The last time someone died in an avalanche in Wallowa County was sometime in the early 1980s in late February or early March, according to photographer/outdoorsman Dave Jensen of Enterprise, who was involved in the recovery effort. "I'm sorry I can't pin it down exactly," he said.
"Given the level of activity (in the backcountry), it is surprising" that there haven't been more deaths, Jensen said. He added, however, that there have been a lot of close calls over the years that the public isn't aware of, lots of slides where no one was buried.
Jensen said that the 1980s tragedy involved a woman from the Tri-Cities, Wash., who was with a group of six or seven skiing in the Aneroid Lake area not far from the cabins, but on the opposite side of the cabins as Roger Roepke - who died in an avalanche in the same Aneroid area March 7.
Jensen said that the woman and her skiing partner were on a relatively easy slope but with a very steep slope above them. The victim was waiting in a what they felt was a relatively safe, level area with trees, while her partner traversed the slope, inadvertently triggering the avalanche. "She was in the worst possible spot, and was buried 6 feet deep."
Jensen said he had no personal knowledge of the Roepke mishap, and noted, "there is a lot of unpredictability with snow." He felt that there were some things the widely-separated avalanches had in common, namely that both victims were relatively experienced and carrying transponders - to help them be located faster in case of an avalanche - and that both incidents occurred following "a big dump of snow."
One of the close avalanche calls in Wallowa County was experienced by Sharon Nall of Joseph in late March 2002, when she suffered head lacerations and facial fractures from an avalanche in the Wing Ridge area, southeast of Joseph, while cross country skiing with a friend.
"I remember the feeling of the snow giving away," Nall was quoted in a Wallowa County Chieftain story. "I didn't know if I was going to live or die." Nall recalled traveling down the slope faster than she'd ever skied before, trying desperately to swim to stay on top of the snow. She survived the experience, but ended up spending two days at St. Marys Medical Center in Walla Walla, Wash.
Another local who knows a little about avalanches is Mac Huff of Joseph, a charter ski patrol member who attended National Avalanche School and taught local avalanche classes in the past.
While he does not have personal knowledge of the avalanche that took Roepke's life, Huff said that avalanche conditions have continued to worsen with very cold weather last week, followed by substantial snowfall. He gauged the present avalanche danger in the Wallowas as "very high."
"It's amazing to me that there hasn't been anyone killed in an avalanche here in the last 25 years," said Huff. "It's a real credit to the professional guides here."
"There's nothing hard and fast" about evaluating avalanche condition, Huff said. "You give it your best guess, based on what you know." He said even the avalanche control people who set off avalanches to protect ski areas sometimes miscalculate.