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 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."
By Elane Dickenson and Kathleen Ellyn
Wallowa County Chieftain
The friends of Roger Roepke, who died in an back country avalanche near Aneroid Lake Saturday, were already mourning his loss this week, even as many of them were still involved in the recovery of his body Tuesday afternoon.
As Roger's wife of 20 years, Lisa, stood at the trailhead surrounded by the recovery crew she had accompanied, she was able to smile and said that the Monday trip up to the basin had brought her closure. "We can't know the future, we can only know the moment and Roger lived it fully," she said. "I was so blessed to have that man in my life. I called my Dad and he said, 'I can't imagine this happening in any better place. I know I don't need to be there this minute because you have the arms of the county surrounding you.'"
Family friend Charl Whiting, manger of Wing Ridge Ski Tours, stood at Lisa's side. "He will be missed by a lot of people," Whiting said. She recalled that Roepke and his family had been drawn to the rugged wilderness of the county and skiing in it. "He loved it so much," she said.
It was on a ski tour of Wing Ridge that Roger Roepke met Don Woodhouse, the man who, along with Roepke's son Erich, was buried in the same avalanche, but survived.
Whiting said Roepke, often working alongside son Erich, 15, helped her often, working to keep theWing Ridge huts in shape. The other members of the family, Roger's wife, Lisa, and son, Kyle, 13, also sometimes helped out.
Whiting said that the Roepke family "just jumped in and got involved" in community life after moving to the county.
"They are a very strong, close-knit family," said Whiting. "Roger was adored by his sons."
Roger was well known as a very cautious man, said his wife Lisa. "He was my rock," she said. "He was the most cautious skier people knew. He was the most cautious driver. He told me "I ran out of fun tickets when I was 18." My dad said Roger was one of the most cautious people he knew. He would never take Erich any place dangerous."
The Roepke family has already talked about revisiting the Aneroid Basin in the summer, Lisa said. "What took place up there in the basin was interesting on many levels," she said. "There is a quote that is a favorite of mine. "When we come to the end of all that we know, we will be given earth to stand on or wings to fly." In that basin, I knew Roger flew."
The Roepke family moved to Enterprise from Reno, Nev., in 2006. "We were looking for a place in the Northwest - a place where the boys could ride their bikes on their own and have the sense of freedom that Lisa and I grew up with," Roepke was quoted as saying in a 2007 Wallowa County Chieftain story. "We shortened our commute as well, and now it's 60 seconds by bike."
Roepke brought his Black Rock Engineering business with him from Reno, and he and his wife also had a second business, Sol Shelters, specializing in solar homes. They recently moved their office from the EM&M building in downtown Enterprise to their house.
The family enjoyed bicycling, as well as skiing, and Roger and his sons recently worked at the Cycle Oregon event.
Lisa Roepke is a member of the Ferguson Ridge Ski Patrol and also a member of the Chief Joseph Summer Camp.
"He was a great guy," said Ralph Swinehart of Wallowa Mountain Engineering about Roger Roepke, who was both a "friendly rival" and a neighbor. Swinehart said that the Roepkes were in the process of remodeling a house they bought on Alder Slope, just down the road from him on Black Marble Lane.
Two spiritual supporters accompanied Lisa Roepke as Roger was brought home to Enteprise, conducting ceremonies both at the basin and at the trail head. Friend and medicine woman Laurel "Windspirit" Sander, of Windspirit Wellness Retreat in Sheep Creek conducted the service for Roger up in Arenoid Lake Basin.
"Roger is what I call the 'warp' of a rug," she said. "He's not the weft, he's not the colors, he's the warp and he touched every one of us and it's those threads that hold the whole community together."
The service at the trailhead was conducted by Joe McCormick of Enterprise.
"We can't know the future, we can only know the moment and Roger lived it fully," Lisa Roepke said. "I was so blessed to have that man in my life."
Among other volunteer activities Roepke and his family were involved was helping build bleachers at the Tamkaliks grounds in Wallowa.