Many long-time Everest climbers and fans know twin brothers Damian and Willie Benegas, 54, founders of the renowned Benegas Brothers guide company. On March 12, around 12:30 p.m., Willie became seriously injured in a large avalanche near the East Bowl area of Big Cottonwood Canyon near Silver Fork, located within the Wasatch-Cache National Forest along the eastern side of the Salt Lake Valley, about 15 miles from Salt Lake City, Utah.
Willie (Guillermo) Benegas survived, despite being buried for twenty-three minutes in 6.5-feet of snow. He was co-guiding certified
AMGA Ski Mountaineering Guide guide Winslow Passey whom Willie cites was the hero in saving his life that day, an all-female team of six skiers who had previously taken Avalanche Safety Training Courses (AIARE). That morning they reviewed avalanche rescue with Willie.
I spoke to Willie as he began to remember more from that day, “It has been an extremely difficult year, our snowpack has been extremely challenging to forecast on the micro terrain assessment aspect. I was sitting on a steep area below some rocks, watching my clients make turns down the slope. I don’t remember how it broke, but the slab released. I screamed “avalanche,” keeping my eyes on my clients. The last I remember was seeing my client ski to safety as I started riding the wave. Then everything went blank.”
He described being trapped in the hard-packed snow, “The snow encased my entire body, not allowing me to move, feeling completely paralyzed. After I came to a stop, I called out three times for help, but then my survival experience kicked in, and I became calm, knowing my teammates would start to search for me. I slowed my breathing to conserve as much of the oxygen within my small air bubble as I could and waited. As I was trapped, I thought, so this is how I will die. The only way to survive was to shut down, to go into hibernation. I visualized my teammates with probes, and then I guess I became unconscious. “
His teammates searched using avalanche beacons and found him breathing but not conscious. While other members searched, one of the teammates called 911. According to the Utah Avalanche Center, five minutes after the extrication, the search and rescue group arrived; it took another hour via sled to a landing zone location for a helicopter hoist evacuation. Willie was airlifted to a local hospital in critical but stable condition.
Damian returned to the area the next day, trying to understand what caused the avalanche and his Mechanism of injury (MOI). “I could only see a long, 250-foot by 70-foot debris field that ended on what we call a terrible terrain trap that allowed avalanche snow debris to pile up in a small creek at the end of the slope. It was a miracle my brother, moving at an estimated 30 miles per hour, didn’t hit a tree as the slide’s base ended in a dense grove of pine trees.”
Willie has four broken ribs on his left side, two on his right, a contused (bruised) lung, and face lacerations. Willie told me he expects to take at least two months to recover.
Long-time friend Mike Moniz calls Willie “a brother to me, a second father to Matt Moniz.” Willie came to Matt and Mike’s aid on Mt. Rainier. Matt fondly talks about his friend, “I’ve known Willie since I was twelve. We first met in 2010 on Rainier while I was climbing the US State Highpoints with my dad, Mike. During our summit push on Rainier, we encountered an intense storm, heavy winds, snow, and zero visibility which forced us back to Camp Muir. We were on a record pace and were traveling light; had it not been for Willie offering us fuel and food, we would have been forced down the next day. That night we had a break in the storm and made a quick bid for the summit. No one was up there except for Willie. He was looking for a climber that was lost in the previous day’s maelstrom.” A few years later, Willie guided Matt to become the 14th American and youngest climber to summit Nepal’s Makalu, only days after summiting another 8,000-meter peak, Cho Oyu in Tibet. Matt and Willie summited Everest together in 2018.
The Benegas Brothers, born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, are famous for participating in countless rescues on Everest, Aconcagua, and other peaks worldwide. Today they live in the Salt Lake City area. Willie has 26 Himalaya climbs with 13 Everest summits. Damien has six summits on Everest. Combined, they have 100 summits of Aconcagua. They founded their guide company in 1992. In 2015, Willie and Damian spent five months in Nepal, helping the impoverished country recover from the devastating earthquake that killed over 8,000 Nepalese.
Willie closed our conversation with, “Kudos to the ladies. I owe them my life.”
A GoFundMe campaign will help him continue his recovery and support his family with their daunting expenses.
Memories are Everything
Note: This article has been updated for clarity