Detailed Accident Report

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Date: 2003-12-26
Submitted By: WWAN
Place: Elk Point Avalanche Paths- Mt. Timpanogos
State: UT
Country: USA
Fatalities: 3
Summary: 6 snowboarders caught, carried, and buried. 3 killed, 2 remain missing





Thursday, April 8,2004

Boarder's body found in canyon

Adam Merz By Ashley Broughton The Salt Lake Tribune

More than three months after he was lost in an avalanche while snowboarding in the Aspen Grove area of Provo Canyon, the body of 18-year-old Adam Merz was found Wednesday.

Merz's body was spotted about 11:20 a.m. in a ravine near a footbridge toward the bottom of the slide. At the time, searchers were visually inspecting the area, said Utah County sheriff's Sgt. Tom Hodgson. The teen had been carried about 1,700 feet by the Dec. 26 avalanche.

Merz's mother, Mona, identified the body, which had been "fairly well preserved" by the snow, authorities said. It was taken to the Office of the Medical Examiner in Salt Lake City.

The body initially was buried under about 7 feet of snow, with another 7 feet below that, Hodgson said. Searchers had checked the same ravine on Tuesday but the body was not visible. Rain washed snow off some tree branches. Merz's body was under the branches.

Still unaccounted for is 20-year-old Rod Newbury, of Pleasant Grove, also presumed killed in the avalanche. Searches will continue until Newbury's body is recovered, Hodgson said.

"It's been a painstaking effort. We just wanted to do a thorough search and be able to bring closure to the families," he said. "We still feel like we have some unfinished business."

The recovery of Merz's body brought his family "a huge amount of relief," said Craig Knight, of Orem, a friend who has served as a spokesman for the families of the missing men. But it "kind of opens it up again, so there's some tender, raw feelings there.

"They still feel very strongly about Rod's family," Knight said. "There's still a little bit left open, as far as they're concerned, until Rod's body is recovered."

Both families, he said, remain grateful to searchers for their efforts.

Newbury and Merz were among a group snowboarding in Robert's Horn Chute when they were carried down the mountain, along with four others, by the slide. One man dug himself out; two others were completely buried and rescued by bystanders.

On Dec. 28, two days after the avalanche, searchers found the body of 20-year-old Mike Hebert, of Orem, under 4 feet of snow. Hebert was carried at least 1,000 feet from where the avalanche hit the group.

Authorities have searched the area twice a day recently, hoping warmer weather would aid them in the recovery. Rain has melted about 6 inches of snow since it began falling Tuesday. "Rain is our friend," Hodgson said.

In all, about 23 inches of snow has melted in the past 12 days, the sheriff's office said Wednesday.

Authorities plan to resume searching for Newbury's body today as long as the weather holds. But the search is treacherous, and unstable snow has led to additional slides. Authorities said four slides occurred Wednesday while searchers were there. No one was injured.

Searchers have spent more than 7,000 hours in the canyon, often in inclement weather.

Manpower has also been problematic: Most searchers are volunteers with full-time jobs. Cadaver dogs, probe poles and ground-penetrating radar have been used in the effort to recover the bodies.

A trust account has been set up for Newbury's unborn son, due in July, police said Wednesday.

Donations can be made at any Zions Bank branch in Newbury's name.

Merz's family held a memorial service for him earlier.

A private graveside service is planned for relatives.


Search resumes for avalanche


By Michael N. Westley

The Salt Lake Tribune

The danger of more

avalanches remained high as

search and rescue crews

continued Sunday to look for

the bodies of 18-year-old

Adam Merz and 20-year-old

Rod Newberry in the

backcountry above the

Sundance Resort.

A full day of searching

returned no clues as to the

whereabouts of Newberry and

Merz, who were snowboarding

in the Roberts Horn Chute of

the Aspen Grove recreation

area with three friends on Dec.

26 when an avalanche swept the

young men downhill. Twenty-year-old J.D. Settle and 18-year-old Matt

Long were rescued. The body of Mike Hebert, 19, was recovered a

short time after the slide.

The search for the men was called off Dec. 28 because of poor

weather conditions. High winds and continued snowfall kept rescue

crews away from the mountain for seven days. As much as 4 feet of

snow has fallen in the area, according to Sgt. Dennis Harris of the Utah

County Sheriff's Office.

Explosive charges, dropped by helicopter Sunday morning, triggered

four slides that stabilized the mountainside for the search to continue.

A spotter was put into place to warn rescue crews of additional slides,

Harris said. Seven more slides were counted throughout the day, though

none of them posed a threat to the 50 men and women steadily probing

the deep snow for the men's bodies.

"They're searching every square foot. We're trying to cover as much

area as possible," said Harris.

Recovered articles of clothing, indications from search dogs and

witness statements have been pulled together to map out what officials

call high probability areas, Harris said.

In the four days of the

search, rescue crews have

logged 3,100 hours

looking for the men. Utah

County commissioners

recently approved an

additional $12,000

needed to continue

searching, including the

replacement of 20 shovels

and 41 probe poles that

have broken, Harris said.

"This is particularly

hard because the snow is

so hard. We'll be able to

replace a lot of equipment

and that gives us more to

work with," said Harris.

The temperature was zero degrees when crews took to the

mountainside around 9 a.m. The temperature hovered in the mid to low

teens during the day.

"These guys were just hammered from the cold up there. The cold

really makes it hard but they stay up there the whole day," Harris said.

Forecasters listed a 60 percent chance of snow for the area today,

narrowing the probability of a continued search.


Body of missing snowboarder found

By Mark Eddington

The Salt Lake Tribune

ASPEN GROVE -- Rescuers

recovered the body Sunday of one

of three Utah County men buried

by an avalanche two days earlier

in the Aspen Grove recreation

area north of Provo Canyon.

Search and rescue volunteers

found the body of Mike Hebert,

19, of Orem, beneath about 4 feet

of snow at 5:20 p.m., after

recovering a purple ski hat,

backpack and a snowboard

between 50 and 100 feet away,

Utah County Sheriff Jim Tracy


Hebert, along with friends

Adam Merz, 18, of Orem, and

Rod Newberry, 20, of Pleasant

Grove, had been missing since

Friday, when they were swept

away by the avalanche as they

snowboarded in the Roberts Horn

Chute of Aspen Grove, about 2 1/2 miles north of the Sundance Ski


A locater dog had shown interest in the spot on Saturday and a pole

probe detected the body Sunday afternoon, the sheriff said.

On Hebert's body were his wallet, driver license and cell phone, its

batteries drained, Tracy said. Early in their search, volunteers had tried

several times to call the phone to no avail, the sheriff said.

Locating Hebert's body was the first major breakthrough since scores

of search volunteers began combing the mountainous area Friday

afternoon, amid intermittent snowfall, winds, continued avalanche

hazards and temperatures plunging to the low teens.

Officials broke the

news to relatives in a

private meeting at a

nearby lodge.

"There was a lot of

tears," said Craig Knight

of Orem, a neighbor and

spokesman for families of

the missing men. "It was a

tender moment. . . . You

want to find his body, but

then you don't want to find

his body."

A police detective and

an official with the Utah

Medical Examiner's

Office were at or headed

to the remote site late Sunday for final identification and a

determination of the cause of death.

Tracy said efforts to locate the other two men would be temporarily

halted today over weather-related safety concerns, with high winds and

between 12 and 18 inches of snow predicted. The search might resume

Tuesday, depending on conditions.

In spite of today's hiatus and the possibility of scaling back in the

future, Tracy said, "we will not stop searching until we have found all

the victims."

More than 80 trained search-and-rescue volunteers from six counties

scoured the site Sunday. Early in the day, they discovered a knit black

cap on the eastern edge of the slide area and it was later identified by

family members as belonging to Merz.

"[The Merz family] feeling is that Adam is deceased, that he is gone,"

said Knight. "Adam's father told me, 'A dad should never outlive his son.'

That kind of sums it up."

Early Sunday morning, searchers and locator dogs took to the slope

but were called off after a few hours in the face of heavy snow

accumulations above the area overnight. As happened Saturday morning,

avalanche experts dropped explosive charges Sunday from helicopters

to loose snow drifts before allowing search groups to return.

Search volunteers from Davis, Salt Lake, Summit, Utah, Wasatch and

Weber counties formed shoulder-to-shoulder lines to walk a steeply

inclined area about 1,600 feet long and between 300 and 400 feet wide.

About every foot, they inserted 8- to 12-foot aluminum poles into the

snowpack to probe for bodies buried underneath.

Efforts were hampered by hard-frozen snow and depths exceeding 30


Searchers also used a high-tech system capable of detecting signals

from the magnetic strips on credit cards and bank cards as well as from

special microchips implanted in some brands of ski clothing and

equipment, said Tracy. No signals were detected.

It is unclear how familiar Merz, Newberry and Hebert were with

terrain in the area, a series of rugged canyons surrounding 11,750-foot

Mount Timpanogos that is widely described as having dangerous

avalanche-prone conditions.

The three men, all close friends, were among 11 snowboarders and

snowshoers in the area Friday afternoon when several avalanches swept

down the mountain in succession.

Police have said the men had varying degrees of backcountry

experience and had gone out without avalanche equipment.

Two other friends, Matt Long, 18, and J.D. Settle, 20, both of

Pleasant Grove, also got caught in the snow, but Long dug himself out

unscathed and Settle was rescued by bystanders with minor injuries. All

five have been "best buds since 7th grade," Settle said Sunday.

Settle said at least three avalanches hit members of the group that

Friday afternoon.

After the first massive wave buried him in 3 1/2 feet of snow, Settle

said he dug himself out and grabbed a tree branch to begin probing for

his friends.

"I could hear somebody. They were pretty close to me," he said.

Minutes later, "the second one hit me right in the back and brought me

down right to the bottom," said Settle.

"That's the one that trapped me and I got an air pocket. I could get my

head above the snow, but I was trapped. My legs, I couldn't move them."

With only his head poking out, Settle said he felt another avalanche

coming his way.

"It rumbles. The best way I can describe it is that it is like snow

making an earthquake. I was thinking, 'Oh crap, here comes that

avalanche.' "

Friends estimate Settle spent an hour in the snow before they finally

managed to dig him out. He was briefly hospitalized for hypothermia

and a knee injury, but was back at Aspen Grove on Sunday to join the


"I want to find my friends," Settle said.



THREE MISSING IN AVALANCHE: Weather forces rescue crews to call off search for snowboarders

Search and rescue personnel come off the mountain after searching for avalanche victims. Three Utah County men were missing Friday, after a series of avalanches near the Aspen Grove recreation area north of the Sundance Ski Resort. (Danny Chan La/The Salt Lake Tribune)

By Mark Eddington and Michael N. Westley

The Salt Lake Tribune

PROVO CANYON -- Three young Utah County men were missing Friday night after heavy snowfall triggered a series of avalanches in the back country above the Sundance Resort, officials said. Officials believe that as many as 14 people were caught in the moving snow.

A man snowshoeing with his family nearby saw the first avalanche and called Utah County Sheriff's dispatch on his cell phone at 4:27 p.m., police said. He said he could see as many as seven people in the Robert's Horn Chute of the Aspen Grove recreation area, about a 2 1/2 miles north of the Sundance Ski Resort.

Two smaller slides hit the area before search and rescue teams made it on the mountain around 5 p.m.

A group of five Utah County men who were snowboarding were carried by the slide into the lower portion of the basin. An 18-year-old and a 20-year-old dug themselves out with only minor injuries, police said. High winds and drifting snow forced search and rescue teams off the mountain around 8 p.m. before a 20-year-old from Pleasant Grove, a 19-year-old from Orem and an 18-year-old whose address was not given could be accounted for.

None of the snowboarders was outfitted with avalanche equipment and their skill level varied from a few weeks of experience up to as many as five years, police said. Poor weather conditions and an unstable snow base frustrated the rescue effort. Crews are faced with searching a snow field estimated to be more than 800 feet wide, 1/4-mile long and between 4 and 14 feet deep, according to Lt. Dave Bennet of Utah County Sheriff's Office.

"When the snow stops, it sets up like concrete and it's very unlikely that anyone could survive those conditions," Bennet said.

Utah County Sheriff Jim Tracy said the slide was not triggered by people in the chute, but rather from heavy snow near the peak of the mountain, which reaches more than 11,000 feet. Friends and family members of the five snowboarders gathered at a command post set up at the nearby Aspen Grove family camp and conference center. As of 1 a.m. Friday, 29 inches of new snow fell at the camp, according to officials.

Search and rescue crews from Utah and Wasatch counties, joined by employees from Sundance Resort and other agencies, scoured the slide area with the help of rescue dogs, Bennett said.

Rescue crews hope to continue searching today after a helicopter drops explosives in the upper portion of the bowl triggering any additional slides, Tracy said.

The high snow totals forced Utah avalanche forecasters to issue a rare "extreme danger" rating Friday afternoon.

"We had relatively stable snow before this storm . . . but we have now put a lot of weight on top of it," said Bruce Tremper, director of the Forest Service Utah Avalanche Center (UAC). "There is the potential for some pretty big, long-running avalanches."

Friday began with a high avalanche danger warning, but Tremper bumped it up to extreme in the afternoon.

"The difference between high and extreme is the possibility of long-running natural avalanches going past historic boundaries. Someone walking in an otherwise safe place could get hit," Tremper said. "We only use the extreme level maybe one day a year and I don't think we did at all last year."

Tremper said the avalanche warning would probably return to high by this morning, but that Utah may see the extreme warning again as soon as Monday or Tuesday when another storm is expected.

"People will have a really hard time getting into the backcountry and I would encourage them to avoid going there right now," he said. "Stick to the resorts, which practice avalanche control, or stay home and shovel the walks."

For more information on backcountry avalanche danger, call the UAC at 801-364-1581.

Tribune reporter Brett Prettyman contributed to this story.