American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Avalanche, Poor Conditions, Inexperience, Utah, Big Cottonwood Canyon, Stairs Gulch

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 2002

AVALANCHE, POOR CONDITIONS, INEXPERIENCE

Utah, Big Cottonwood Canyon, Stairs Gulch

On April 28, Martin Gleich (38), a doctor from Salt Lake City and Scott Dull (39), also a doctor, from Eagle River, Alaska, were killed in Stairs Gulch, a tributary of Big Cottonwood Canyon. The pair left the trailhead about 3:30 to 4:00 a.m. to climb Stairs Gulch to Twin Peaks with ice axes and crampons, rope and snowshoes, but no beacons (they did not own beacons). They did not return by their 11:00 a.m. planned return time.

That evening, a Salt Lake County SAR team walked up both Stairs Gulch and nearby Broad’s Fork looking for the missing climbers. They discovered fresh avalanche debris in Stairs Gulch and quickly found Martin Gleich’s boot sticking out of the snow about 100 yards above the toe of the debris. His head was buried about four feet deep. Medical examiners later determined he died by asphyxia. After finding Gleich’s body, Wasatch Backcountry Rescue, a volunteer group composed of avalanche professionals from northern Utah ski areas, was called. They responded with personnel from Snowbird and a rescue dog. The avalanche dog easily located Scott Dull, about a ten minute hike and 500 vertical feet above the first victim. Although he was buried eight to ten feet deep, part of his fleece shirt was torn to shreds and it stretched out about ten feet, with part of it on the surface. Scott Dull had multiple fractures, and the medical examiner reported that he was killed by trauma.

Analysis

The evidence indicates that the accident occurred early in the morning when the pair was on their way up.

Martin Gleich’s sunglasses melted out of the debris nearly a month after the accident and they were still in their case, indicating that the accident occurred on the ascent while it was still too dark to wear sunglasses. Scott Dull's pack melted out a month after the accident, and it appeared to contain an uneaten lunch.

They did not use Martin’s cell phone to call from the summit. Scott’s widow indicated that he often would often call her on a cell phone when he got to the top of a ridge or mountain, and she thought it was unusual for them not to call.

They were wearing crampons at the time of the accident, and Martin had his ice ax strapped to his pack, indicating that they were not yet on steep terrain. They both were using their ski poles. When they ascended they were walking on old avalanche debris, which probably would have been hard enough to warrant wearing crampons.

Human factors: Scott and Martin were old friends. They had climbed several mountains together, including Mount Orizaba in Mexico (19,000 feet), Mount Rainier several times, and Mount Baker. They had taken a climbing school on Mount Baker as well as an avalanche course. The pair was on a constrained time schedule, as Scott and his wife flew into Salt Lake City just for the weekend. Scott and Martin had stayed up late catching up and had awakened at 3:00 a.m. for their climb.

Both were extremely intelligent people who were otherwise very attentive of their personal safety. Although they had taken an avalanche course, their friends reported that they were still relative novices. Also, although they both kept very fit and liked to hike in the mountains, they were still considered to be intermediate climbers.

Recent weather: The first half of April was very snowy. From the 3rd through the 23rd almost eight feet of snow fell in the Wasatch Range. During this cycle, one large dry avalanche released in Stairs Gulch on April 8 and descended

vertical feet, stopping only 400 feet short of the road. These storms ended on the 23rd, only five days before the accident. Then the weather warmed dramatically. The last overnight freeze of the snow surface occurred three days before the accident, but that freeze was quite thin and short-lived. For the next three days, daytime highs at the same elevation as the accident were in the 50’s. The night of the accident, the minimum air temperature was 47 degrees F. This was the warmest overnight low since September.

Avalanche conditions: Stairs Gulch is the steepest and longest avalanche path in the Wasatch Range. The upper section is composed almost entirely of 45-55 degree rock slabs. Very few skiers or boarders ever enter Stairs Gulch in winter, but climbers sometimes practice their alpine skills there in spring after the snow stabilizes.

The accident was most likely caused by a glide avalanche about 700 feet wide with a fracture depth averaging about five feet. The crown was around

feet in elevation, and the avalanche descended 3,700 vertical feet, running about a mile in length.

Glide avalanches are relatively unusual for Utah, but they do occur regularly each spring on the steep rock slabs in Stairs Gulch and Broad’s Fork, usually in a time window of about two weeks after the dry snow turns wet for the first time of the season. They occur when percolating water lubricates the interface between the snow and ground, causing the entire snowpack to slowly slide like a glacier on the underlying ground, often over the course of days, until it suddenly releases. One can recognize them by gaping crevasses on their upper boundaries and a rumpled-up look on their lower boundaries. Glide avalanches are very difficult to trigger—even with explosives—and they tend to release more or less randomly in time, like a calving iceberg or icefall. These are the first known fatalities from a glide avalanche in Utah and possibly the first in the U.S. (Source: Bruce Temper, Forest Service Utah Avalanche Center. The full text of the report is available at www.avalanche.org)

This ANAM article has been reformatted into HTML. Please contact us if you spot an error.