Avalanche buries skiers

The trailhead to Aneroid Lake Basin begins with this "road" and climbs approximately 2,000 feet to the basin, the site of last weekend's avalanche.<br><I>Photos by Kathleen Ellyn/Wallowa County Chieftain

A stunning day of backcountry skiing in deep powder turned deadly at approximately 1 p.m. Saturday when a massive slab avalanche swept down on nine experienced backcountry skiers in the Eagle Cap Wilderness, the Wallowa County Sheriff's Office said Monday.

Three skiers, including a father and son from Enterprise, were buried as they enjoyed a day of high-altitude skiing near the remote Aneroid Lake Basin in the Eagle Cap Wilderness. Roger Roepke, 50, of Enterprise died when the quarter-mile-wide slide at 8,000 feet buried him, his 15-year-old son Erich Roepke and another skier, Don Woodhouse, 52, of Brush Prairie, Wash., sheriff's deputies said.

Erich Roepke was buried up to his neck and quickly rescued by other members of the group and Woodhouse was located and dug out within 30 minutes, according to sheriff's reports. Roger Roepke was located too late and despite 90 minutes of life-saving effort, the skiers were unable to revive him.

The surviving skiers made it out of the wilderness, while rescuers were on the scene Monday trying to retrieve the body.

The group was returning from Pete's Peak (elevation 9,704 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," Search and Rescue director Steve Rogers told the Wallowa County 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. The group had planned to return to Joseph on Sunday, March 8.

The professional skiers that make up the retrieval group will have tough going getting up to the accident location, according to Rogers, because recent snowfall had made hiking very difficult. "We're still investigating the accident and we're expecting the 13-person retrieval to take at least two days," he said. "The slide is huge. Conditions are such that when we examined ways to go in to retrieve Roepke we determined that professional skiers was the only way to go."

The number of individuals on the rescue team is high so that rescuers can ski back as quickly as possible with teams trading off pulling the rescue sled.

Steen reported that the two survivors of the slide, Erich Roepke and Don 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. Woodhouse and a family member are on the retrieval team as well.

Roger Roepke and his wife Lisa and two sons, Erich 15, and Kyle 12, moved to Wallowa County in 2007 and quickly became part of the community through volunteer involvement in numerous community organizations, including the Chief Joseph Summer Camp and Ferguson Ridge Ski Patrol. Roger and Lisa Roepke owned and operated two businesses, Black Rock Engineering and Sol Shelters, which specialized in solar homes, in Enterprise. The Roepke's lived on Alder Slope and were in the process of remodeling a home on Black Marble Lane.

"They were just the nicest people," said Sheriff Steen. "This is such a tragedy."

"Backcountry skiing was a real passion of his," fellow engineer Ralph Swinehart said of Roger Roepke, a "friendly rival" with whom he'd worked on occasion. "I think he went up several times a year."

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."

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