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Avalanche victim credits guide for her survival

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) – A backcountry skier who suffered two broken legs in a deadly avalanche credits much of her survival to the guide who “scarcely left her side” as they waited roughly 30 hours for rescuers to overcome dangerous conditions and remove her from the slope.

A specific account of the tragedy in Eastern Oregon’s Wallowa Mountains has yet to be released, but Thursday’s statement from Susan Polizzi was the first word from any of the surviving skiers.

In a statement read by a hospital spokeswoman, Polizzi, 60, emphasized the need to be well prepared when entering the wilderness and praised the “skills and the multitude” of rescuers who wrapped her and another injured skier in blankets and brought them to safety on sleds connected to a snowcat and a snowmobile.

The avalanche that killed two men struck Tuesday as a party of six experienced skiers and two guides was on its third day of a five-day trek through the backcountry of the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest in Eastern Oregon.

Preliminary information shows the avalanche was triggered by skiers and started several hundred feet from the top of the 8,640-foot Cornucopia Peak, according to the Wallowa Avalanche Center. The avalanche traveled 1,200 feet, putting the skiers at an elevation of more than 7,000 feet. It caught five of the skiers, injuring or killing four of them.

Rescue crews battled heavy snow, strong winds and natural avalanches to eventually reach Polizzi, from Wenatchee, Wash., and Bruno Bachinger, 40, of Snohomish, Wash., who also broke a leg. Both were listed in satisfactory condition at St. Mary Medical Center in Walla Walla, Wash.

The dead remained on the mountain late Thursday because the avalanche risk was too great for recovery teams. They were identified as Shane Coulter, a 30-year-old aerospace engineer from Seattle, and Jake Merrill, a 23-year-old guide from Bellingham, Wash.

Coulter was a skier all his life, said Nelda Oldham of Bakersfield, Calif., whose granddaughter married him. He earned a master’s degree last year from the University of Washington.

“Let me just say this: I know it’s very common for people to extol the virtues of people when they die. This kid was extraordinary,” Oldham said. “He was modest, humble, real brainy. He was just extraordinary.”

Added Oldham: “We’re just all devastated. It’s just a great loss, and I doubt my granddaughter will be even able to talk to anyone.”

Merrill studied outdoor recreation at Western Washington University, where he graduated in 2013. Besides working as a guide, he was also employed as a sales associate at Backcountry Essentials in downtown Bellingham, The Bellingham Herald reported.

“Jake was a very energetic and charismatic person,” co-worker Josh Atkins told the newspaper. “He was one of those you were just drawn to. I’m sure everyone who met Jake fell in love with him almost instantly. He always brought a smile to my face.”

The other four members of the skiing party escaped injury and safely left the mountain. The Baker County Sheriff’s Office identified the skiers, all from Seattle, as Allen Ponio, 36; Raymon Pinney, 32; and Quinton Dowling, 26. The second guide, Chris Edwards-Hill, of Enterprise, Ore., assisted the injured and later received help from three other guides from Wallowa Alpine Huts _ the outfitter that organized the trip.

Avalanche risk has been high in the West after heavy snow intruded on a relatively dry winter. The deaths brought to 12 the number of people killed in avalanches nationally this season, including six in the West since Sunday.


Follow Steven DuBois at Associated Press writer Phuong Le in Seattle contributed to this report.

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