In early December 2013, Aaron Rice, a busboy at Alta’s Rustler Lodge, and friend Joe Campanelli were touring in Grizzly Gulch in Alta, Utah’s backcountry when they noticed an old human-triggered slide across a gully. They stopped to take pictures to submit to the Utah Avalanche Center when they were quickly caught up in a much-publicized avalanche accident.
Utah-based photographer Adam Clark and pro skier Amie Engerbretson were shooting photos across the same gully on a steep, north-facing rollover for which the avalanche danger was rated considerable. Clark had neither beacon nor shovel or probe, and Rice and Campanelli, who shot video of the accident, were among the first to respond to the scene. Here’s Aaron Rice’s account in his own words.
We were going up on a mining road-cut when we saw an old, human-triggered slide across the gully—you could see tracks going into it. We were taking pictures and all the sudden we hear people yelling back and forth. We look over, maybe 100 or 200 feet uphill of the slide, and see a cameraman halfway down the slope and somebody at the top getting ready to drop. They were about to ski the slope—same aspect, same everything—right next to where this human-triggered avalanche was.
I don’t remember exactly what my friend and I said, but I remember saying “terrain trap,” and that the slope was considerable. And then I remember he asked me, somewhat jokingly, if I was ready to do a rescue.
It was all surreal from that point on. She came in full speed, took one big turn right over the rollover. One money shot. We heard the camera shutter and as that happened, the slope popped out. It was only 30 feet by 30 feet, and she pulled her airbag right away. I actually remember thinking, “Are they testing airbags or something?” because it was so perfectly executed. Obviously, they were not. She went through a couple small trees and looked like she was trying to hold onto them when the rest of the slope went.
I learned later that it was about 150 to 200 feet across, and it was two to three feet deep on the persistent weak layer the avalanche report talked about. She went out of view, but I could see that the snow just kept coming down on top of her.
At that point my friend was calling Alta Central, the local dispatch, and I ripped my skins and skied down into the gully. I was yelling up to somebody on the side that she had come from. He said, “Is everything OK?” and I said something like, “No, they triggered an avalanche. Come down and help.” I got there, and ran into the photographer. He said, “She has a beacon on.”
I asked, “Do you?” and he said, “No.”
I switched mine to search mode, located her signal, did a fine search and then assembled my probe. In the moment, I was just going through the motions as I had practiced them. Everything was going so fast. As I searched he got the shovel out of my pack. I got a probe hit. By then, the other person in the area had gotten down and there were three of us.
It was bizarre because the debris pile was small. It all funneled into one cone, and it was really deep. I still had my skis on at this point and one of them told me to take them off to not step on her. The two of them dug with shovels and I with bare hands.
When we uncovered her head—she was maybe two or three feet deep, and her legs were maybe four or five feet deep—it was almost as if I had just had blinders taken off. Everything came back into focus. She was completely fine. She said she was surprised how fast we got there. We all somewhat awkwardly hugged each other and then booted out the south face back up to the road. Nobody was injured and there wasn’t really anything left to say or do. So we said bye, cut our tour short and skied home.
I talked to another person the following week who had been in the same situation, just a ridgeline over. He had seen a guy ski a line, trigger an avalanche and get buried. The guy I was talking to was the first one on the scene. It just shows how, when you’re traveling in the backcountry, at least in the Wasatch, it’s not just you. It shows that even if you’re not going to be skiing something scary that day or that you think is scary, it’s almost a responsibility that you bring your own gear and have the knowledge as a community member.
There are so many people in the Wasatch skiing so many slopes that they decide are safe or they have a different risk acceptance level than you or whatever. So often in avalanche terrain you can make the wrong decision and pay no price, so it can be hard to tell when you are making the right decision. To have your knowledge telling you something’s not safe and then to see it in such an up-close way is rare.
Seeing a burial or close call, no matter the circumstances, is a humbling experience that reminds you of the power that the mountains hold. It also reminds you that there are ways to safely travel in the backcountry and mitigate risk. I never want to use my avalanche rescue gear or training in a real situation again, but it’s not out of the question. Especially when traveling in high-traffic areas like the Wasatch.