Avalanche — As many as 5 missing after huge slide near The Canyons

Published: Saturday, Jan. 15 2005 12:00 a.m. MST

The fracture line of an avalanche lies near The Canyons ski resort in Park City where at least two people were caught Friday.

Laura Seitz, Deseret Morning News

SNYDERVILLE, Summit County — A massive avalanche Friday near The Canyons Resort may have claimed at least two and perhaps as many as five lives.

If confirmed, the deaths would bring the season's avalanche death toll to the highest recorded in contemporary Utah history.

After a 3 1/2-hour search Friday that yielded no results, crews were scheduled to return to the snow-packed mountainside at 9 a.m. today after a 7 a.m. briefing.

More than 100 rescue workers, dogs and ski patrol members, many of the latter from nearby resorts, scoured the site Friday in what began as a rescue operation but soon became a recovery operation.

The huge slide, triggered about 1:30 p.m., measured 400 to 500 yards across at a depth of 16 to 30 feet — Summit County's largest in five years, officials said.

"It sounded like the whole mountain was coming down," said Layton resident C.J. Harris, 18, who was snowboarding with his family.

The avalanche occurred in a backcountry area called Dutch Draw on federal land, just east of The Canyons' highest chairlift, the Ninety Nine 90 Express. A swinging gate marked, "You can die, this is your decision," greets thrill-seekers before they choose to go out of bounds.

Harris said getting to that backcountry area requires a hike to the marked gate that allows access. Since the area is not on resort property, The Canyons does not patrol the area or provide avalanche-control efforts.

"They were somewhere they just shouldn't have been," said Summit County Sheriff Dave Edmunds, whose agency is heading up rescue efforts.

Avalanche danger is extremely high in Summit County right now, he said, and people should stay out of the backcountry because there have been numerous avalanches over the past several days.

The Canyons' trail map warns that the resort doesn't encourage or discourage skiing out of bounds, but if skiers and snowboarders choose, they should carry a beacon, shovel and probe.

No signals

Edmunds said searchers could find no beacon signal transmitting from under the many feet of snow Friday.

The hunt was halted about 5 p.m. as night fell. Edmunds said he feared a secondary slide could put searchers in danger. At that point, no bodies or survivors had been found. Today's plan calls for a slow, meticulous search, Edmunds said. Rescuers planned on plotting the mountain into grids and using 30-foot-long poles to probe the snow for possible victims.

The Canyons resort closed three chairlifts after the avalanche so its own ski patrol would be freed to join the search, resort spokeswoman Katie Eldridge said. The resort will be open for normal hours today.

The sheriff's office has had no contact with anyone who was in the avalanche, Edmunds said. Reports came in from about 10 witnesses who were skiing or knew people who were skiing in the area when the avalanche came down.

As patrons left parking lots for the day, resort employees asked each driver if everyone in his party was accounted for.

Just before closing time, Syracuse residents Craig and Cindy Jenkins nervously boarded a gondola to search for their son. They hadn't heard from him in quite some time. Luckily, the pair's story was a happy one, since they were shortly reunited with their son, who hadn't been in any danger.

Those concerned that a family member could be one of those trapped in the avalanche should call the Summit County Sheriff's Office at 1-800-828-8477 or visit www.summitcountysheriff.org.

Roland Kent, 31, was visiting The Canyons from Virginia and said he has skied the avalanche area in the past. The dry, powdery snow in that area is beautiful and deep, he said, but Kent is careful to check avalanche conditions before heading into the backcountry.

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