(Summary: This is an account of the April 3rd 1993 avalanche that caught and buried Roman Latta in Wolverine Cirque, Big Cottonwood Canyon, Utah. Roman was buried 6-8 feet deep for a period of 20 to 30 minutes. At the time this was written, Roman was alive, but in intensive care. He survived 3 days before dying of a brain hemorrhage on April 7th. This is a personal account of what happened and is more emotional than factual. Alex Wells published an article on the same accident in the March '95 issue of Men's Journal that covers the accident from a much broader perspective as well as giving some relevant background information.)
We met at the Grizzly Gulch parking lot above Alta around 8:30am. Roman and I had made plans earlier in the week to go ski Mt. Tuscarora, a peak located between Alta and Solitude. Stan Brown said he might be interested, so I thought my wife Chris might enjoy it as it sounded like a fun group. When we got to the parking lot, we coincidentally met up with Chris Harmston and his friend Tim Gibbs. Roman said that he had talked to Stan and didn't think that he was going to make it. Chris H. and Tim said they were interested in going, so the five of us started off skiing up Grizzly Gulch at about 8:40am.
We reached Twin Lakes pass about 10:00am and stopped to regroup. There was a party of three or four people ahead of us that were just starting down the northeast side of Twin Lakes pass toward Solitude as we arrived. The snow looked deep and they were having trouble skiing it, but there were no signs of sliding or instability. As we continued up the ridge toward Patsy Marley, I looked across the valley and saw that the Alta patrol had open Greely Bowl and people were skiing Eddies High Nowhere, a shot that I felt had a similar exposure and angle to what we were going to ski. Chris had tried to call the Avalanche Hot Line twice earlier that morning but got a disconnected signal. I had heard that the center might be closing down earlier this year, so I thought that it had been disconnected for the season. We spread out to make the exposed climb up Patsy Marely and regrouped again once we were all on the summit.
Looking across at Alta, we watched a large slide triggered by the area ski patrol come down above the Sugarloaf lift. From this and a few other slides that we could see around the Mt. Superior area, we knew there was a high slide potential.
We continued around the edge of the cirque on hard wind packed snow until we came to the first major chute. At this point, I pull out a length of rope and Chris H. belayed me from a small tree as I went up to the edge to see what the chute was like. Earlier in the season, this had been a rounded knoll turning into an open 30-35 degree bowl. Now it was a 20-30' cornice. I tried to break the cornice by jumping on it, and when that didn't do anything, I took a ski off, perforated the lip and then jumped on it some more. Nothing moved. The only way into this one would be a large free fall, so we continued on.
The next chute we came to had an easy entrance into it, but it was wider, and more exposed. We decided to continue on and if we didn't find anything better, we'd come back.
Three quarters of the way around the cirque we came to a chute I have been calling The King Chute. Facing almost directly due north it usually has the best skiing. It is about 18' wide at the top, and opens up to about 35' wide at the bottom. Having skied it three times before, and looked at it many other times, the entrance was as filled in as I had ever seen it. The cornice was about 5' tall and the top section, usually a 50 degree pitch, was now closer to 40-45 degrees. Setting up an anchor on two small trees, Chris H. again belayed me as I went to the edge and tried to break the cornice off. The initial ski stomping produced a few powdery blocks that fell into the chute without any result. I then took one ski off, perforated the lip and then jumped on it until a good size chunk dropped off. It fell into the chute and broke into smaller blocks which then tumbled down. Deciding the cornice was safe, I rappeled into the top of the chute.
Once inside and while still roped, I did a few ski cuts back and forth across the top of the chute. The east side (skiers right) had 10-12" of medium light snow on it, and 15' away, the west side (skiers left) was firm, hard snow. I traversed across the east side twice, side slipping and trying to get the snow to break free. Nothing happened. It may be wishful thinking, but I prefer narrow chutes as I think that if you can get them to slide at the top, the area where the most snow has accumulated, they will be safe the rest of the way down. I felt the slope was safe and called up to Chris to rappel down to me.
Chris lowered into the chute and stood beside me. I said to go ahead and ski the chute, while I stayed there watching, then duck immediately under the rocks on the west at the end of the 300' main chute section. Chris made about 10-15 turns down the chute. Roman called down from above and asked if it was clear. He said he was thinking about just jumping into the chute instead of rappeling. I agreed that it looked doable and the landing was soft. I asked him to wait until Chris was clear of the chute, which took a few more turns. When Chris was parallel with the rocks, I said to make sure that she had packed out an escape route so she could quickly tuck back under the rocks if need be. Once she was in place, I told Roman that it was clear and to hold on while I got my camera ready.
"Ready?" Roman called down.
Prefocusing my camera, I called up "Go for it!"
Roman hit the soft east side about parallel to me and 15' away. It immediately began to slide taking Roman with it. I watched in disbelief as Roman picked up speed and more snow started to build up around him. Looking down I saw Chris and shouted at the same time Chris H. shouted "Get out" from above. The snow was billowing and filling the chute from side to side. Roman was still on top of the pile swimming fiercely. As the slide reached the end of the chute, Roman disappeared into the churning white ball of snow.
(At this point, I knew it was a serious slide and we would have to get to him quickly, but thought there would be a good chance that he would be on the surface, or easy to find. From the amount of snow in the chute, I expected a small powder avalanche 2-4' deep)
I heard Chris scream and thought she had been caught in the slide and was screaming as she was pulled down. I started a high speed side slip down the chute which was by now a smooth hard surface.
Chris H. called down from the ridge "Should we come down?"
"Both of us?"
I slipped toward the mouth of the chute, panicked by my wife's screams and envisioning her buried. As I reached the end of the rock band, I felt a flood of relief as I saw her standing there.
"Should I come down?" she said.
Then I saw she was standing on top of a horrifying 3-4' fracture line. It was sharp, clean and had slid on a hard billiard table flat surface. It seemed to go on forever in both directions. I looked down into the cirque and got my first glimpse of the magnitude of the slide. It was huge. The small sluff slide that Roman had been caught in had triggered a far larger slide below with him in the center of it.
"No." I said, changing my mind at the new situation and thinking that her movements might set off another slide.
I slid another 100 yards down to the beginning of the debris and tore my pack off. Unzipping my jacket, I pulled out my transceiver and plugged the ear set in. I wished I had done more search practice. I got absolutely nothing on the receiver. I wanted badly to believe that Roman was near the top of the slide deposit. I frantically switched my receiver setting hoping that was the problem. I looked for any color in the spread out white mass below me. Nothing.
I was suddenly aware that Chris H. was beside me. He had his receiver out and was trying to pick up a signal. I had my skis on and was traversing side to side as I worked my way down, not wanting to go too low too fast for fear of having to climb back up and lose time. Chris was on his feet going straight down the center of the pile.
We continued down the pile until we were 3/4 of the way through it. We were nearing the deepest section of the slide.
"I've got a signal!" Chris yelled.
"Over here! It's getting stronger!"
I came over to Chris, still not getting any signal. I suddenly saw a pair of sunglasses. My hopes leapt. The pile seemed to go on forever.
"What have you got?"
Chris and Tim had joined us by now. Chris was searching with her receiver. She was getting strong signals. I grabbed her shovel.
"He's here!" one of them shouted.
I began to dig.
"Turn your volume down! Search close!"
We all started digging. After a sprint of shoveling, Chris H. got down in the hole and scanned again.
"Quiet!" Chris said as he moved his beacon.
"He's over here!" he said pointing to the east. We all started shoveling.
"Chris - probe!"
Chris turned her pole upside down and shoved it handle first into the snow while we dug.
"I GOT HIM! I GOT HIM!" she cried.
We shoveled harder. A helicopter swung overhead from nowhere. I looked up at it and knew they knew what had happened. They flew off.
We continued to dig. The hole was getting deeper. We were standing on top of each other, hitting others with our shovels. As the hole got deeper, it became harder to get the snow out of it. We were down past our waists. My hands were frozen. I was starting to get tired. Time seemed to crawl. My transceiver swung around my neck, the ear piece wrapping around my hands making it hard to shovel. I ripped it out. My sunglasses whacked me in the face with each shovel load. My hands were freezing but my body was boiling over. I shoveled in a blind panicked frenzy.
I heard a helicopter. Looking up, I saw it land uphill from us and some people in red suits jump out. We were so deep in the hole that our heads were level with their feet. I was starting to waiver on the shoveling.
"Spell us on shoveling!" I yelled.
"How many victims?" the first one yelled back.
"Are you certain of the location?"
They ran toward us, opening their packs and pulling out transceivers. As they approached us, the helicopter lifted off blasting us with snow. The three red figures came to us through the hurricane.
The first one, Duffy, jumped into the pit and started scanning.
"Quiet!" He scanned the bottom of the pit holding his receiver against the wall.
"Over here" he said point to a wall. We all dug in.
"Quiet!" He scanned again.
"He's over here."
We started shoveling.
"I've got a leg!" Someone shouted. For the first time in what seemed like hours there was a color other than white. A dark blue piece of fabric appeared.
"His head is over here!"
We started digging.
"Watch his head! Watch his head!" someone cried referring to our shoveling.
For the first time it occurred to me that we were standing on Roman. The Powder Bird Guides (as I was later to learn their identity) were working around his head. I continued to work on his legs.
"WE GOT HIS HEAD!" I looked over and saw a shock of Romans long hair on the surface of the snow. The guides dropped their shovels and dug with their hands. Roman's head appeared covered with snow.
"We've got a breath!" Roman's eyes opened and rolled back into their sockets.
"Maybe not. It might have been his last."
"NO!" I said, thinking they were giving up on him.
He was still partially buried, lying on his side, chest slightly down.
"Let's get him out." We dug around him until his chest was clear. Grabbing a hold of
Romans clothes, we pulled his torso free. Duffy held a pair of glasses up to his mouth. He got a slight fogging. A guide felt for pulse. I heard a helicopter land. Another group of people in red staggered uphill toward us carrying cases.
"What have you got?" The first one called out while still climbing.
"Thready pulse and we thought there was some breathing."
The first man arrives and gets into the pit with us.
"Get the backboard." he said, kneeling down to examine Roman, then reaching over and opening his medical case.
"Get the oxygen."
More people in red arrived. I stood back and let them in. At some point another group of tourers joined us from the direction of Solitude.
"Lets get him on the backboard."
We dug his legs free and slid the orange/red backboard under him. His legs fell off and I strapped them on with the fastex buckles that hung from the sides of the board. Roman's body was limp. A female Powderbird guide (Annabelle) handed the doctor a pair of scissors. Starting at his waist and going up, he cut Romans shirt off exposing his chest.
Pulling objects from the cases, they began to set Roman up for CPR. A flat rubber cup was placed over his mouth and a man breathed into a tube that stuck from it while another pushed on his chest to the count of five.
"You're going to be an IV stand." the doctor said to me, handing me a plastic bag full of clear fluid with a long tube coming from it. He pulled open a paper package, taking needle from it and sticking it into Roman's arm. He took the tube from me and connected it to the needle, then reached up and turned the flow on. It very slowly started to drip into a vial that lead into Roman's arm.
"Keep it high."
"One, two, three, four, five. Change out on the next one. One, two, three, four and change." A new person jumped in to take over pushing on his chest.
"Let's get him on oxygen."
An 8" clear plastic tube was slid down Roman's throat and pulled to the side of his mouth. The tape that held it in place wouldn't stick to Roman's wet face and they kept trying to tape it in place as they pounded on his chest so hard I thought his ribs would break. A helicopter had landed. More people were coming towards us. An oxygen cylinder was placed by Roman's head and connected to the tube in his mouth.
"It's not filling the bag."
"Does anyone know anything about this scar on his chest?"
One person held onto a football shaped balloon coming from the oxygen cylinder, squeezing it empty into Roman's mouth on the count of five as the other pushed on his chest. A man in a flight helmet appeared. Another come towards us, speaking to the doctor, apparently familiar with each other. Radios crackled. People were digging landing pads and stashing gear. Blood was on the snow. Gear was strewn all around. The other medic set an case down and talked to the first medic, Van. Tubes were tangled around everything. I listened to what the doctors were saying, not understanding any of it, but not hearing anything that sounded bad. They asked each other questions and answered in numbers.
"Let's shock him (sic)" one said. The second medic opened the black case which had two handles with curly cords coming from them.
"What do you want to start him at?"
"How about 200?"
"200? I usually go all the way up to 360. But what ever you think"
"Let's start him low and go up" the second medic said breaking open a packet of jellylike square pads and handing them to another person who put them on his Roman's chest.
"All clear? Get your leg away from him. I don't want you to get it." The medic pushed the buttons and Roman's arm jumped.
"What have you got?"
"Let's do another."
"OK. Clear." Roman's arm jumped again.
"I can't read the display." The sun was directly overhead.
"Let's get a tape running on this" They turned on the paper tape recorder which spit out a length of paper about the size of a bank deposit slip with two squiggles on it. They repeated the shock treatment. Earlier, the first doctor had disconnect the tube that I was supporting and injected a syringe into the needle that came from Roman's arm. He did it again now.
"Let's do another" They shocked him again.
"We've got something! He's up to 179 (sic)."
"He's going up."
"Let's get him out of here. There's nothing more we can do here."
"Where do you want to take him? LDS?"
I was given a bag that fit over the plastic sack I was supporting and told to pump it up until a green cylinder popped out. Others were fastening the rest of the fastex buckles around Roman and fitting pads around his head. A group of people spread out around the backboard. Someone took the bag I was holding and placed it on Roman's chest. I grabbed a hold of the board.
"On the count of three... One, two, three." We lifted Roman into the air and carried him out of the pit. Oxygen was still being squeezed into his mouth. We staggered toward the waiting helicopter and slid the backboard into a slot that looked like it would barely fit a body. People secured the backboard as I ducked low and crab walked back to the pit, hoping to avoid the blades which weren't spinning yet.
We regrouped in the pit, shielding ourselves as the helicopter took off. Silence. Breathing. Looking around at other people. Some I knew, some I didn't. Skis, gloves, poles, packs scattered in piles everywhere. I looked up into the cirque where the slide had started and realized that we were still in a high avalanche danger position. The cirque loomed above us, a loaded gun with ten times the power of the avalanche it had just let loose. The sun was warming up the slopes. We were at ground zero. I looked up at the fracture line and swore I would never backcountry ski again. I hated skiing.
One of the original Powderbird Guides was making helicopter arrangements on the radio and organizing the stunned group. He said a helicopter would pick us up and take us to the top of Patsy Marely where we could retrieve our gear (a rope, two runners and a carabiner) then ski down. The thought of skiing was horrifying and we asked him to just take us to the Snowbird base and forget about the gear.
The helicopter landed and the original four of us crawled into it with our packs and buckled the seat belts. As the helicopter lifted off, I broke into tears and hugged Chris. I didn't look up, but could feel that we were all holding onto each other and sobbing uncontrollably.