Detailed Accident Report

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Date: 1999-01-02
Submitted By: Faerthen Felix, LaSal Avalanche Forecast
Place: Southeast of Fairview, Utah
State: UT
Country: USA
Fatalities: 2
Summary: 2 snowboarders, caught and killed outside of Fairview, Utah

FAIRVIEW CANYON, UTAH

2 AVALANCHE FATALITIES: JANUARY 2, 1999

Prepared by Faerthen Felix, LaSal Avalanche Forecast Center: January 6, 1999

SYNOPSIS:

January 2, 1999, 75 feet east of the Fairview/Huntington Canyon Road on the Wasatch Plateau, just past mile-marker 12.

Two snowboarders are buried and killed when the cornice they walked onto collapsed, triggering an avalanche; the accident site is located and reported by worried family members. Sanpete County Sheriff Search and Rescue personnel locate and recover the bodies at 03:00 on January 3.

REPORT:

On January 2 at about 8:00 in the morning, Matthew Summers Neilsen, 16, and Jesse Van Krebs, 17, left their homes in Mapleton, Utah to spend the day snowboarding in Fairview Canyon, an hour or so to the south. Although the Wasatch Plateau does not have an Avalanche Forecast Center, recent recreation reports from the Wasatch Front indicated that the avalanche hazard was probably high, due to recent snowfall and stiff winds.

When the young men failed to return home that evening, family members notified the Sanpete County Sheriff office then began looking. The fathers located the boys car parked in a turnout just past mile marker 12 on the Fairview/Huntington Canyon Road. About 75 feet east of the road, they found the young men snowboards resting at the top of a fresh avalanche crown fracture and relayed this information to the Sheriff office.

27 members of the Sanpete County Sheriff Search and Rescue Team and Ambulance Service reported to the accident site. Led by John Jensen, the team responded professionally and appropriately, locating the bodies under 4 feet of avalanche debris by spot-probing around a large tree at the bottom of the slide path. The bodies were found right next to each other; neither man wore an avalanche beacon nor carried a shovel.

AVALANCHE DESCRIPTION:

Dimensions: The avalanche broke up to 130 cms deep and approx.100 feet across, running 150 feet down a split path and into spotty trees.

Description: Slope Angle: 36? at the starting zone.

Aspect: Generally ENE; the slope undulates somewhat.

Anchoring/Roughness: The slope was heavily wind-loaded. While snow depth across the landscape averaged less than 2 feet, the avalanche slope held over 6 feet of snow prior to the slide. This deep snow cover obscured anchors and smoothed the bed surface except for a tree island dividing the path in two and some large trees in the deposition.

Bed Surface/Failing Weakness: The bed surface was dense and strong all the way to the ground with very little depth hoar beneath, unlike the general snowpack conditions. The avalanche and several test slopes ran on very hard (pencil-knife) and slippery wind slabs. These slabs likely formed during a long period of windy and mostly dry weather in November and December. An arctic front passed through during the week before Christmas, lowering overnight temperatures in Manti to -26? F. The snow pack remains quite cold and the gradient through the new snow probably contributed to the poor bond. The failing weakness was surface hoar crystals and light density snow that probably fell during a storm on New Year Eve. In the fatal avalanche, this snow had partially recrystallized into small facets.

Shape: The slope begins abruptly as the terrain drops down to a large meadow from the flat plateau top where the road runs. The extreme ease of access obviously contributed to catching the victims unaware. This scarp is sporadically tree-covered and runs an additional ? to ? of a mile along the road. The entire slope is recognized by SAR members as an active avalanche area that wind-loads consistently and runs regularly.

Other Avalanche Activity/Clues to Instability: Several small but similar test slopes within yards of the accident site were easily triggered and ran full path two days later. There was an old fracture on a similar, small slope nearby that was somewhat filled in and appeared to have run before the fatal slide. Long, wide settlement cracks ran along the upper edge of the scarp where it turned to another aspect and smaller cracks could be found in open, protected areas nearby. Extensive wind-scouring was apparent on S and W slopes and cornices and wind-pillows were obvious on lee slopes.

AREA DESCRIPTION AND WINTER ACTIVITY

The Wasatch Plateau runs roughly north to south from Highway 6 to I-70. The top of the Plateau can be accessed via numerous canyons on both the east and west sides. Several local outfitters--including Big Pine Sports in Fairview and Freedom Ford in Gunnison operate snowmobile concessions on the Manti-Lasal National Forest in the area and groom track for riders into canyons on the west side of the Plateau. Popular access points include: 6-Mile, 12-Mile, Ephraim, Spring City and Mt. Pleasant Canyons (site of a 1997-8 season snowmobile avalanche fatality), but only the Fairview/Huntington Canyon Road--Routes 31 and 264--is plowed and kept open all winter. This road begins near Fairview, Utah, crosses the Plateau, splits and descends the east side to Huntington and Scofield.

This road provides access to winter recreationists seeking deeper snow. The Wasatch Academy owns a snowcat they use to maintain a half-pipe and gentle ski/snowboard slope on the site of a defunct rope-tow above Fairview. This slope and a nearby road switchback are extremely popular with snowboarders who are beginning to expand out, looking for more challenging terrain.

There is no focused user group for the Wasatch Plateau. Recreationists come from the broad, 5 county area surrounding the Plateau, including Snow College in Ephraim and College of Eastern Utah in Price. Additionally, the area is becoming a destination for recreationists from the Wasatch Front who are loosing traditional terrain to rampant development. The area is being actively promoted by outfitters and the news media, including regular coverage on the Channel 5 Recreation Report.

GENERAL AVALANCHE AND WEATHER CONDITIONS:

The canyons on the west side of the Wasatch Plateau funnel both prevailing NWerly winds and SW storm flows across the road and onto the Plateau. Wind effects are pronounced, with Serly aspects generally scoured and bare, N and E aspects heavily loaded. The surface of the Plateau is irregular, with numerous small and potentially deadly terrain traps. These features appear to be very popular with snowmobilers and snowboarders who make a habit of high-marking and jumping off the abrupt transitions.

CONCLUSIONS:

Ridiculously easy access to dangerous terrain--along with the growing popularity of the Wasatch Plateau with high-risk user groups like snowboarders and snowmobilers--suggests that avalanche fatalities will become more common in this area that is not traditionally avalanche-saavy. In the absence of a local Avalanche Forecast Center, the past efforts of local snowmobile suppliers and SAR Teams to educate themselves and the public are to be especially commended.