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Accident: Talking Mountain Cirque

Observer Name
Brad Meiklejohn
Observation Date
Thursday, January 4, 2024
Avalanche Date
Wednesday, February 12, 1992
Moab » Gold Basin » Talking Mountain Cirque
Location Name or Route
Talking Mountain Cirque - Upper Gold Basin
Slope Angle
Trigger: additional info
Remotely Triggered
Avalanche Type
Soft Slab
Avalanche Problem
Persistent Weak Layer
Weak Layer
Buried - Partly
Buried - Fully
Accident and Rescue Summary
On February 12, 1992, a party of six backcountry skiers, including a USFS contracted avalanche forecaster, were buried in an avalanche in Talking Mountain Cirque, in upper Gold Basin, in the La Sal Mountains of SE Utah. Forecaster Mark Yates, Maribel Loveridge, Jeremy Hopkins, and Bill Turk all perished in the accident. Steven Meleski, and assistant forecaster Craig Bigler survived. They were all considered to be experienced backcountry travelers, and all had some degree of avalanche training. All were equipped with rescue beacons and shovels. All party members were friends and Moab locals. They were well known and loved by the tight knit, and nascent winter backcountry skiing community. The tragedy stunned the small desert town which had only recently embraced an economic path focused on outdoor recreation, and the impacts to the community were long lasting.
Then USFS Utah Avalanche Center forecaster Brad Meiklejohn went down to Moab and issued the following day's avalanche forecast. He then worked with Grand and San Juan County Search and Rescue units during recovery operations that spanned the course of three days. Heavy snowfall on Feb 13 (14" of new snow and 1.3" of SWE), delayed recovery operations, and avalanche mitigation work was performed on Feb 14 to provide for scene safety. All victims were recovered by late afternoon on February 15. Following the incident, Meiklejohn composed a comprehensive report that included a thoughtful analysis of the factors that lead to the tragedy, as well as recommendations for avalanche center operations in the La Sal Mountains in the future. What follows is a summary compiled by UAC staff. Please read Meiklejohn's complete report to get the full story. It has been scanned and attached as a pdf at the end of this document.
Photo illustrates the approximate locations of members in the group when they were hit, and the approximate boundary of the two slides that merged upon them. The party was ascending the slope at the time of the avalanche(s).
Looking downslope on the accident site during recovery efforts. The party had descended the south facing slope in the right rear of the photograph before traversing into Talking Mountain cirque and ascending the slope where the accident occurred.
Looking upslope at the accident site.
Probe line with deep excavation hole in foreground.
Terrain Summary
Talking Mountain Cirque is a large alpine bowl entirely above timberline. It is classic in shape with a broad, low angle base and steep headwalls. The surrounding ridgelines are all above 11,800', and the peaks along the ridges rise to 12,400'. The slope in the bottom of the cirque is long and gradual, and for nearly a quarter of a mile the angle is less than 25 degrees in steepness. At a distance of 800' from the ridge and 400' in elevation below it, the slope angle increases from 25 degrees to 35 degrees in a distance of approximately 200'. The party was apparently at, or within this transition when the avalanche occurred.
Photo illustrates approximate approach the party took into Talking Mountain Cirque before beginning to ascend the lower angle slopes up toward the pass.
Talking Mountain Cirque after the accident in February, 1992.
Weather Conditions and History
Much of the western U.S. experienced heavy November snowfall which established a stable early season snowpack. A split flow pattern developed in December which lasted through early February, diverting storm tracks north or south of the western states. January snowfall in Utah and Colorado averaged 20-40% of normal, and the La Sals experienced 31 days with no measureable snowfall from January 7, to February 7. Snow depths in the La Sals ranged from 31" at 9600' to 45" at 10,000'. During this extended dry period, snowpacks throughout the west experienced extensive weakening, and by the first week of February, the entire snowpack in the La Sals consisted of cohesion-less, faceted snow.
Snow began to fall in the La Sals on the afternoon of February 7, and by the morning of February 8, 3-4" had fallen at 0.3" of SWE. A low pressure center off the coast of California continued to push small amounts of moisture into the La Sals for the next several days with occassional breaks in the weather. An additional 1" of snow fell on 2/9, another 2" on 2/10, 1.5" on 2/11, and 1-2" early on the morning of 2/12. Total for the five day period was 10" of snow at 0.8-1.0 SWE. *All data is from the LSMU1 SNOTEL site at 9600' near the Geyser Pass Trailhead. Anecdotal historical evidence has shown this site not to be an accurate representation of snowfall even a few hundred feet higher. Snowfall measured at a later established snow study plot at 10,000' shows amounts on average of 50% or more.*
Temperatures during the 2/7 - 2/12 period were fairly constant with daytime highs in the mid 30's to low 40's and overnight lows in the upper teens to low 20's. Precipitation periods were accompanied by gusty SW winds 15-30 mph along ridge tops while on days without precipitation, winds were light and variable.
Snow showers continued into the morning of February 12, but by 1030 hrs scattered clouds were over the mountains. Overnight low temperature at 0300 hrs was 22F, and the daytime high at 1500 hrs was 37F. Ridgetop winds from the SW averaged 10-20 mph most of the day, and by 1500 hrs, skies were mostly clear.
Handwritten water amounts and temperatures for the days leading up to the accident.
Snow Profile Comments
The snowpack structure prior to Feb 7, was shallow and extremely weak. The snowpack consisted almost entirely of cohesion-less faceted snow crystals, interspersed with slightly more cohesive layers of snow. During the extended fair weather period from Jan 7 - Feb 7, many of the upper elevation slopes were affected by wind scouring and wind hardening of the snow surface. This resulted in an irregular snow surface pattern on the slopes above treeline with some areas of consisting of loose, faceted snow, while in other areas, sometimes just a few feet away, a supportable wind slab 4" thick had developed. At lower elevations, the snowpack was uniformly weak. The weakest layer in the pack prior to Feb 7, was at or near the surface, and consisted of a 10-20 cm layer of well developed, faceted snow crystals 1-2mm in size. The majority of the avalanches subsequent to the Feb 12 accident ran on the uppermost weak layer, but many slopes avalanched two or three times finally removing all the weak layers to the ground.
As they all are, this was a tragic avalanche accident that deeply affected many members of the Moab community, and it affected their relationship with the La Sal Mountains for decades to come. It is our hope that through a review, and remembrance of this accident, that it will prevent similar occurrences in the future. It is our hope also, that it will raise awarerness about the hazardous nature of the weak, continental, La Sal snowpack, and how it differs from other ranges in the state, particularly the Wasatch Mountains. As more and more people come to the La Sal Mountains to enjoy the unique experience of touring in an alpine mountain range surrounded by desert, we hope that they will come with the understanding of what a beautiful, yet dangerous place it can be.
Avalanche File