OAKLEY, Summit County — Two snowboarders are "lucky to be alive," police say, after an avalanche overtook them on a backcountry slope Wednesday.
The two men, both in their early 40s, were in a group of 11 from the Salt Lake Valley who visited the mountainous area of Mud Lake Flat, roughly a mile west of Smith-Morehouse Reservoir in eastern Summit County. Around 4 p.m., someone in the group "jumped off a rock and triggered the avalanche," Summit County Sheriff's Lt. Andrew Wright said.
"This snow's going about 40 to 50 miles per hour, it's crashing into ... trees, snapping trees," said Craig Gordon, a forecaster for the Utah Avalanche Center.
The swift slide pinned one of the men against a tree, breaking both of his legs, Wright said. The other man was buried under 6 to 12 inches of snow for about eight minutes, he said.
"That is a long time when you don't have any oxygen," Wright said.
The group was able to locate the buried man because "his snowboard was barely sticking up out of the snow," according to the lieutenant.
"That is the only reason that they ... found him and were able to save his life," Wright said.
The man's avalanche beacon had been malfunctioning while on the mountain, so he had decided to turn it off, Wright said.
Despite each man's remarkable survival, the ordeal wasn't over, as their group was unable to reach police until just after 8 p.m. The snowboarders had all arrived in the area using a snowcat, but the vehicle broke down as they tried to descend the mountain to get cellphone service and call for help, Wright said.
Eventually, three people from the group were able to make it to Oakley and contact police. Search and rescue crews reached the men near Smith-Morehouse Reservoir and used a medical helicopter to take the man with broken legs to a hospital in Salt Lake County.
The man who was initially buried "is said to be in OK condition," Wright said.
The slide measured about 4 feet deep, "several hundred feet wide" and cascaded down a slope for about 800 feet, Gordon said, noting avalanche danger in northern Utah has been extremely high and that "dangerous, human-triggered avalanches are likely" in that part of the state.
"It doesn't get more dangerous than this. ... Once triggered, avalanches can get quickly out of hand," Gordon said. "Any avalanche that you trigger right now ... is going to break deep, it's going to break wide, and there's a possibility that it might be unsurvivable."
Wright stressed that anyone thinking about spending time in the mountains should check avalanche advisories. Up-to-date conditions can be found at www.utahavalanchecenter.org.
"They are lucky to be alive, we're glad that they're alive, we're glad that we were able to get them the help that they needed," Wright said. "But, you know, it can be avoided."
Gordon said backcountry explorers need to have proper avalanche emergency equipment with them at all times. He added that, during periods of extreme avalanche risk, the wise choice is not to go into backcountry areas at all.
"The best avalanche is the one we don't trigger. ... Right now we just need to exercise a little bit of patience, tone down our objectives and just stick with gentle terrain," he said.
Those who just can't get enough of a challenging ride down the mountain always have resorts as a safe option, Gordon said.
"If you want to get into steep terrain, enjoy the greatest snow on Earth at the greatest resorts on Earth, where active avalanche reduction work is routinely performed," he said.