Jayson Jacoby
The Baker City Herald

Medics stayed with two hurt skiers after low clouds grounded helicopters

By the Baker City Herald staff

Two backcountry skiers, one a client from the Seattle area and one a guide from a Joseph company, were killed about noon Tuesday in an avalanche near Little Eagle Meadows, in the southern Wallowa Mountains near Cornucopia.

Two other skiers, also from the Seattle area, suffered broken legs in the slide.

Officials haven't released any names pending notification of relatives.

The area is about 10 miles northwest of Halfway, on a steep slope at an elevation of about 7,700 feet, Baker County Undersheriff Warren Thompson said this morning.

The group of eight - six clients and two guides from Wallowa Alpine Huts of Joseph - was caught in the avalanche.

The four who were not hurt were brought out of the mountains by a snow cat on Tuesday afternoon, Thompson said.

But the snow cat couldn't reach the two injured skiers, a woman in her 50s and a man in his 30s, because the slope was too steep, Thompson said.

Four people stayed with the two injured skiers overnight and constructed a shelter from a tent and snow to protect the group from eight inches of snow that fell overnight, Thompson said.

"They were still in a considerable amount of pain but they made it through the night OK," he said.

Two National Guard helicopters, one from Oregon and one from Idaho, were en route to the scene this morning with a goal of airlifting the injured skiers from the mountain, Thompson said.

"We're hoping to get a window of opportunity with the visibility to make the airlift," he said.

One Idaho National Guard helicopter and one LifeFlight helicopter tried to reach the area Tuesday afternoon but neither was able to land near the avalanche site due to the steep slopes.

Members of the Panhandle Snowmobile Club in Halfway also have assisted in the rescue effort.

Wallowa Mountain Huts runs multi-day backcountry skiing trips in the eastern and southern Wallowas. Clients stay overnight in yurts or a cabin.

Baker County Sheriff Mitch Southwick said one of the survivors was able to use a cell phone to call Wallowa Alpine Huts after the avalanche.

The company's owner, Connelly Brown, then telephoned police.

Brown said it appears the skiers who died are a man in his 20s and another man in his 30s.

Brown said the clients and the guides are all "fit, proficient downhill skiers." The guides were certified by the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education and trained by the American Mountain Guides Association, he said.

"From the description, it sounded like they were traveling and the avalanche came from above and caught them by surprise," Brown said.

According to a Feb. 6 bulletin from the Wallowa Avalanche Center in Joseph - www.wallowaavalanchecenter.org/ - snow that had fallen in the previous week "is not bonding well to the old surface down 12-18" where the new snow fell on weak loose grains. This problem doesn't exist everywhere and is mainly confined to more northerly aspects at mid-elevations. There was a recent report from the southern Wallowas of a skier triggered slab avalanche on this layer. No one was caught in this small slide, but there are places in the terrain where triggering a slide is possible."

That bulletin was issued before heavy snow fell on Friday and Saturday, Feb. 7 and 8.

The nearest snow-measuring site to the avalanche is the Natural Resources Conservation Service's Sno-tel at Schneider Meadows, about eight miles to the southeast and an elevation of 5,400 feet.

The Schneider Meadows Sno-tel recorded 11 inches of new snow from Friday through Sunday.

Keith Stebbings, director of the Wallowa Avalanche Center, will be involved in investigating Tuesday's avalanche.

The Avalanche Center issued a press release this morning: "The Wallowa and Elkhorn Mountains are currently in the midst of a widespread natural avalanche cycle due to the 2-3 feet of new snow in the last week, warming temperatures, and significant wind loading. Natural avalanches are initiating on multiple layers both within the storm snow and on the persistent weak layers deeper in the snowpack. The Wallowa Avalanche Center strongly recommends that backcountry riders make conservative safe route finding decisions and ensure that each member of the party is trained and equipped with an avalanche beacon, shovel, and probe."