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New Avalanche Center Opens After Tragedy

Oregon's Wallowa Avalanche Center opened this fall as the Wallowa Mountains' first-ever avalanche forecaster. If only it'd been open one year ago, it could have saved one man's life.

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“It was an awesome day. Perfect powder,” says 16-year-old Erich Roepke, recalling the morning that an avalanche buried and killed his 50-year-old father, Roger, in Oregon’s Eagle Cap Wilderness.

A day earlier, the Roepkes and their family friend, Don Woodhouse, had dug a snow pit and determined Lookout Mountain’s east-northeast-facing Shoulder Bowl was safe to ski. Avalanche certified and equipped with avy gear, they felt confident in their decision. There was no local avalanche center to tell them otherwise and they skied the slope without incident that day.

But snow packs are delicately balanced. High winds, spatial variability, elevation, and even shadows can affect their stability. The trio didn’t dig multiple pits on the hike up the following day as the first pit’s results gave them a sense of false security, said Dale Atkins, vice president for the Avalanche Rescue Commission at the International Commission for Alpine Rescue.

Besides, last season’s deadliest avalanche cycle had already passed—a four-week-long period, starting in December, where deep-slab avalanches occurred with alarming regularity throughout the West. The snow had stabilized in February and more people were skiing in the side and backcountry without incident. Still, by the time the snow had melted, 54 people, including Erich’s father, would die in North America.

The next day, on March 7, 2009, the mountain unleashed a 400-foot-wide avalanche that tore down 620 vertical feet in seconds, taking Erich, his father and Woodhouse with it. Erich was trapped beneath hundreds of pounds of snow with his head and part of his right arm visible. He hollered for his father and Woodhouse.

No one answered his cries. Woodhouse was buried inches below the surface, conscious but unable to respond, and Erich’s father lay further downhill, suffocating, five feet below the snow’s surface. Six backcountry skiers witnessed the slide and quickly rescued Erich and Woodhouse but, due to beacon error, it took them roughly 90 minutes to locate and recover his father’s body and start CPR.

“I was thinking anything could work. Just keep working, something will work,” Erich said. “Thirty minutes later, we decided to stop.”

Back in Enterprise, Oregon, Roger’s wife, Lisa Armstrong-Roepke, said she was worried but it wasn’t until the next day that she learned her husband had died in an avalanche. Lisa, Woodhouse, their close friends and a SAR team headed into the mountains to collect her husband’s body, a risky endeavor given that there was no local avalanche center to forecast how the conditions had changed.

Almost one year later, and with a heart that’s not quite fully healed, in an effort to honor Roger’s legacy, Lisa and her sons donated $1,000 to Wallowa County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue to help create the Wallowa Avalanche Center, the region’s first-ever forecast center to help outdoor enthusiasts, like her late husband, become better aware of day-to-day snowpack conditions.

“With an increasing number of winter visitors enjoying the Wallowa Mountains and the Eagle Cap Wilderness, there is a critical need for an efficient way to share information about backcountry conditions,” said Keith Stebbings, director of the center.

Lisa hopes that before other locals head into the backcountry, they’ll check the web site to read about the snowpack conditions.

“Roger’s legacy is in the forefront of everything Erich and I do,” she said. “He was a very cautious person; not a risk-taker, particularly when our children were involved. He skied the backcountry nearly every weekend. If there had been an avalanche center when he was alive, he would have used it.”