PORTLAND — An avalanche Tuesday in the Wallowa Mountains of eastern Oregon hit a party of backcountry skiers, most of them from the Seattle area, killing two and injuring two others, officials said.
The avalanche hit at about noon as a group of eight was skiing in the remote and mountainous area. A news release from the Baker County Sheriff’s Office described the area as near Little Eagle Meadows, about 10 miles northwest of Halfway in the Southern Wallowa Mountains near Cornucopia.
Officials weren’t releasing the names or ages of the victims until family members could be notified.
The release said a LifeFlight helicopter had been dispatched to rescue the survivors but could not get closer than a half-mile from the skiers. The Idaho Army National Guard also sent up an aerial reconnaissance helicopter. Baker County Sheriff Mitch Southwick said the Oregon National Guard had sent a helicopter, too. Low cloud cover and the 7,000-foot elevation made the rescue more difficult.
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The helicopters were grounded Tuesday night because of bad weather, Undersheriff Warren Thompson said.
Connelly Brown, the owner of Wallowa Alpine Huts, said the skiers were part of a backcountry skiing group organized by his company based in Joseph, Ore. The group included two guides and six skiers.
Two medics were with the injured skiers Tuesday night as rescue efforts continued. A woman suffered two broken legs and a shoulder injury while a man had a broken thigh bone.
Brown said a guide contacted him by cellphone after the avalanche hit, reporting two possible fatalities and two injured skiers. The skiers were
on a guided multiday trip, he said.
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. The unhurt skiers were at a nearby cabin, Thompson said.
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,” said Brown, adding he did not know the exact location where the avalanche hit.
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.
Backcountry skiing has gained popularity in recent years, said Oyvind Henningsen, a safety instructor and volunteer with Everett Mountain Rescue, and that has increased the need for avalanche safety.
“There is a saying that there are no new avalanche accidents, only new victims,” he said. “It seems like accidents repeat themselves.”
Outdoors enthusiasts should take an avalanche-safety course, monitor avalanche reports and watch for signs of unstable snow to avoid getting caught in an avalanche, he said. Avoiding steep terrain is a significant safety recommendation as slopes angled at 30 to 45 degrees frequently produce avalanches.
“Of course, those are also the slopes that skiers love to ski on,” Henningsen said.
Seattle Times staff reporter Paige Cornwell contributed to this report.