By Jeff Barnard Associated Press
GRANTS PASS, Ore. — Wrapped in blankets and tucked into rescue sleds, two backcountry skiers with broken legs, a Snohomish man and woman from Wenatchee, were towed Wednesday out of a remote spot in the Wallowa Mountains of northeastern Oregon where an avalanche killed two of their companions. The bodies were left behind until the risk of another avalanche subsides.
Rescuers labored through the day with ropes and other gear to get the man and woman off a steep slope where they spent a cold and snowy night, Baker County Undersheriff Warren Thompson said.
The survivor’s sleds were hitched to a snowcat and a snowmobile that hauled them to the community of Halfway, more than 10 miles away, Thompson said. An ambulance took them another 10 miles over roads to the community of Richland, where a break in the weather allowed a National Guard helicopter to meet them and fly them to Baker City. There, they were to be put on two helicopter ambulances and taken to a trauma center, either in Boise, Idaho, or Walla Walla.
The injured were among six skiers and two guides on the third day of a five-day trip through the backcountry of the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest when they were hit by an avalanche at about noon Tuesday, authorities said.
The victim’s names were not immediately released, but one of the dead was a guide and one was a client, Thompson said.
The bodies, which were not buried, were left at the site until it is deemed the snow is stable enough to return for them, Thompson said. All the rescuers and remaining survivors came out with the injured.
Rescue efforts were plagued all day by bad weather, which dropped 10 inches of snow and prevented two National Guard helicopters from reaching the avalanche site.
The helicopters had to return to Baker City for fuel and stood by in Halfway to make another attempt when the weather improved, Thompson said. A third helicopter took over flight duties, but weather once again prevented it from reaching the area.
Rescuers first reached the stranded skiers Tuesday but could not get them off the steep slope, so they stayed with the survivors. Three uninjured skiers were taken out late Tuesday by snowcat, Thompson said. Another search and rescue team was able to ride in about 8 miles Wednesday but had to finish the last 2 miles on skis and on foot. They used ropes and other gear to get the rest of the group up the slope to a flat area where the snowcat and snowmobile met them.
The Wenatchee woman suffered two broken legs and a shoulder injury, while the Snohomish man had a broken thigh bone, Thompson said. The four other skiers were from Seattle.
One guide was from Enterprise, Ore., and the other was from Bellingham.
The ski trip was organized by Wallowa Alpine Huts, an outfitter from Joseph that has been in business since 1980 without a fatality, said owner Connelly Brown. He said two more guides skied in after the avalanche to help with the rescue.
“Right now we are just really battling the weather and nature,” Brown said.
The avalanche came down from above the group on the third day of their trip, Brown said. The group had planned to sleep at the Schneider Cabin, a historic miners’ log cabin on the south side of Cornucopia Peak.
Brown said the guides were certified by the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education and trained by the American Mountain Guide Association, and the skiers were all fit and proficient.
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, snowmobilers, hikers and horseback riders.
On Feb. 6, the weekly avalanche bulletin posted online by the Wallowa Avalanche Center said 12 to 18 inches of new snow was not bonding well to the old snow, and there was a report in the southern Wallowas that a skier had triggered a small slide, though no one was injured, and more slides were possible.
Director Keith Stebbings said the all-volunteer center does not issue warnings, as some do, but had sent an investigation team to the site and interviewed survivors. The center would issue a report in a few days.
The deaths brought to 12 the number of people who have died in avalanches nationally this season, including six in the West since Sunday.