BAKER COUNTY, Ore. -- Two skiers from Seattle were killed and two others were seriously injured in an avalanche in eastern Oregon Tuesday, according to the Baker County Sheriff’s Office.
The avalanche occurred around noon near Little Eagle Meadows, in the southern Wallowa Mountains near Cornucopia. The area is about 10 miles northwest of Halfway.
Baker County Sheriff Mitch Southwick said a Life Flight helicopter was dispatched to rescue survivors, but the helicopter could not get any closer than about a half-mile away from the scene.
According to Southwick, the skiers were part of a group of 11 guides and clients, who were on a guided multi-day trip.
Southwick says they were all skiing together when the avalanche hit. Two people were killed and two others suffered broken bones.
Southwick said one survivor used a cell phone to report the avalanche. He went on to say that three members of the group are now with rescuers, and are coming out on the ground, while six others will be spending the night on the mountain. Those who died remain at the avalanche location.
Connelly Brown, the owner of Wallowa Alpine Huts, said the skiing trip was organized by his Joseph-based company.
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.
Colonel Tim Marsano with the Idaho Army National Guard says around 4:45 p.m one helicopter was launched with four soldiers on board, to provide airlift support to the Baker County Sheriff's Office. Once the helicopter arrived on scene, they had to return to Baker City to fuel up and then had to postpone the rescue operation due to weather coming in. So they were not able to get rescue anyone.
Snowy conditions are making the rescue effort dificult. Crews are working to get to them Wednesday morning.
Major Steve Bomar with the Oregon National Guard says they have an aircraft on standby, and if the Sheriff's Office needs additional assistance, the aircraft will be launched. Bomar also goes onto say that the original call came into the Oregon National Guard, but due to location the Idaho Army National Guard was dispatched.
Southwick did not know of any avalanche warnings in the area where the accident happened, but he says the temperature is around freezing and that it has been much warmer than it has been.
The names of those in the skiing group have not been released.