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Utah's First Backcountry Skiing Fatality In Years Caused By A Combination Of Factors

Emery County Sheriff's Office
Search and rescue skiers near Electric Lake where a avalanche fatality occurred on Saturday.

A skier killed in an avalanche in Emery County on Friday marks the first fatality in Utah’s backcountry in the past two years. According to avalanche forecasters, there were multiple factors that led to the man’s death.

The accident happened near Electric Lake in a remote area of northwest Emery County known as the Manti Skyline. It happened after several days of heavy snowfall.

Two men, including 26-year-old Michael Besendorfer of Nephi, were ski touring. According to the Utah Avalanche Center, Besesndorfer was starting down a ridge when he accidentally triggered a 500-foot wide, 3-foot deep slab of snow to break loose. The slide buried him several hundred feet down the mountain.

A search attempt was called off Friday night because of dangerous conditions. Besesndorfer's body was found Saturday following a search effort that included the search-and-rescue team deployed a helicopter, snowmobiles, snowcats and skiers. Besendorfer’s body was located by search dog.

Officials from the Emery County Sheriff’s Office stressed that the recovery was a huge effort including Emery and Sanpete County Search and Rescue, Utah Department of Public Safety, members of the Utah Avalanche Center and Alta Ski Area, among other groups.
“When we have touchy conditions like we have now, you don’t want to go out and get onto steep slopes during or directly after the snowstorms,” said Brett Kobernik, a forecaster with the Utah Avalanche Center who monitors the area of the fatality and who helped during the recovery.

Avalanche danger was “considerable” on the day of the accident — one category below what the Utah Avalanche Center considers to be high risk. Neither of the skiers had radio devices known as transceivers that are used to locate buried skiers. They were also skiing on a relatively dangerous northeast facing slope.

“The takeaway is that you should check the avalanche forecast before you head out into the mountains. Secondly, carry all the proper rescue equipment which includes an avalanche transceiver, shovel and probe,” Kobernik said, referring to the primary tools used in case of an avalanche.

With a storm dumping 18-24 inches in parts of the Wasatch Mountains through midday Tuesday, the current avalanche danger is high throughout the state.

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