BAKER CITY, Ore-- Two skiers were killed and two injuried in an avalanche in the mountains of eastern Oregon Tuesday.
The skiers were part of a group of twelve guides and clients on a back country tour in the south Wallowa Mountains when they were caught in an avalanche around noon, according to Baker County Sheriff Mitch Southwick.
The area where the avalanche occurred is about 10 miles northwest of the town of Halfway.
The skiers were mostly from the Seattle area. Their names have not been released. A woman suffered two broken legs and a shoulder injury. A man had a broken thigh bone.
Southwick says four members of the group with rescuers were coming out on the ground. Six others spent the night on the mountain. The two deceased are also at the avalanche location.
Southwick says if the weather allows, an air rescue will be tried at first light. With the forecast calling for snow, the sheriff says ground rescuers are prepared to go as far as they can by snowmobile and snow cat, then snowshoe or ski to the steep hillside where the group is waiting rescue.
The Idaho Army National Guard reached the area Tuesday evening in hopes of airlifting the group but could not launch air rescue efforts due to weather conditions.
Southwick knew of no avalanche warning for the area where the fatal accident happened. He says the temperature is around freezing and that's much warmer than it's been.
Connelly Brown, the owner of Wallowa Alpine Huts, said the skiers were part of a backcountry skiing group organized by his Joseph-based company. The group included two guides and six skiers.
Brown said a guide contacted him by cellphone after the avalanche hit, reporting two possible fatalities and two skiers with broken legs. The skiers were on a guided five-day, four-night 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.
Brown said the clients and the guides were all "fit, proficient downhill skiers." The guides were certified by the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education and trained by the American Mountain Guide Association, he said.
"From the description, it sounded like they were traveling and the avalanche came from above and caught them by surprise," Brown said.
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.
A bulletin from the Wallowa Avalanche Center on Thursday warned that "new snow is not bonding well to the old surface." The bulletin mentioned a recent report from the southern Wallowas of a skier triggering a small avalanche in which no one was caught.