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Date: 2009-03-07
Submitted By: WWAN
Place: Eagle Cap Wilderness
State: OR
Country: USA
Fatalities: 1
Summary: 3 skiers caught, 1 partially buried, one buried, one buried and killed

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Avalanche victim recovered from wilderness

By Kathleen Ellyn

Wallowa County Chieftain

Updated 4:58 p.m., Tuesday, March 10, 2009

A search and rescue team made up of professional skiers, a medicine woman, and the widow of the man killed in an avalanche over the weekend skied out of the Eagle Cap Wilderness Tuesday afternoon, March 10, pulling the sled bearing the body of Roger Roepke.

Roepke, 50, of Enterprise, an experienced backcountry skier, was killed when a quarter-mile-wide slide at 8,000 feet in the Aneroid Lake Basin just below Pete's Peak buried him, his 15-year-old son Erich Roepke and another skier, Don Woodhouse, 52, of Brush Prairie, Wash.

Erich Roepke was buried up to his neck and quickly rescued by other members of the group. Woodhouse was located and dug out within 30 minutes, according to sheriff's reports. Sheriff Fred Steen reckoned that Woodhouse survived because there was a small air pocket in the snow when he was buried.

Roger Roepke was located too late and despite 90 minutes of life-saving effort, rescuers were unable to revive him.

The men were part of a nine-member group that had gone up to the remote area Thursday, March 5, intending to return to Joseph on Sunday, March 8.

The surviving skiers made it out of the wilderness within hours of the event. A recovery team of 13 skiers left Monday to retrieve the body and study the avalanche site. Woodhouse, who is fire captain of the Vancouver Fire Department in Washington and a former ski instructor and ski patrol member on Mount Hood, was part of the retrieval team that included Ropke's wife, Lisa.

The Eagle Cap Wilderness as seen across frozen Wallowa Lake, March 9. The rugged wilderness is a beacon for backcountry athletes and vacationers throughout the year, and the site of the Eagle Cap Extreme Sled Dog race which is renown as the "toughest course in the lower 48." The avalanche site is behind the mountain (Mt. Bonneville) in the center of the photo.

The nine-member ski group that was vacationing in the area at the time of the slide was returning from Pete's Peak (elevation approximately 9,000 feet), descending to the Aneroid Lake Cabins where they had been camping and were approximately one-half mile down (vertically) from the ridge when the avalanche struck.

"They had taken reasonable precautions prior to embarking on the trip, including digging a snow pit to examine the snow layers, and had determined the avalanche danger was moderate," Wallowa County Search and Rescue director Steve Rogers told the Chieftain.

The remote area is accessed by hiking and skiing from the trailhead at the end of Powerhouse Road on the south end of Wallowa Lake. The ski group went up the steep 7-mile trail on Thursday, March 5, led by Aneroid Lake Cabin caretaker Dennis Lund. Private groups with the permission of the owners regularly use the cabins, which are held privately by Halton Tractor of Portland.

"It's a normal occurrence for people to go up there and camp and back-country ski," said Wallowa County Sheriff Fred Steen. "This group was very professional."

Steen reported that the two survivors of the slide, Erich Roepke and Woodhouse, were the ones who skied "extremely fast" down to the head of the trail and called the sheriff's department to report the accident at 11 a.m. Sunday. Cell phone service is not available in the backcountry area and some satellite phones do not work either. Police and Search and Rescue in Wallowa County use a Sprint satellite.

Sheriff Steen praised the recovery group. "This is the first time to my knowledge we've used professional skiers from the area and beyond and it's just worked perfectly," he said "Hopefully, if we have something like this again we can call on these people. It couldn't have worked out better."

Lisa Reopke said that the retrieval team was her support system and called the experience of retrieving her husband's body "the most profound experience of my life." The stunning beauty of the harsh landscape that killed her husband moved her, she said. "I thought, no wonder he came out here. It was a perfect place."

Ferguson Ridge Ski Patrol and other professional guides have issued a warning for all backcountry skiers to "please be careful and prepared," said Rodgers. "They cornered me this morning and made sure I would ask the press make this warning public," he said. "They want people to know that the avalanche danger is very, very high. Rescue beacons are highly recommended."