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Thursday, January 17, 2019

By Craig Welch, The Seattle Times

SEATTLE — More than 24 hours after a 1,000-foot-long avalanche killed two in their party, a pair of severely injured backcountry skiers from Washington were plucked from the slopes of the Wallowas in Eastern Oregon on Wednesday.

During a frustrating, snowy day with low visibility, volunteers on snowmobiles, rescue crews on skis and in a Sno-Cat, and National Guard troops in helicopters struggled most of the day to figure out how to get the victims out of the backcountry and to a hospital.

After an unusually dry winter in much of the West, that same heavy snowfall is making for ever more treacherous conditions just as a holiday weekend approaches and outdoor enthusiasts finally see fresh powder piling up in the mountains.

“We’re definitely worried about the next few days,” said Scott Schell, program director for the Northwest Avalanche Center in Seattle. “We’ve got really dangerous conditions out there right now.”

In Colorado, Utah and Oregon, six people died in avalanches in five days. A father and son were injured Tuesday in a smaller slide just outside the ski area at Stevens Pass.

The Northwest Avalanche Center has issued a “range-wide” high avalanche warning throughout the Cascades in Washington and expects it could remain in place through the weekend. Even as the center’s experts have been out testing conditions, they’ve triggered small slides in normally mellow terrain.

“We have very atypical conditions right now,” Schell said. “There are a handful of weak layers that lie within the snowpack that were developed in this dry high pressure. And we’re getting a ton of new snow on top of that, which is kind of a recipe for avalanches.”

While snow conditions are vastly different between the arid cold Rockies and the moist Cascades, many places across the West are seeing similar high risks, with tons of fresh snow piling on top of weak layers. Some resorts in Colorado have seen 5 or 6 feet or more of new snow in just four days.

“We’d had a lot of snow come down over the weekend and another 8 inches fell while they were out there,” since the accident, Baker County Undersheriff Warren Thompson said of conditions in the Wallowa Mountains.

Details of precisely what happened during Tuesday’s deadly avalanche in northeast Oregon are still unclear.

But the Sheriff’s Office and the Wallowa Avalanche Center said a party of eight skiers, including two guides from Wallowa Alpine Huts in Joseph, Ore., were on a multiday backcountry skiing trip. The entire group was from Washington, and all were experienced skiers.

The Sheriff’s Office said the group was also experienced at digging test pits and evaluating avalanche terrain.

The slide hit near Little Eagle Creek, near Cornucopia Mountain in the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, about noon Tuesday. Thompson said the fracture occurred above the skiers and above the 7,200-foot level, carrying snow about a fifth of a mile.

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