Detailed Accident Report

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Date: 2003-01-06
Submitted By: UAC
Place: Cardiac Ridge Area in Cardiff Fork
State: UT
Country: USA
Summary: 1 skier caught, buried, and rescued with avalanche transceiver

****UAC REPORT****

Avalanche Accident Report Cardiac Bowl, Cardiff Fork, Big Cottonwood Canyon, Wasatch Range, Utah (20 miles west of Salt Lake City). January 6, 2003

A very close call occurred in Cardiac Bowl, a popular backcountry skiing area west of Salt Lake City. Several parties of backcountry skiers were in Cardiac Bowl and

Cardiac Ridge. Much of the terrain was tracked-up by backcountry skiers and the helicopter skiing company over the previous several days.

A lone skier, Paul Hansen, 58 from Saratoga Springs, New York, decided to climb higher than the highest ski tracks into a steep, rocky area, where he triggered an

avalanche 2 feet deep, 150 feet wide on an east facing slope around 10,000? in elevation. The slide broke on a faceted snow layer, which formed during a month of clear

weather in November and early December. He was caught in the slide and rode about 800 vertical feet, over some rocks and as the avalanche hit the slope below the rocks it

stepped down into an even deeper avalanche. He was buried with his head about four feet deep in a fetal position on his side. He was wearing a beacon and is an

experienced, good skier.

Two other parties in the area saw the avalanche and responded quickly. Erin Hughes, a critical care nurse was able to traverse to the site while her husband Dave Hughes, an

emergency room physician was below the accident and called on his cell phone. At the same time, local, hardcore backcountry skiers Marla Baily and Mark White were at

the bottom of Cardiac Ridge and put their climbing skins on and ascended to the site and arrived at the same time as Erin. The three of them worked together and located the

victim and had him extricated in about ten minutes.

The victim was blue-faced, had snow in his mouth but was breathing. He had some bruises from bouncing off rocks on the way down but was otherwise uninjured. Liam

Fitzgerald, a Utah Department of Transportation forecaster, saw the incident from his vantage point near their nearby weather station and he notified Wasatch Powderbird

Guides who flew to the site in their helicopter. They took over the rescue and secured the victim to a backboard shortly afterwards, a medical helicopter arrived at the scene

and transported the victim to the hospital. Other than some bruises, he is fine.

The searchers used conventional analog beacons, an SOS, an Ortovox F1 and an Ortovox M1. All practice regularly with their beacons. This is an extremely fast recovery,

especially for a backcountry avalanche accident. The victim was extremely lucky.

For the previous three weeks, over 60 unintentional human triggered avalanches have occurred in the backcountry of northern Utah, most occurring to skiers in the Salt Lake

Area Mountains, averaging nearly three per day. All these slides have been breaking on an extremely weak layer of faceted snow that formed during a month of clear weather

in November and early December. It was buried by a large storm in mid December and small snowstorms since then have kept the layer very active. The Forest Service Utah

Avalanche Center rated the terrain where the accident occurred as ?considerable? danger.

Report by Bruce Tremper and Ethan Greene


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Avalanche Victim Owes Life to Nearby Skiers



Trapped under about 5 feet of snow on Monday, Paul Hansen

thought about his wife, Patricia, and their life insurance policy

before preparing to die.

The next thing he remembers is a man asking him his name.

Hansen, 58, from Saratoga Springs, N.Y., was caught in a

backcountry avalanche just before 2 p.m. while skiing in Big

Cottonwood Canyon. He had hiked to Cardiac Ridge at the top of

Cardiff Fork to ski by himself. The snow began to slide on his

second run down the east-facing slope, carrying him 800 vertical

feet over rock bands and cliffs.

He tried to stay on top of the wave, but soon felt it

overwhelming him. Hansen, who has skied the backcountry for 30

years, was buried in what he says felt like concrete before he

could put his hands in front of his mouth. He had enough room to

breathe, but there was little air. He lost consciousness.

"I was prepared to die in that avalanche," said Hansen, a financial planner who owns a home in Little

Cottonwood Canyon. "I wasn't expecting to be rescued."

He didn't know other backcountry skiers saw him disappear. Former Salt Lake City resident David Hughes,

now a Michigan emergency room doctor, had been skiing nearby with his wife, Erin, and was eating lunch on a

little knoll when he noticed the skier caught in a snow slide.

"He was struggling to stay on top, then he went over some rocks and that was the last time I saw him,"

Hughes said.

Hughes climbed the slide path, as his wife skied down.

"My wife, searching with her beacon, located him within five minutes," Hughes said. Aided by two other

skiers, Hughes and his wife uncovered Hansen's head five minutes later.

They cleared the snow from around his face and he began moaning and started to breathe without help.

"He was very ashen and pale, almost blue," Hughes said. "He got pretty cold, but there was no obvious


Had he not been wearing a search beacon, Hansen's fate might have been far different.

"There were no clues where he went," Hughes said.

Hughes called 911 on his cell phone. A ski patrol team from Snowbird Resort arrived on a ski-tour

helicopter owned by Wasatch Powderbird Guides. A Salt Lake County sheriff's search and rescue team

responded on snowmobiles.

Hansen was transported from the mountain by helicopter to LDS Hospital, where he was checked by

doctors and released Monday evening.

He says he has no injuries and is grateful to his rescuers.

"Thank God, I can continue to enjoy [backcountry skiing]," he said. "Hopefully, I will be wiser in the future."

He said he checked out the rather dangerous avalanche conditions on Monday and promised his wife he

would be careful. Now Hansen plans to be more selective about what days he skis and promises to wear a hat.

Patricia Hansen, who also skis backcountry but stayed home Monday because of a cold, wants her husband

to continue one of his favorite pastimes. But first he will have to find his telemark skis.

"I'm not really worried about that now," he said.

An experienced backcountry skier, Hughes said the Monday afternoon avalanche dispelled a common


"When a slope has already been skied, you think it's pretty safe," Hughes said. "This whole area had been

completely skied out over weekend."

He also said the snow slide was deceptively quiet.

"It was real peaceful," Hughes said. "There was no sound, it was not dramatic. You just watched it go by, like

a snow slough. It was quiet, but powerful."

Sheriff's Sgt. Lane Larkin said the slide was 800 to 1,000 feet long, 180 to 200 feet across, with a 2- to

5-foot high upper fracture line.

Monday's avalanche was the 122nd reported to the Utah Avalanche Center this season and the latest in a

long string of human-triggered avalanches. There has been at least one human-triggered avalanche each day

over the past 20 days, said Ethan Green of the center.

"The fact that we are getting this long string of avalanches is an indication of how weak things are," he said.

The avalanche danger was deemed "considerable" Monday on slopes facing northwest, north, northeast and

east above about 8,500 feet and about 35 degrees or steeper -- about the steepness of a black diamond slope at

a ski resort.

The avalanche that occurred Monday was on an east-facing slope about 10,500 feet up.

"You don't have to have high avalanche danger to have a serious accident," Greene said.

Skiers can check the center's Web site, updated daily, at or call the Salt

Lake City avalanche condition recording at 801-364-1581.


Tribune Reporter Elizabeth Neff contributed to this report.