Baker County Sheriff's Office search and rescue team leader describes effort to rescue survivors of deadly avalanche
By Chris Collins
The effort to bring two injured backcountry skiers out of the Wallowa Mountains Wednesday was hampered by steep terrain, deep snow and ever-changing weather.
Chris Galiszewski, coordinator of the Baker County Sheriff's Office Search and Rescue Team, said safety was the emphasis throughout the rescue.
"We risked 17 people to save six," he said of the group that made its way on skis, snowmobiles and snowshoes into the mountains near Little Eagle Meadows, about 10 miles northwest of Halfway. "We did it as safely as we could. Risk management was very much on our minds."
A command post was set up at the Panhandle Snowmobile Club's meeting center in Halfway about 2 p.m. Tuesday, approximately two hours after the avalanche caught the group of skiers on a guided trip.
Search and Rescue volunteers, Baker County Sheriff and Emergency Management staff and Halfway snowmobilers immediately gathered at the clubhouse to begin planning the rescue effort.
Sheriff Mitch Southwick said he just happened to be visiting Halfway when the dispatch center learned that the group of eight skiers had been overcome by an avalanche in the Cornucopia area.
The initial report included information that two had died and two were injured, Southwick said. The group included two guides from Wallowa Alpine Huts of Joseph and six clients who were on the third day of a five-day trip.
Jake Merrill, 23, of Bellingham, Wash., one of the guides on the trip, and Shane Coulter, 30, of Seattle died in the avalanche.
Bruno Bachinger, 40, of Snohomish, Wash., suffered a broken thigh bone and Susan Polizzi, 60, of Wenatchee broke both of her legs and her left arm. Both were in satisfactory condition this morning at a Walla Walla, Wash., hospital.
Three skiers who escaped injury were Raymon Pinney, 32; Allan Ponio, 36; and Quinton Dowling, 26, all of Seattle. They were brought out Tuesday by snowcat.
Chris Edwards-Hill of Enterprise, the other guide on the trip, also was not injured. Edwards-Hill remained on the mountain Tuesday night with three other guides from Wallowa Alpine Huts to care for Bachinger and Polizzi after efforts to bring them out of the backcountry Tuesday night failed.
Southwick said the four guides rotated one at a time to provide comfort to the victims while the other three warmed themselves at the Schneider cabin about a mile away.
On Wednesday afternoon, the injured skiers were boarded on toboggans and dragged out to rescue sleds that were pulled down the mountain by snowmobiles. They arrived at Halfway about 6 p.m. Wednesday, Galiszewski said.
Jason Jacobs, a professional paramedic and firefighter with the Baker City Fire Department, was among the 17 people who made their way to the avalanche site. Jacobs, who joined the sheriff's department's volunteer Search and Rescue Team just last month, was on a day off Wednesday when he strapped on his snowshoes and traveled into the mountains in the harsh weather.
Jacobs was back on duty Thursday morning at the Baker City Fire Department, where he has worked for the past four years.
The 30-year-old, who grew in the Keating area, said Wednesday's mission was a new experience for him. He was reluctant to take any credit for his efforts.
"I was just aiding the ski team," he said, adding that his paramedic skills were not put to use on the trip.
Jacobs said it was snowing and visibility was "really poor," as he traveled with the expert skiers to the avalanche site.
Once the injured skiers arrived at Halfway Wednesday night, they were taken by ambulance to the Dailey Ranch near Richland where they were picked up by a National Guard helicopter and then flown to the Baker City Airport.
From there two Life Flight helicopters - one from La Grande and one from Ontario - flew them to the trauma unit of St. Mary Medical Center at Walla Walla, Wash.
Galiszewski said the plan initially was to land a military helicopter at Halfway and then to fly Bachinger and Polizzi to medical care. That was not possible because of the changing weather that swept through the area.
"They couldn't land in Halfway," Galiszewski said. "The fog was too bad.
"It would be clear blue sky and then 10 minutes later another system would come rolling through," he said. "We had windows of opportunity all around the clouds. We faced very difficult conditions and we just rolled with them."
Galiszewski said about 8 inches of snow fell Tuesday night and another 2 inches was added throughout the day Wednesday.
Rescuers who stepped off their snowmobiles sank waist deep in the snow, he said.
Thirty-two people helped with the rescue effort. That included expert skiers from Anthony Lakes, Wallowa County Search and Rescue members and employees of the Wallowa Alpine Huts guide service.
Galiszewski said the snowmobile group's grooming machine was used to build a trail to within about two miles of the injured people.
"No other rescuers were injured and everybody is accounted for," he said. "It was a great effort by the Panhandle snowmobilers and local experts - we couldn't have done it without them."
The bodies of the two who died remain on the mountain.
"We've been working on that plan," Galiszewski said. "It's all based on the weather and avalanche safety."
In his more than 12 years with Search and Rescue, including the past seven as coordinator, he said he doesn't remember any avalanche-related deaths in Baker County.
Galiszewski, 43, who also serves with the Red Cross, encourages other community members to join him in volunteering to help others.
"It would be great for folks to really think about volunteering and giving back to their community," he said. "If anyone is interested in joining, come out, we'll train you - we sure could use you."
Search and Rescue volunteers don't all need to be prepared to follow Jacobs' lead and snowshoe into the mountains. Volunteers also are needed to serve in positions such as the overhead crew. Eight people worked at the command center directing the activities of the 32 volunteers and three helicopters that responded to Wednesday's rescue, Galiszewski said.
"It was a good rescue," he added. "It ended within 30 hours in remote rugged wilderness."
Experts investigating avalanche
Volunteers from the Wallowa Avalanche Center of Joseph have completed the initial field evaluation of the avalanche that claimed two lives on Tuesday in the Wallowas of Baker County.
Severe weather and unstable snow conditions kept the Wallowa Avalanche Center team from getting to the scene where two members of a ski expedition were killed Tuesday. Despite the lack of access, the team said it gathered details of the slide from other members of the expedition.
According to the team's investigation, four of the eight in the ski party were caught in the avalanche including the two who died, Jake Merrill, 23, of Bellingham, Wash., and Shane Coulter, 30, of Seattle.
The avalanche crown fracture occurred near Little Eagle Creek on a west/southwest aspect at an elevation between 7,200 feet and 8,000 feet, and the slide continued for about 1,000 vertical feet, according to the Avalanche Center's report.
The avalanche center team is completing a formal report following the guidelines of the Forest Service National Avalanche Center. It will then be submitted to the national avalanche accident archives database at the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.
Wallowa Avalanche Center Director Keith Stebbings of Joseph said every Thursday a bulletin on the region's snow conditions is posted on the organization's website. Last week the center's Feb. 6 bulletin mentioned that the new snow was not bonding well to the old surface, particularly at the northerly aspects at mid-elevations.
The bulletin said there was a recent report from the southern Wallowas of a skier-triggered slab avalanche on this layer. "Riders should carefully evaluate slopes for dense wind slabs sitting on a melt/freeze crust or weak loose snow grains."
A secondary concern listed in the Feb. 6 bulletin, "The mountains are still sporting a very weak snowpack with very poor structure."
Stebbings said according to his research the Cornucopia area gets higher snowfall than the northern and eastern Wallowas.
He said that when in the backcountry, there is a big difference between expert skiers and experts at reading snow and avalanche conditions. "These guides had education in snow safety and were very knowledgeable in avalanche safety and hazard," he said.
He said anyone skiing in the backcountry can perform a simple test to check for snow conditions called the pole test. "With a ski pole you can feel for layers. This is the most beneficial test anyone can do and should every 100 feet to see how the snow is changing as you change aspect or elevation."
Weekly snow condition and avalanche danger bulletins are posted each Thursday on the Center's website at www.wallowaavalanchecenter.org.
- Katy Nesbitt, The (La Grande) Observer