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2 skiers rescued after Oregon avalanche; 2 bodies still on mountain

Avalanches and LandslidesArmy National Guard

Two skiers injured in an avalanche in the Oregon backcountry were in "satisfactory" condition with broken bones after about 50 rescuers labored for 16 hours to save them, authorities said Thursday.

Rescuers had to leave the bodies of two other skiers on the northeast Oregon mountain until the weather improves. Two to three more inches of snow were forecast for Thursday night.

Those killed were Jake Merrill, a 23-year-old ski guide for Wallowa Alpine Huts, and Shane Coulter, a 30-year-old aerospace engineer from Seattle who had been on the multi-day trip with five others, the Baker County Sheriff's Department said.

Merrill graduated last year from Western Washington University's outdoor recreation program, where his mother is a faculty member. She didn't immediately respond to a call for comment.

The Mt. Baker Mountain Guides mourned Merrill on its Facebook page.

"We lost a promising young guide, and a wonderful man," a note read. "Rest in Peace Jake Merrill. May your next adventure be as wild, ridiculous, and exciting as the last."

Coulter’s mother, Christine Helen Eaton, told the Los Angeles Times that the family was not prepared to comment. Coulter worked in Kirkland, Wash., for Atkins, a global aerospace firm.

Andrew Alexander, the company's aerospace director of operations for North America, said in a statement that employees were "shocked and saddened to have learned about" the death of the "talented engineer."

"It was a real privilege to have him on our team," Alexander said. "He will be greatly missed by us all, and our hearts go out to his wife and family."

The injured skiers, Bruno Bachinger, 40, of Snohomish, Wash., and Susan Polizzi, 60, of Wenatchee, Wash., were in satisfactory condition at Providence St. Mary Medical Center in Walla Walla, Wash., hospital spokeswoman Kathleen Obenland said. Bachinger had a broken bone in his thigh; Polizzi had broken legs and a broken arm.

They were trapped on the mountain for more than 24 hours, with four ski guides assisting them overnight Tuesday.

The 16-hour rescue began Wednesday near Cornucopia in the Wallowa Mountains. Rescuers carried the injured skiers for 2 1/2 miles, then used snowmobiles to tow them on sleds another eight miles. A snowplow cleared a road for ambulances to take the pair to an airfield. Helicopters belonging to the Oregon Army National Guard and Life Flight were waiting to fly them to the hospital.

Sheriff’s officials, a snowmobile club and National Guard members participated in the operation, which involved about 50 people, Undersheriff Warren Thompson told The Times on Thursday.

"It was extreme mountainous conditions, and if we would have had a window of opportunity, we could have used the air support from the beginning," he said.

The Wallowa Avalanche Center said nearly 3 feet of snow fell in the last week, followed by warming temperatures and strong winds, which led to Tuesday's 1,000-foot-long avalanche. The center recommended that skiers be conservative in their route selection.

As of Thursday evening, the two bodies remained on the mountain. Maj. Stephen Bomar, a spokesman for the Oregon National Guard, said the bodies might stay there for days or weeks because airlifts were not normally used for the dead in treacherous conditions.

"Unfortunately, you wouldn't risk someone's life to bring those down," he said. "Placing additional crews in harm's way is dangerous, but ultimately it’s the incident commander and the families’ decision," Bomar said, referring to the undersheriff.

Connelly Brown, owner of Wallowa Alpine Huts, told The Times that he would organize his own operation if authorities did not recover the bodies this week.

The skiers were on the third day of a five-day trip. They had been staying at a mountain cabin during the night.

Raymon Pinney, 32, Allan Ponio, 36, and Quinton Dowling, 26, were unhurt, as was guide Chris Edwards-Hill. None of them could be reached for comment.

Avalanches have claimed 12 lives nationwide this winter.

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