The body of a San Juan County man was recovered in the La Sal Mountains on Jan. 26 by first responders after an avalanche over 900 feet wide trapped him beneath snow.
Scott Pehrson Jr, 39, was one of eight snowmobilers and snowbikers from Monticello riding in Upper Dark Canyon on Jan. 25 when the avalanche was triggered.
Dark Canyon is in a high alpine basin between Mount Mellenthin and Mount Peale on the east side of the La Sal Mountains. The area can be accessed from Upper 2 Mile Road near the town of La Sal.
According to reports, one of the riders in the group had climbed to a steep, high pass at nearly 12,000 feet. Three other riders followed; two veered off to the left, but Pehrson took a direct approach up a narrow gully. Riders in the group last saw him in the gully at approximately 11,300 feet as the slab and the northeast face of adjacent Laurel Mountain collapsed.
When the avalanche flow stopped, the riders regrouped and realized Pehrson was missing. They soon uncovered his snowmobile and a helmet near the bottom edge of the avalanche flow, which later measured to a depth of 20 feet, reports said.
One of the riders left the scene to call 911. The San Juan County Sheriff’s Office dispatched a Classic Air Medical helicopter, but with darkness approaching in the late evening, the search resumed the following morning, on Jan. 26, with San Juan County Search and Rescue, Grand County Search and Rescue, U.S. Forest Service Utah Avalanche Center, and Wasatch Backcountry Rescue with support from the Utah Department of Public Safety.
Eric Trenbeath, avalanche forecaster for the Utah Avalanche Center, was one of the first responders to evaluate the scene.
With a reconnaissance flight over the avalanche area on the morning of Jan. 26, Trenbeath said it was determined that explosives would be needed to release more of the snow near the ridge to make the scene safe for first responders to continue searching the area.
The explosives released another avalanche, and then professional avalanche dogs and their handlers went into the gully area where Pehrson was last seen. A dog alerted first responders to an area near the toe of the debris at about 10,900 feet and Pehrson’s body was recovered with a positive probe at 4:35 p.m., reports said. First responders said he was not wearing an emergency beacon, but had one turned off in his pack.
The Utah Avalanche Center had issued an avalanche warning for the La Sal Mountains on Jan. 22. Trenbeath said the snowpack conditions in the La Sal Mountains consist of three distinct layers. Snow that fell in early December has “turned to sugar,” he said, forming a persistent weak layer between snow that had fallen in October and the 3 to 4 feet of snow that has fallen since Christmas.
Pehrson is survived by his wife and four young children. A GoFundMe account has been established for the family at https://www.gofundme.com/in-memory-of-scott-pehrson?member=1574984.
San Juan County issued a press release on Jan. 27 and extended its deepest condolences to the Pehrson family.
“As residents and visitors continue to recreate, please be aware of avalanche warnings and other weather conditions,” the press release said. “Safety should always be the primary goal.”
For more information on avalanche safety, including up-to-date avalanche forecasts for the La Sal Mountains, visit utahavalanchecenter.org.
Snowmobiler in La Sal Mountains recovered by first responders