Talking Snow Safety and Remembering Those Killed in Fatal Avalanche

UVU Outdoor Adventure Center ski rentals

Conditions were the best they could have been that fateful day in early February according to avalanche survivor Chris Gmitro, who noted that although the conditions were perfect, his group should have known better. 

Gmitro’s group consisted of his girlfriend, Sarah Moughamian, and two close friends, Louis Holian and Thomas Steinbrecher. All four members of the group had enough skiing experience to recognize a risk when they saw one, yet Gmitro wishes he would not have taken the risk that day. 

“We saw other avalanches and knew it was dangerous out. We made a terrible error, a miscalculation, in just how dangerous the glades were, and skied three laps before the avalanche happened on our third climb back up,” Gmitro said in an emotional interview with KSL. “Skiing there is a decision that I’ll regret for the rest of my life.”

Gmitro is likely not alone in his regret, for avalanches claim more than 42 lives and injure hundreds more in North America annually. This is largely due to a lack of understanding and education regarding avalanche safety. In fact, most victims are entirely oblivious until it is too late. 

According to Know Before You Go or KBYG, a leading educator in snow recreation safety, “What you don’t know can kill you.” As such, KBYG advocates for awareness among those enjoying recreational activities in the snow and claims that the warning signs of an avalanche are obvious if you know what you’re looking for. KBYG offers free courses and a full-length program at no cost, each focusing on avalanche safety and awareness. 

Additionally, the Utah Avalanche Center offers avalanche forecasting among other things, which works to aid those who plan to spend a day in the snow-capped mountains. The Utah Avalanche Center works hand-in-hand with KBYG, offers education, and insists on community awareness. 

The UVU Outdoor Adventure Center (OAC) strongly encourages students to use these sources to educate themselves before venturing into avalanche country. In addition to ski and snowboard rentals, the OAC offers avalanche safety kits. While recognizing that most students will utilize their rentals at local resorts where the avalanche risk is significantly lower, the OAC insists on awareness about avalanche safety and employs several passionate advocates.  

“Avalanches happen naturally but can also be human-triggered,” said Austin Skinner, a manager at the OAC. “They are obviously very deadly regardless, which is why we always recommend students utilize the Utah Avalanche Center and Know Before You Go. Right off the bat, they are the first sources I always give.” 

According to Skinner, recent avalanches in Utah are likely due to two weak layers of snow which come from the inconsistent snow storms we have experienced in the last couple of months. Essentially, once the snow has settled and been exposed to extreme temperatures, typically warmer in the day and freezing at night, the exposed snow becomes unstable, or as Skinner puts it, weakened. Conditions become increasingly dangerous when a fresh layer of snow settles on the weakened layer, making the glade look safer than it actually is. 

The OAC offers clinics for students to practice their avalanche safety skills. They also offer seminars in conjunction with KBYG which cover everything from the type of gear needed to the warning signs to watch for. 

“Know Before You Go and the UAC is our bible around here,” Skinner said. “If you are skiing even close to the out-of-bounds-area of a ski resort or especially in the backcountry, then avalanche training is a must.” 

Avalanches occur all over Utah every year. In resorts, intentionally triggered avalanches aid in the prevention of accidentally-triggered ones. However, In the backcountry, even the smallest of avalanches can turn deadly in a matter of minutes. 

Gmitro and his group were reportedly skiing backcountry the day of the Millcreek Canyon avalanche, which is one of three fatal avalanches reported in 2021. Six lives have been lost to avalanches in Utah this year alone, four of which were claimed in the avalanche Gmitro survived. The rest of his group including Moughamian, Holian, and Steinbrecher lost their lives. The fourth victim was identified as Stephanie Hopkins, age 26, who had been skiing in the area with another group that day. 

Gmitro was miraculously able to save two lives that day, and reportedly located Moughamian’s body before rescuers could. The OAC offered their condolences to the families of those lost to the avalanche in a post on their social media. 

“The OAC is deeply saddened by the tragic event this past weekend in Mill Creek Canyon and would like to offer condolences to the friends and family of those that passed away in the avalanche,” the post read. “When traveling in the backcountry, please make sure you are checking the forecast and practicing good decision-making skills. If you are new or unsure, sign up for a course and become knowledgeable on how to use proper safety equipment, how to read the forecasts, how to travel, and how to make good decisions. With the snowpack as unstable as it is, staying home may be the best decision.”

The devastation witnessed in Millcreek is just one example of the deadly power of avalanches. If anything good could come from such heartache, it would be this: An enhanced understanding of the importance of avalanche safety and an attentive awareness to preparation and education that just may save your life. 

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