By Katy Nesbitt
The (La Grande) Observer
JOSEPH - Backcountry skiing and snowmobiling, once reserved for a few adventurous souls, are gaining popularity throughout North America. With more people recreating in avalanche-prone territory, the risk of getting caught in a snow slide is also on the rise.
According to a Feb. 19 National Public Radio report, nine people died in 10 days in the Western U.S. Midwinter storms not only increased much needed snowpack, but created conditions risky for backcountry recreationists.
Backcountry skiing in the Wallowa and Elkhorn mountains is becoming more popular not only with locals, but with skiers from around the northwest. In 2009 Keith Stebbings, a retired engineer and longtime backcountry skier with ties to the avalanche center in Salt Lake City, moved to Joseph and met up with like-minded adventurers.
Northeastern Oregon had no avalanche center, but a combination of the terrain and the growing interest in backcountry skiing and snowmobiling prompted Stebbings and others to form the Wallowa Avalanche Center.
Julian Pridmore-Brown started backcountry skiing when he was a high school student, exploring the southern Sierras of California. A staunch proponent of avalanche education, Pridmore-Brown said he not only enjoyed skiing the backcountry, but developed an interest in the science behind snow conditions and avalanche triggers.
"I took my first avalanche class before it was as organized as it is now," he said.
Pridmore-Brown said advances in both ski gear and snowmobiles have given backcountry enthusiasts more access to terrain, but also increased the risk of accidents.
Like other avalanche centers throughout the country, he said the Wallowa Avalanche Center has made a special effort over the last few years to reach out to snowmobilers.
"Snowmobilers account for the largest, single percentage of avalanche fatalities," said Pridmore-Brown. This winter the Center offered a class to the Panhandle Snowmobile Club in Halfway.
"Each year we try to do at least one specifically targeted to snowmobilers," Pridmore-Brown said. "We've had them in Sumpter, Baker City and La Grande."
In the early winter the Center offers evening awareness workshops as well as 24-hour Level 1 and Level 2 avalanche courses. Pridmore-Brown strongly suggests that anyone skiing or snowmobiling in the backcountry should take avalanche training.
Another important service the Center offers is weekly bulletins on the snow conditions of the Wallowas and Elkhorns.
"Every Thursday we publish a bulletin which is a compilation of what we've observed over the last week - a combination of what the person writing the bulletin has observed and other reports received of the conditions," said Pridmore-Brown.
The bulletins are not forecasts, he said, and this distinction is vitally important.
"As long as we are a volunteer center we will not get into doing forecasts," he said. "A lot of people have asked about forecasting, but it is not within the scope of what we can do.
"When you go out in the backcountry there are very often clues you have to be aware of to determine snow stability," Pridmore-Brown said. "The avalanche center provides information of what is likely going to be a problem, but you have to be clued in to what to look for and make your own decision. In the science snow world what might be OK in one spot, if you go a short distance it could be totally different."
The eventual hope of the Center, he said, is to have a Forest Service-funded forecaster to supplement the work the volunteers do.
"We have a good relationship with the Forest Service, but as of now there is no financial support," Pridmore-Brown said. "We have been hoping they will provide a forecaster that works with the forest to provide danger scale warnings - red, yellow and green type warnings for potential avalanche danger."
To provide further information, the Center monitors two remote weather stations, on Mount Howard out of Wallowa Lake and another at Anthony Lakes in the Elkhorns. These are ridge-top, high-altitude stations that provide wind and temperature information for people in the backcountry, said Pridmore-Brown.
Like other centers without forecasters, the Wallowa Avalanche Center focuses on public awareness and education. At Salt Creek Summit outside of Joseph, a beacon park was installed a couple years ago - a combined effort of a variety of Wallowa County recreational nonprofits, said Pridmore-Brown.
He said an avalanche beacon is a low-power transmitter. When riding on the snow, everyone's beacon is on. When there is an avalanche, the beacons are switched to receive mode by those not caught in the snow slide. When an avalanche is zeroed in on, those buried can be found with the beacon signal.
"It sounds simple, but people need to get instruction on how to use them, then practice on a regular basis," said Pridmore Brown.
The beacon park provides people who have had training a place to go to brush up on their skills, he said. There are multiple burial scenarios that skiers and snowmobilers can practice to see how quickly they can find a single victim or a pair of victims.
The Center held a winter backcountry festival at Eastern Oregon University Feb. 14-16. Pridmore-Brown said the Center has a relationship with the university's outdoor program and offered Level 1 and 2 avalanche courses this year. He said it has also offered courses at Whitman College in Walla Walla, and University of Idaho students come to the Wallowas once a season for training, as well.
He said a big supporter of the Center is Anthony Lakes Ski Area nestled in the Elkhorn Mountains between Baker City and La Grande.
On Thursday, the Center joined up with other winter recreation nonprofits to sponsor the Frostbite Film Festival at Enterprise's OK Theater that featured backcountry movies, raffles, auctions and food.
For more information visit www.wallowaavalanchecenter.org.
Dave Clemens has crossed Wallowas 7 times in winter
By Jayson Jacoby
Dave Clemens knows about avalanches in the Wallowa Mountains.
He has skied across their remnants.
He has seen the shattered subalpine firs left in their wake.
On one especially memorable occasion he listened, stunned into silence by the immense and dispassionate power of nature, as an avalanche careened down Jackson Peak, a distinctive thumb of rock that juts from the ridge separating East Eagle Creek and the South Fork of the Imnaha River.
For nine consecutive winters, starting in 1982, Clemens and his friend, David Petrie, embarked on one of the more daunting journeys possible in Oregon: a midwinter trip on skis across the Eagle Cap Wilderness, the state's largest.
Seven times they made it, twice accompanied by Clemens' wife, Sue.
But in two other winters Dave Clemens and Petrie turned back, fearing the weather or, worse yet, the risk of avalanches.
Clemens, who's 76, lives near Richland.
He moved to eastern Baker County in the 1970s and met Petrie, an Idaho Power Co. employee who had lived in the area since 1967.
On their first crossing of the Wallowas, in January 1982, Dave and Sue Clemens and Petrie skied very near where last week an avalanche killed backcountry skiers Jake Merrill, 23, of Bellingham, Wash., and Shane Coulter, 30, of Seattle.
Merrill worked as a guide for Wallowa Alpine Huts of Joseph, and Coulter was one of six clients on a five-day skiing trip in the Wallowas.
Dave Clemens said that when he heard about the avalanche, and where it happened, he immediately remembered skiing across the steep terrain near Little Eagle Meadows.
"I had a lot of empathy for what was going on, and I was hoping for the best," Clemens said. "I've been through there in winter several times, and it's risky."
Clemens said he and Petrie had an advantage that guides and their clients don't always possess: flexibility in scheduling.
"We would always wait for that high-pressure system that usually comes in late January," Clemens said. "If we had that, and stable snow conditions, we would go."
Then, too, Clemens had considerable experience traveling in the mountains during winter. Before moving to Baker County he climbed extensively in the Cascades, making many winter ascents.
Yet Clemens emphasizes that neither experience nor knowledge insulates a backcountry skier from risk.
Indeed, he said, nothing can do that.
"It doesn't mean you're going to avoid every danger," Clemens said. "Accidents happen."