., when it ripped from the top down. The entire area had been controlled and opened at 9:30 a.m. and a steady procession of Snowbird guests had already skied there.
Several skiers and boarders were above Gross when it eventually went. Snowbird officials immediately shut down the tram and the entire Peruvian side of the resort, while dozens of searchers and dogs gathered to hunt for possible victims.
"They had an overwhelming amount of people come out and help, which was awesome to see," local skier Jake Kirshner who was at the scene, told OnTheSnow.com "I'm not 100 percent sure on how much bombing they did, but patrollers were out there in the a.m. before the lifts were even going. Snowbird was checking zones, they were busting ass to get stuff open as there were a lot of people at the resort."
Sunday was opening day for the hike-to terrain on the east side of the resort. The actual location of the slide was in the Eye of the Needle, a narrow chute that opens up into an apron above Chip's Run. Patrol had been waiting for enough snow to open the rocky terrain and Saturday's nine-inch storm, on top of Friday's four new inches, signaled a "go." It was still snowing Sunday morning.
Snowbird riders joined Salt Lake County Search and Rescue, Alta, Solitude, and The Canyons patrols, Wasatch Backcountry Rescue, and Unified Fire Station 13 in the search. No other bodies were found or reported missing. The tram was running at half-capacity Sunday due to ice build-up on the cables, so there were not as many people hiking out to Baldy.
Sunday's freak occurrence has locals' shaking. "As I was riding up the tram I thought, ‘That's weird, they never open Baldy during a storm.' But I hiked it three times. It felt solid. I should at least have had my beacon," said Steve Mayer. "I know better [than to ski after a storm] without my gear." Snowbird officials say the last inbounds avalanche death was 31 years ago.
Later that day, a group of backcountry skiers reported a second avalanche in Big Cottonwood Canyon. The event occurred near Red Pine Lake on the backside of The Canyons (just behind the behind the summit of Ninety-Nine 90) at about 3 p.m.
One of the men triggered the avalanche which subsequently buried him, but his friends (all of whom were equipped with avi beacons, shovels and probes) quickly rescued him and he was flown to the hospital with minor injuries.
In other avalanche news, a small slide in-bounds in Vail's Blue Sky Basin buried one man from the waist down but he was able to dig himself out. The avalanche ran 150 vertical feet, 150 feet wide, and three feet deep. Vail's ski patrol also controlled that area Sunday morning after a foot of new snow fell.
Bruce Tremper, director of the Utah Avalanche Center, said riders need to be extra careful this early in the season. Backcountry conditions range from moderate to considerable this week after these heavy storms coat the existing weak layers. "We have windblown snow and new snow on top of it," Tremper told the Salt Lake Tribune. "Kind of like putting a brick on potato chips."
The UAFC will host a free Avalanche Awareness class for skiers, snowboarders, snowshoers, and snowmobilers of all ages Dec. 23 at the Jim Santy Auditorium in Park City. Call White Pine Touring for more info: (435) 649-8710.