By Steven DuBois Associated Press
PORTLAND — A backcountry ski guide and his client were identified Thursday as the people killed in an Eastern Oregon avalanche, while two of their rescued companions were recovering at a hospital after suffering broken bones and spending more than 24 hours stranded on a snowy slope.
Baker County Undersheriff Warren Thompson said the bodies of Shane Coulter, a 30-year-old aerospace engineer from Seattle, and Jake Merrill, a 23-year-old guide from Bellingham, remained on the mountain because the avalanche risk was too great for recovery teams.
The avalanche struck Tuesday as a party of six experienced skiers and two guides was on its third day of a five-day trek through the backcountry of the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest.
Preliminary information from the Wallowa Avalanche Center said the avalanche started about 440 feet from the top of the 8,640-foot Cornucopia Peak and traveled 1,200 feet. It took rescuers all day Wednesday to get the injured man and woman off the mountain amid heavy snow and poor visibility.
Thompson said the two were conscious before they were flown to St. Mary Medical Center in Walla Walla, . The injured woman, Susan Polizzi, 60, of Wenatchee, suffered two broken legs and a broken arm, while the man, Bruno Bachinger, 40, of Snohomish, had a broken thigh bone.
Kathleen Obenland, a hospital spokeswoman, said the two remained hospitalized Thursday in satisfactory condition.
Polizzi, in a statement released by the hospital, said she survived in part because of the efforts of a guide who “scarcely left her side” and the skills of the rescuers who brought her to safety. Bachinger also wrote a statement thanking rescuers.
The other four members of the party escaped injury and safely left the mountain. The sheriff’s office identified the skiers, all from Seattle, as Allen Ponio, 36; Raymon Pinney, 32; and Quinton Dowling, 26. The second guide, Chris Edwards-Hill, of Enterprise, Ore., assisted three other guides from Wallowa Alpine Huts who came to the rescue of the victims.
Coulter worked as an engineer and was a skier all his life, said Nelda Oldham of Bakersfield, Calif., whose granddaughter married him. He earned a master’s degree last year from the University of Washington.
“Let me just say this: I know it’s very common for people to extol the virtues of people when they die. This kid was extraordinary,” Oldham said. “He was modest, humble, real brainy. He was just extraordinary.”
Added Oldham: “We’re just all devastated. It’s just a great loss, and I doubt my granddaughter will be even able to talk to anyone.”
The website for the Mount Baker Mountain Guides said Merrill was a “true Pacific Northwest local” who had guided backcountry ski and mountaineering trips.
“On Tuesday, we lost a promising young guide and a wonderful man to an avalanche in the Wallowa Mountains of Northeast Oregon,” the group posted on its Facebook feed. “Rest in Peace, Jake Merrill.”
Merrill studied outdoor recreation at Western Washington University, where he graduated in 2013. Besides working as a guide, he was also employed as a sales associate at Backcountry Essentials in downtown Bellingham, The Bellingham Herald reported.
“Jake was a very energetic and charismatic person,” co-worker Josh Atkins told the newspaper. “He was one of those you were just drawn to. I’m sure everyone who met Jake fell in love with him almost instantly. He always brought a smile to my face.”
Avalanche risk has been high in the West after heavy snow intruded on a relatively dry winter. The deaths brought to 12 the number of people killed in avalanches nationally this season, including six in the West since Sunday.
A skier suffered minor injuries Thursday after being partially buried by an avalanche outside the boundaries of Sun Valley Resort in south-central Idaho. Officials said human-triggered avalanches were likely on wind-loaded slopes in the area.
The Oregon avalanche occurred in the southern part of the Wallowa Mountains, near Idaho. The Wallowa Avalanche Center warned a week ago that a foot or more of new snow was not bonding with old snow, and there was a report in the southern Wallowas that a skier had triggered a small slide and more were possible.