Backcountry fatality first in a decade in Oregon mountains

Roger Roepke

The massive avalanche that killed Roger Roepke and buried two other people March 7 as they were skiing in a remote area of the Eagle Cap Wilderness had the power to bury a car. That is one of the few findings being released by avalanche experts as they piece together what happened in the first avalanche death in Oregon in a decade.

The U.S. Forest Service will release its findings in a few weeks, according to Roger Averbeck, the volunteer avalanche researcher who will write the report. What is known at this point is Roepke was killed by the sort of avalanche that claims the most lives nationwide - a slab avalanche.

According to Connelly Brown of Wallowa Alpine Huts, who is also on the investigative team, the Aneroid Lake Avalanche was about 400 yards wide and slid approximately 1,000 feet. It has received a 3.5 danger scale rating as devised by the American Avalanche Association, "Which means it could bury a car," Brown explained. "A 4-scale avalanche would bury a train car. The silver lining here is that even though there was one fatality, two persons were dug out and survived this avalanche."

Slab avalanches occur when a fracture in the snowfield occurs and a "slab" of newer snow slides over a weaker layer of snow.

Wallowa County does not have it's own forecasting center for skiers, but Brown's commercial site offers a link to the SNOTEL weather report as well as a weather forum created by experienced ski guides as they return from the area. One glance at the SNOTEL report will make it clear that only people with training could possible understand the information.

"One proof that you shouldn't be back there unless you've got some avalanche training," said Kelly Brown, co-manager of the backcountry ski company.

Skiers that use the weather forum site had been noting the "persistent weak layers" that indicated slab avalanche danger for some weeks, but also reported that with caution, good skiing could be had. On the day of the Aneroid Lake avalanche, The Friends of the Payette Avalanche Center, a volunteer-staffed avalanche information resource that issues danger classifications for the Hells Canyon area, had reported the avalanche danger in Aneroid Lake as "moderate."

"That's what makes it an accident," said Connelly Brown. "Despite known risks that can be managed, there's always that risk of unavoidable accident."

In fact, Wallowa County barely escaped a two-accident weekend. Skiers returning from another area in the Eagle Cap Wilderness reported a second skier-triggered avalanche in the Wing Ridge area west of Salt Creek Summit. No one was injured in the Wing Ridge avalanche, which was reported as being 30 yards across and running 600 feet down to the valley floor.

"What these incidents remind the land management agencies as well as ski communities of the Wallowa area is that we need our own ski forecasting center," said Brown. Because Wallowa County ski areas are mostly backcountry, it is likely any forecasting center would have to be public supported, he said. Most "model" forecasting centers are linked to large, commercial ski areas that are more easily monitored.

Avalanche conditions in Aneroid Lake Basin and throughout the area are now listed as "considerable" - which means that skier-triggered avalanches are likely, Brown said.

Although the recent fatality has brought concern over avalanches into high relief - Oregon has very few avalanche fatalities. The last fatal avalanche in the state took place in 1999 when a snowboarder triggered a slab avalanche near Spout Springs Ski Area in the Blue Mountains near Tollgate. No fatal avalanche has occurred in Wallowa County since the early 1980s. That fatal avalanche, which killed a woman from the Tri-Cities area, occurred in Aneroid Lake Basin, too.

All backcountry sportspersons realize their sport is dangerous, Brown said, and most accept the risk as part of the reality for any person who wants to experience nature in the raw - but few wish to take unreasonable risk. So, as the number of sports people using wilderness or wild areas increases, so have the courses in avalanche safety. Brown provides several avalanche safety courses each year at the start of the season and recommends backcountry skiers take those courses over and over.

"Even experienced people can find trouble," he said. "Training should be refreshed. There is new information and new techniques, technology and resources available every year. You can never over-prepare for these kind of activities."

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