Detailed Accident Report

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Date: 2004-12-11
Submitted By: UAC
Place: Mineral Fork, Big Cottonwood Canyon
State: UT
Country: USA
Fatalities: 2
Summary: 2 snowshoers caught, buried; and killed.

Accident Report Forest Service Utah Avalanche Center

Saturday, December 11, 2004

Mineral Fork - Two Snowshoers killed

Provisional report by Bruce Tremper - last updated 12-25-2004


Mineral Fork in Big Cottonwood Canyon just east of Salt Lake City, Utah

Accident Summary:

Two snowshoers were reported as overdue when they failed to return from a walk up Mineral Fork on Saturday, December 11th. Victim are Bruce Quint, 59, and Melvin Dennis, 37, both from Salt Lake City.

Rescue Summary:

Saturday night, two skiers from Salt Lake Country Search and Rescue followed snowshoe tracks to the base of a large headwall at the upper end of Mineral Fork where the tracks disappear under fresh avalanche debris and did not appear again on the other side. The two snowshoers were the first people to travel up Mineral Fork after the large storm, which ended two days earlier. Searchers could find no beacon signals in the debris, nor visual clues. Neither of the victims wore beacons. In consultation with several avalanche experts, including one who flew over the area in a helicopter that night, they decided that conditions were too dangerous to bring in a larger team of searchers that night.

On Sunday morning personnel from Wasatch Powderbird Guides controlled the area with explosives, which triggered widespread avalanches in remainder of the canyon as well as hang fire above the accident site. They flew teams of rescuers to the site including Salt Lake County Sheriff?s Search and Rescue, Wasatch Backcountry Rescue, a volunteer group of ski area personnel operating under the Salt Lake County Sheriff. The helicopter was from Utah Highway Patrol. They searched the area using trained avalanche rescue dogs and probed areas where the dogs indicated interest. At 11:30, they found Melvin Dennis buried about four feet deep and more-or-less in line with the tracks which entered the debris. They found the second victim Bruce Quint, on Monday, December 13, 2004 around 10:00 am about 25 yards uphill from the first victim and buried over eight feet deep. Both victims appeared to have been simply pushed over by the debris and buried without being tumbled and were probably buried fairly near their initial positions.

Avalanche Data:

The avalanche was a very large, hard-slab avalanche, which fractured out the lower third of the northeast-facing slope hanging above them. As near as we can tell, it fractured about 2-3 feet deep, 400 feet wide and descended 800 vertical feet. The dimensions of the original avalanche was hard to determine precicely because the area was controlled by helicopter-delivered explosives before rescuers could safely go into the area. Subsequent control avalanched all the remaining snow above the fracture line as well as much most of the adjacent avalanche paths. The debris was about 300 feet wide and averaged 6 feet deep, but is much deeper in places. The elevation of the upper fracture was around 9,000? and the toe of the debris was 8,200?. The slab was composed of dense, new snow and wind-blown snow mostly deposited December 8-9. The weak layer was an extremely weak layer of near-surface faceted snow and surface hoar formed during three weeks of clear weather in November and early December. My examination of the snowpack in the area showed that the snow was still quite unstable and I could barely isolate a column in several different snow pit tests (CTE 2, Q1) which means compression test easy with a score of 2 out of 30 with a clean, easy shear. There is no way to know whether the snowshoers triggered the avalanche, but conditions were certainly conducive as they were on gentle a gentle slope directly at the base of the large, steep slope above, which avalanched. See Photos. See Snow Profile Graphic. See Map.

Weather History:

Northern Utah experienced a huge snow storm with very strong winds on December 8th and 9th with snow lingering into the morning of the 10th. This overloaded the buried weak layers and combined with a rapid temperature rise produced widespread avalanche activity during the storm. An avalanche warning was in effect for the December 8-10th but was allowed to expire at midnight before the accident. The danger rating was rated as HIGH on the day before the accident and was downgraded to CONSIDERABLE to HIGH on the day of the accident. Our forecast for the day included a very strongly worded warning for backcountry travelers to stay off of and out from underneath any slope steeper than about 30 degrees.

See Snow Profile Graphic.

See Map.

Weather History:

Northern Utah experienced a huge snow storm with very strong winds on December 8th and 9th with snow lingering into the morning of the 10th. This overloaded the buried weak layers and combined with a rapid temperature rise produced widespread avalanche activity during the storm. An avalanche warning was in effect for the December 8-10th but was allowed to expire at midnight before the accident. The danger rating was rated as HIGH on the day before the accident and was downgraded to CONSIDERABLE to HIGH on the day of the accident. Our forecast for the day included a very strongly worded warning for backcountry travelers to stay off of and out from underneath any slope steeper than about 30 degrees.

Media Reports

Article Last Updated: 12/13/2004 03:49 AM

Lost hiker's body found; second is presumed dead

By Jason Bergreen

The Salt Lake Tribune

Salt Lake Tribune

BIG COTTONWOOD CANYON - Friends and family were optimistic Bruce Quint would be found alive until searchers Sunday recovered the body of his hiking partner from an avalanche site in Big Cottonwood Canyon.

Quint and Melvin Denis were reported missing Saturday evening when they failed to return from snowshoeing near Mineral Fork.

The body of Denis, a 32-year-old University of Utah medical student, was found about 11:30 a.m. Sunday by a search and rescue dog. He was buried in 3 to 5 feet of snow, where helicopter searchers had spotted snowshoe tracks the day before.

Denis' girlfriend, Alison Schiffern, and members of Quint's family hugged and comforted one another near the side of the mountain Sunday where searchers had set up a command post. The news of Denis' death put a damper on any hope of finding Quint alive.

"I think he's been lost," Quint family friend Drew Hall said. "We're all pretty realistic about what's happened. We were optimistic until they found Mel's body."

Quint's brother-in-law Norman Le Fevre echoed Hall.

"We've lost two wonderful people," Le Fevre said. "I assume we've lost Bruce."

Saturday's avalanche occurred at an altitude of about 9,400 feet. It was about 3 1/2 miles from the nearest road and was about 300 feet wide, Salt Lake County sheriff's Sgt. Rosie Rivera said.

The conditions in the Wasatch Mountains have made the area prone to avalanches, and Denis' death was the third confirmed avalanche death in Utah since Friday.

The area was so dangerous rescuers ignited 45 explosions to trigger potential avalanches before beginning the main search about 10:45 a.m. Sunday morning, Rivera said.

Denis and Quint were training Saturday for a May hike up Shisma Pangma, a 26,000-foot mountain in the Himalayas, when the avalanche fell. They did not have avalanche beacons.

Quint was the executive director of Community Development Corp. of Utah, which builds homes in Salt Lake City for low-income families, Hall said.

"He was very outgoing, tough, adventurous and hard-charging," he said.

About 20 members of Wasatch Backcountry Rescue and six dogs participated in Saturday's search. Three helicopters, two from local ski resorts and one from the Utah Highway Patrol, ferried the men and dogs to the avalanche area.

Terri Quint, Bruce's wife of 12 years, managed a smile and held back tears as she patted search dogs and thanked rescuers returning around 4 p.m. from the avalanche site. Her husband's probable death had not sunk in.

"I'm still numb," she said. "This isn't real. I want to say 'OK, Bruce, time to come down.' "

The Quints were close friends of Denis' and considered him a family member.

Born in Cuba, Denis moved to Florida with his parents at a young age, Terri Quint said. She knows because she was Denis' English teacher at Coral Gables High School in Miami.

"He was a terrific guy," she said. "He was like a son to my husband."

Terri Quint lost track of Denis in 1992 after moving with Bruce to Salt Lake County, where the couple were married.

In a twist of fate, the Quints were watching a football game between the Miami Dolphins and the Buffalo Bills last season at The Fiddler's Elbow and ran into Denis. He was living in Salt Lake City and attending the University of Utah, where he was working on his Ph.D. in vascular medicine.

"I said, 'Oh my goodness, you were one of my students,' and we just hugged," Terri Quint remembers.

From then on, Bruce Quint and Denis, who both loved the outdoors, began spending a lot of time together.

"They were both big talkers, readers and thinkers," Terri Quint said.

Bruce had a Ph.D. in psychology and would have turned 60 in January.

"Bruce wanted to leave a legacy. Everybody who knew him said he would have wanted to go this way instead of in a nursing home. This was a little too soon," she said holding back tears.

Denis had no family in Utah, Terri Quint said. His mother lives in Florida.

Denis' girlfriend, Schiffern, is devastated, Terri Quint said.

Denis was only six months from receiving his Ph.D. and was planning to move into a new house next week, Terri Quint said. He was scheduled to become a U.S. citizen on Wednesday.

Rescues crews will resume their search for Quint today, Rivera said.

Deseret Morning News, Monday, December 13, 2004

Kin grieve as slides' toll likely will hit 4

One missing; one body found; snowmobiler dies

By Laura Hancock

Deseret Morning News

The Salt Lake County home of Bruce and Terri Quint was packed Sunday night with friends who were hoping he would walk through the door and laugh at them for worrying about him.

Terri Quint, in red jacket; Lynn Schiffern, in black jacket; and Alison Schiffern, Melvin Denis' girlfriend; await search results.

Michael Brandy, Deseret Morning News

Quint, 59, had gone missing on Saturday while snowshoeing with a friend, 32-year-old Melvin Denis of Salt Lake City.

Authorities said an avalanche barreled through the Mineral Fork area of Big Cottonwood Canyon on Saturday.

They recovered Denis' body under 3 to 5 feet of snow about 11:30 a.m. Sunday, Salt Lake County Sheriff's Sgt. Rosie Rivera said.

Friends gathered at the Quint house were shocked.

"They never happen to anyone you know," friend Cecil Thompson said. "Maybe someone you know of, not someone you talk to."

Denis was the third person confirmed to have been killed by avalanches over the weekend. If it is confirmed that Quint did not survive, Utah's early season toll will already have matched last season's total of four avalanche fatalities.

On Friday, Zachary Eastman, 23, Salt Lake City, was killed by an avalanche while backcountry skiing above Brighton and Solitude.

On Saturday, a snowmobiler was killed by an avalanche in Wasatch County near the Duchesne County line. His identity was not released by the Wasatch County Sheriff's Office on Sunday, according to dispatchers.

In the mountains above Davis County, a 27-year-old man was buried by an avalanche Saturday. He survived after a friend and passer-by dug him out. Three people on snow machines were caught and carried in an avalanche near Logan's Mount Naomi, but they survived.

Bruce Tremper, director of the U.S. Forest Service's Utah Avalanche Center, said the recent avalanche activity has been unusual.

He has worked 15 hours a day for about a week straight walking on snow, investigating avalanches, taking pictures and forecasting avalanche danger.

The conditions that have spawned recent avalanches include a weak layer of older mountain snow smothered by 2 to 4 feet of dense new snow on Wednesday and Thursday that contained 4 to 7 inches of water. That was compounded with winds with an hourly average of 40 mph and gusts of 60 mph and temperatures that rose dramatically on Friday and Saturday.

"It's kind of like putting a brick down on a pile of potato chips," Tremper said.

The weak layer of snow easily gave away, sweeping the new snow with it.

Avalanches often rumble downhill naturally, but the avalanches of the past several days most likely were human-triggered and unusually large.

"What shocked me was how (the mountain snow) just waited there and just waited for someone to give it a thump. And when they do, they trigger very large avalanches," Tremper said.

Tremper said Quint and Denis were the first people in the Mineral Fork area after the fresh snow.

The avalanche was 400-600 feet wide. The top fractured at 9,600 feet elevation. The bottom was 8,200 feet, making the avalanche 1,400 vertical feet, Tremper said.

Denis, an immigrant to Florida from Cuba as a child, was studying at the University of Utah in a program offering joint medical and doctorate degrees.

He was a promise for the future to people who knew him.

"Young, smart, handsome and extraordinarily nice, and it's just that he could have been the son to any one of us," Thompson said.

Terri Quint, Bruce's wife, was a high school English teacher in Miami and taught Denis. The teacher and student lost touch for years, but they ran into each other after both had moved to Utah. Denis became close to Bruce Quint, Thompson said.

"They went hiking and snowshoeing and that sort of thing. Bruce was in training for a planned climb for the highest mountain in China," Thompson said, and Denis was training with him, helping him build endurance.

Quint is the executive director of the Community Development Corp. of Utah, which helps low-income people own affordable housing through construction projects.

Denis and Quint went snowshoeing Saturday morning and were supposed to return that afternoon. When they were late, Terri Quint called the Salt Lake County Sheriff's Office, Rivera said.

A crew in a Utah Department of Public Safety helicopter spotted the Mineral Fork avalanche from above, and a search and rescue effort began. The search was canceled about midnight because of avalanche danger.

Crews resumed their search Sunday morning after explosives were used to trigger other potential avalanches in the area. A search dog helped find Denis' body. The search for Quint was called off at 4 p.m. and is expected to begin again about 8 a.m. today, Rivera said.

The U.S. Forest Service categorizes avalanche danger in five levels: low, moderate, considerable, high and extreme.

On Thursday it ranged from high to extreme in Utah's mountains. On Friday it was high. On Saturday it was considerable to high and on Sunday it was considerable, although a bulletin was issued stating that in the mountains of northern Utah and extreme southeast Idaho, "human-triggered avalanches remain probable on most slopes and avalanches will be unusually large."

"Backcountry travellers should continue to avoid avalanche terrain today," the Sunday statement continued, except for "ski areas and highways where avalanche control is normally done."

Avalanche danger is announced each morning and available at or by calling 801-364-1581. There is no way to forecast avalanches for the entire winter season because a lot of it has to do with weather, which can only be predicted about 10 days ahead, Tremper said.