SALT LAKE CITY (NewsNation Now) — Four skiers in their 20s died when one of the deadliest avalanches in Utah history hit a popular backcountry skiing area, police said Sunday.
Four other people were also buried in the Saturday slide but managed to dig themselves out and didn’t suffer serious injuries, according to Unified Police of Salt Lake County.
The skiers were from two separate groups, and all eight had prepared with the necessary avalanche safety gear, authorities said.
The four killed were all from the Salt Lake City area, not far from the spot where they were swept up by the skier-trigged avalanche in Millcreek Canyon.
“Our backcountry outdoor community is very connected so this type of loss touches many people and really is heartbreaking,” said Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson. “These are people who love doing what they did and lived life to the fullest.”
Three of the deceased were identified as Salt Lake City residents: Louis Holian and Stephanie Hopkins, both 26, and Thomas Louis Steinbrecher, 23. The fourth, 29-year-old Sarah Moughamian was from the suburb of Sandy, Utah.
They were experienced skiers who were well known in the community, Drew Hardesty with the Utah Avalanche Center told the Salt Lake Tribune. The center had deemed the avalanche risk in the area “high.” Hours before the avalanche, it tweeted out a warning that there was “High Danger. Large natural avalanches overnight. Dangerous avalanche conditions. Keep it low angle.”
A faint distress call alerted police to the slide shortly before noon on Saturday. The survivors found their four companions and dug them out, but they were already dead, police said.
The avalanche was “incredibly wide,” Wilson said, and still-unstable snow conditions kept rescuers from immediately recovering the bodies Saturday. Recovery operations resumed Sunday morning.
A total of 20 people nationwide have died in avalanches during the 2020-2021 season, 16 of which were skiers or snowboarders, the Tribune reported. On Thursday, the bodies of three men were located in the debris of an avalanche slide near Anchorage, Alaska. In Colorado, four backcountry skiers have died in two separate slides in the last week.
The Deseret News reported that the last time four people were killed in an avalanche in Utah was on Feb. 13, 1992, at Gold Basin outside Moab, according to the Utah Avalanche Center. They were part of a volunteer avalanche observation team with the U.S. Forest Service.
In 2003, three died in an avalanche that swept up 15 people in Provo Canyon near Sundance Resort in Utah.
“We are heartbroken over the tragic news of four fatalities as the result of an avalanche in the Millcreek Canyon area this afternoon,” Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson said in a statement. “We deeply mourn the loss of life due to this devastating incident.”
Gov. Spencer Cox said on Twitter that the accident is “a terrible tragedy and our prayers go out to the victims and families involved. We are grateful to the first responders and others who engaged in this rescue and recovery effort. With avalanche danger high now, please exercise extreme caution.”
Millcreek Canyon is closed to recreation at least through Sunday, but restaurants and businesses in the canyon will still be open, the police department said.
NewsNation affiliate KTVX and The Associated Press contributed to this report.