Deadly Ore. avalanche leaves injured skiers stranded

Wednesday , February 12, 2014 - 3:59 PM

Jeff Baenen, Jeff Barnard, The Associated Press

GRANTS PASS, Ore. — Crew worked Wednesday to rescue two backcountry skiers with broken bones from a steep slope in northeastern Oregon’s Wallowa Mountains, after an avalanche killed two of the skiers’ companions and forced them to spend a cold and snowy night bundled in rescue baskets.

Baker County Undersheriff Warren Thompson said two National Guard helicopters, one from Oregon and one from Idaho, were turned back by snow that limited visibility. Efforts were focusing on getting the injured skiers out by ground to a command post 10 miles away in the remote community of Carson, he said.

The helicopters had to return to Baker City for fuel, and stood by about 10 miles away in Halfway to make another attempt when the weather improved, he said.

A search and rescue team was able to ride in about 8 miles by snowcat Wednesday, but had to finish the last 2 miles on skis and on foot, Thompson said. They were working on setting up ropes to get the injured off the steep slope.

The injured woman suffered two broken legs and a shoulder injury, while the man had a broken thigh bone, Thompson said. Three uninjured skiers were taken out by snowcat to the command post, but Thompson said he did not know where they went after that. The bodies of the dead were not buried, and would be removed after the injured were taken care of.

Six skiers and two guides from Wallowa Alpine Huts, an outfitter from Joseph, were three days into a five-day, four-night backcountry skiing trip on the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest when the avalanche hit at about noon Tuesday, authorities said. Most of the skiers were from the Seattle area. Their names were not immediately released.

The injured woman was from Wenatchee, Wash., and the injured man was from Snohomish, Wash., Thompson said. Four other skiers were from Seattle. One guide was from Enterprise, Ore., and the other was from Bellingham, Wash.

Two more guides skied in after the avalanche to help with the rescue, outfitter Connelly Brown said.

“Right now we are just really battling the weather and nature,” said Brown.

Brown said a guide contacted him by cellphone after the avalanche hit, reporting two possible fatalities and two skiers with broken legs.

The avalanche came down on the third day of the trip, Brown said. Later that night, as on previous nights, the group planned to sleep at the Schneider Cabin, a historic miners’ log cabin on the south side of Cornucopia Peak.

Brown said the clients and the guides were all “fit, proficient downhill skiers.” The guides were certified by the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education and trained by the American Mountain Guide 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.

The avalanche occurred in the southern part of the Wallowa Mountains, near the Idaho border. The Wallowas are known as the “Alps of Oregon.” With their rocky peaks and deep ravines, the mountains are popular with backcountry skiers, hikers and horseback riders.

A bulletin from the all-volunteer Wallowa Avalanche Center on Thursday warned that “new snow is not bonding well to the old surface.” The bulletin mentioned a recent report from the southern Wallowas of a skier triggering a small avalanche in which no one was caught. The avalanche center posted on its website Wednesday that it was sending a team to investigate the avalanche.

Elsewhere, Kevin Kuybus, 46, of Highlands Ranch, Colo., was found dead Tuesday after an avalanche outside a Colorado ski area. Another avalanche near Kebler Pass, Colo., killed a snowmobiler Monday.

The death toll includes two people who died in slides in Utah over the weekend. On Sunday, Ashleigh Cox, 21, of Colorado Springs, died after being caught in an avalanche while she was snowshoeing Saturday in American Fork Canyon. About 90 miles away in Sanpete County, Clint Conover, 36, died after being buried in a slide Sunday while snowmobiling.

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Associated Press writer Gosia Wozniacka in Portland contributed to this report.

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