Detailed Accident Report

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Date: 2000-01-11
Submitted By: Tom Kimbrough, UAFC
Place: Square Top Mtn. Summit County, Utah
State: UT
Country: USA
Fatalities: 2
Summary: 2 alpine lift skiers, out-of-bounds, caught, buried, and killed

Square Top Mountain,

Summit County,near Park City, Utah

Two Skiers were killed on Tuesday afternoon (1/11/00) in a large avalanche in the backcountry adjacent to The Canyons Resort near Park City, UT. The couple, a man

and a woman in their forties, were reported missing Tuesday evening and their bodies were located by a search team on Wednesday afternoon. Both were found by a

probe line in the debris near the base of the slope. The woman was buried about 18 inches deep. The man was about 3.5 feet deep but had a hand close to the surface.

They were about 60 feet apart in the same fall line. They were in downhill equipment without beacons or shovels.

The slide was several hundred feet wide and ran almost 1,000 vertical feet. The slope is northeast facing with the top at 9,800 feet elevation. There are few slope

anchors and part of the slope is under-cut by a diagonal rock band that creats a partially hanging snowfield. The overall slope angle is about 35 degrees with steeper

rollovers. It is on the Wasatch crest and is heavily loaded by west and southwest winds, which were blowing strongly on 1/11. The snow pack may have initially failed in

the recent wind drifts or in facets at the interface between the December and January snow, but in many places it pulled into faceted snow near the ground, 3 to 5 feet

deep. HS-4-AS

From the Salt Lake City Deseret News 1/13/2000

Deaths stun Park City

Avalanche that killed pair leaves an orphan, age 3

By Jennifer Dobner

Deseret News staff writer

PARK CITY ? The fate of two Park City skiers was pretty clear as soon as the

aerial photographs of Tuesday's avalanche were developed.

"We see a pair of ski tracks hiking up to

Square Top. And then I see one going to the

right and starting to make a turn and then one

going straight and starting to turn . . . and then

they disappear at the fracture line," their friend

John Benson said. "They had to know right away

they were in trouble. I can only imagine what

they must have been thinking."

Looking at the photo, Benson broke down. It

was then that his hope ran out for his neighbors

Greg and Loren Mackay.

The Mackays' bodies were found about 1:30

p.m. Wednesday, buried beneath the

debris-filled snow of a slide that officials from the U.S. Forest Service and the

Summit County Sheriff's Office are calling massive. The slide is estimated to be

about 600 feet wide, 5 feet deep, with a vertical drop of about 1,000 feet, Forest

Service avalanche forecaster Tom Kimbrough said. This is the third year in a

row that backcountry enthusiasts have died in snow slides along the Wasatch

Front on Jan. 11, he said.

Tuesday's slide was likely triggered by the Mackays, Summit County Sheriff's

Lt. Joe Offret said. The couple, who were skiing at the Canyons resort,

apparently used a backcountry access gate near the top the Ninety Nine 90 chair

lift, and hiked about a mile behind that peak and across a saddle to Square Top,

a peak at about the 9,700 foot elevation. The couple was skiing outside the

Canyons resort boundaries at the time of the slide, Offret said.

Square Top peak is on Forest Service land in

the Wasatch-Cache National Forest. Avalanche

control work is not done in that area by either

the forest service or the Canyons resort. Still, it

is a popular backcountry location for skiers and

other outdoor enthusiasts, Kimbrough said.

"That ridge line gets a fair bit of traffic, but

it's steep, maybe 37, 38 even 40 degrees," he

said. "It wasn't a good idea to be there. It's right

on the Wasatch Crest, it was very heavily drifted

and it was starting to warm up."

Those factors have prompted many to say

that the Mackays should never have been skiing

in the area. A canyon ski patroller told the

sheriff's office he encountered the couple near the backcountry access point

about noon Tuesday and "strongly discouraged" them from skiing there, Offret

said.

But Greg Mackay, 47, and his wife, Loren, 41 ? who run a Florida-based

scuba diving company from their Park City home ? would not have taken a

chance with their lives, Benson said. They were active, athletic and lovers of

adventure, but recklessness would be uncharacteristic of the pair, he said.

"They were major powder-hounds, expert skiers," he said. "I don't want a

picture painted that these are reckless people, because they are not. There were

very conscientious people who were devoted to (their son). I'm convinced they

felt they were going to be safe."

It was uncharacteristic of the Mackays to not pick up

their son, Connor, 3, from day care Tuesday afternoon.

Their failure to do so was what first alerted authorities to a

possible problem. Deputies came knocking on the door of

the Bensons' home, about 6 p.m., asking if John and his

wife knew the whereabouts of their neighbors.

The Bensons thought Greg Mackay had left on a

business trip to Las Vegas. But snooping around the

Mackays' home that night, Benson found the plane tickets.

About 10:30 p.m. he started calling Greg Mackay's friends

and ski buddies. Steve Graybill told him the Mackays had

gone to spend the day at Snowbird, Benson said. But while

sheriff's deputies mobilized officials at Snowbird, Benson

and friends started looking for the couple on their own.

Benson discovered one of the Mackays cars was at a

local dealership for repairs. Graybill and another friend,

Clay Oakley, cruised the parking lots at Park City

Mountain Resort looking for the other. They found it at the Canyons and alerted

the sheriff.

A search at the Canyons went on through the night without luck. A

helicopter was hampered by bad weather, and about 5 a.m. the search was called

off temporarily. A few hours later, when the skies clear, the bird was back in the

air taking pictures.

From the pictures, officials were able to pinpoint a possible location and

concentrated the search, which included about 45 search and rescue volunteers

and ski patrollers from the Canyons.

First a ski was found. Then a

body and then about 20 minutes

later, the second body, about 20

yards away, Offret said. The

medical examiner has not yet

determined a cause of death, but

most avalanche victims die from

suffocation, Offret said. Neither

of the bodies appears to have

suffered much physical trauma,

he said.

The deaths, however, have

traumatized the Mackays' neighborhood, where the families have become close

because their children play so often together. Connor Mackay, and the Bensons'

own 5-year-old son, also named Connor, play like brothers, Benson said.

"I feel like I've lost a brother," Benson said.

The tragedy will also make Benson, a self-described powder-hound himself,

rethink his choices the next time he straps on a pair of skis.

"It's now for the first time I can say with a surety that the risks I've taken in

the past will never be taken again," he said. "I've had some close calls and

reflecting back on it . . . my gosh . . . I could have died."