Three presumed dead after canyon avalanche
Date: Saturday, December 27 @ 00:00:30
Topic Top Stories

Three men were presumed dead after being trapped in an avalanche Friday afternoon while snowboarding in an area of Provo Canyon above Sundance called Roberts Horn Chute.

Utah County Sheriff Jim Tracy said a total of 14 people in three different parties were in the area around 4:30 p.
m. Friday when three avalanches occurred in succession, measuring a half-mile long and three city blocks wide at the base, according to Tracy. The snow was 4-14 feet deep. Avalanche danger had been rated as high Friday in the area by the Utah Avalanche Center because of the recent storm activity.

Many of the 11 who made it out of the canyon were partially buried and at least two were completely buried alive and had to be dug out by others.

Three men, all Utah County residents between the ages of 18 and 20, are unaccounted for as of Friday night, Tracy said.

When asked if the three could still be found alive, Tracy said nothing is impossible "but it is not probable at this point." The names of the victims were not released because the families had not been notified, he said. Fearing another avalanche was imminent, Utah County Search and Rescue team members were called off the mountain at 7:30 p.m.

Tracy said helicopters would set off explosives in the mountains above the area this morning to trigger an avalanche, after which crews were expected to resume searching.

The three had been on the mountain with two other roommates, all of whom live together in Utah County, Tracy said. The two
roommates, whose names were also not released, were rescued by others in the area after being buried by the avalanche.

Hyrum Durtschi, 28, and his brother, Jason, 26, both of Pleasant Grove, were snowshoeing in the area, which is popular for snow recreation, when the avalanches occurred.

"We left the car about 3 o'clock," said Hyrum Durtschi. "We were up at the chute about 4 o'clock and we looked up and we saw this enormous wall of snow coming toward us. Our first thought was to get out of the chute and we made three or four steps and then it was on us. It was just white and shooting past us."

Durtschi said he managed to face downward and slide on his bottom as he was pushed by the snow. His brother tumbled and became buried up to his chest. The snow avalanche lasted approximately 30 seconds.

"My first thought as snow was hitting was to pray and think about how much I wanted to be at home," he said. "We started calling for each other, and then the snow settled and I think there must have been a two-minute break and we looked up and there was another avalanche shooting down at us. Before we had time to do anything it was upon us."

When the second slide stopped, Durtschi said he again called out to his brother, and heard him respond. Durtschi headed toward the forest at the edge of the chute, about 100 feet away, and called for his brother to follow him.

"I was buried about up to my knees and my snowshoes had stayed on by some miracle," he said. "I managed to make it to the forest and Jason was still out on the chute. I asked him to follow me and it turns out he was buried up to his shoulders in snow, which I didn't know at the time."

By the time Durtschi had reached the forest, he realized four other people who had been in the area were digging his brother out of the snow. After Jason made it to the forest, the two made their way to the Aspen Grove trailhead parking lot. Jason had lost his snowshoes and his backpack but was otherwise OK.

Durtschi said both he and his brother were experienced snowshoers and were familiar with the area.

"I think it was just essentially terrible conditions," he said. "None of us should have been up there. There were probably two-and-a-half feet of fresh snow, so it was perfect avalanche conditions."

Minutes before the first slide, the two had even joked about being featured on the news as two lost snowshoers, he said.

"It does not occur to you that it could happen to you," he said. "You just don't realize how large an event it is. You think it will be a small wall of snow or you think 'I can run out of it' and none of that was true."

The Aspen Grove area had 52 inches of snow as of Friday night, 29 inches of which had fallen starting on Christmas Day, said Dennis Harris, spokesman for the Utah County Sheriff's Office.

David James, overseer of the BYU weather station, said recent snow storms had dropped wet, dense snow on top of older snow, creating unstable conditions.

The Utah Department of Transportation closed State Road 92 leading into American Fork Canyon Friday morning because of fears that unstable snow could lead to an avalanche, said Geoff Dupaix, a UDOT spokesman. Tracy also closed a portion of State Road 92 on the Provo Canyon side in order to facilitate access for rescue crews.