PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — An avalanche in the Wallowa Mountains of eastern Oregon killed two backcountry skiers and seriously injured two others Tuesday, officials said.
Low clouds and poor visibility grounded a rescue effort for the injured skiers late Tuesday night, Baker County Undersheriff Warren Thompson said. Two medics were with the man and woman.
Four unhurt skiers from the party of eight were being brought out by snowcat, a large tracked vehicle that can maneuver on snow. Thompson said the four were being taken to the small town of Halfway, about 10 miles from the avalanche site.
The snowcat was unable to reach the injured skiers because of the incline of the slope they were on, the undersheriff said. The injured woman suffered two broken legs and a shoulder injury while the man had a broken thigh bone, Thompson said.
Two National Guard helicopters, one each from Oregon and Idaho, planned to overnight at the Baker City airport and hoped to resume rescue efforts at first light Wednesday, Thompson said. Ground rescue crews were also working to get closer to the site.
Most of the skiers were from the Seattle area. Officials weren't releasing names until relatives could be notified.
The avalanche hit at about noon Tuesday as the eight skied in the remote and mountainous area near Cornucopia, Baker County Sheriff Mitch Southwick said in a statement.
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 are 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.
The deaths mean at least 12 people have died in avalanches nationally this season, including six since Sunday. Kevin Kuybus, 46, of Highlands Ranch, Colo., was found dead Tuesday after an avalanche outside a Colorado ski area. Another avalanche near Kebler Pass, Colo., killed a snowmobiler Monday, and two people died in slides in Utah over the weekend.