Wallowas get new avalanche center

wallowa1Skiers bound for Eastern Oregon’s hidden gem known as the Wallowa Mountains can add the newly created Wallowa Avalanche Center (WAC) to their list of resources.  Until now, avalanche conditions in the Wallowa Mountains were not officially monitored and the nearest center to the Wallowas was the Payette Avalanche Center in Idaho.

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 new Wallowa Avalanche Center.  “We intend to bring online by this winter a Web-based tool anyone may use to gather weather data, learn the latest snow conditions, and to report the conditions they observe for others who may follow. We also will be offering avalanche safety courses or links to them.

The fledgling WAC received a start-up boost in the form of a donation from the family of a local skier who died in an avalanche in the Wallowas last winter. On March 7, 2009 a quarter-mile wide slide released on three skiers near Lookout Mountain in the Eagle Cap Wilderness. Roger Roepke, 50, died while his 15-year old son and another skier escaped serious injury. Roepke’s death was the first avalanche fatality in the Wallowa Mountains since 1982. Roepke’s wife, Lisa Armstrong-Roepke, was interested in supporting local search and rescue efforts in her husband’s name and was connected with the group launching the new avalanche center.

Keith Stebbings, director of the new center, brings many years of backcountry travel experience and avalanche safety training, including work as a contract field observer with the Utah Avalanche Center, to the WAC Director position.  Stebbings is joined by a board of five other skiers including Roger Averbeck, founder and former owner of Wing Ridge Ski Tours in the Wallowas and several advisers including Don Sharaf, of Driggs Idaho. Sharaf, a professional member of the American Avalanche Association, has spent years guiding, forecasting and teaching in Alaska and the Tetons and brings a wealth of professional avalanche experience to advising the new center. The new center is a 501c3 non-profit, but it is not affiliated with the United States Forest Service (USFS). According to Stebbings, the forest service is receptive to the new center, but there is no official relationship with the USFS at this point in time. This year the center will provide online weather data resources, a field observation forum and resources for avalanche education, but the center will not issue avalanche hazard forecasts at this time.

Connolly Brown, owner/operator of Wallowa Alpine Huts (WAH) is excited about the new center. Brown says, “Destination travelers, the majority of Wallowa backcountry skiers, will greatly benefit from WAC’s mission. Brown and his crew at WAH will play an important role in the WAC as it is outfitters like WAH who will be providing weekly snowpack data from various micro-regions in the Wallowas.

In addition to data provided by local outfitters, WAC will collect and present data online from numerous SNOWTEL weather data sites. Stebbings hopes to be able add additional weather stations and wind sensors in the future including the possibility of a new site at Salt Creek Summit. Fund raising efforts for the Wallowa Avalanche Center are ongoing and resources will be directed toward more features on the center’s Website, installing weather station instrumentation and developing an observer network. www.wallowaavalanchecenter.org