David Petrie skies across a steep slope near Little Eagle Meadows in the 1980s. (DAVE CLEMENS photo)
Dave Clemens knows about avalanches in the Wallowa Mountains.
He has skied across their remnants.
He has seen the shattered subalpine firs left in their wake.
On one especially memorable occasion he listened, stunned into silence by the immense and dispassionate power of nature, as an avalanche careened down Jackson Peak, a distinctive thumb of rock that juts from the ridge separating East Eagle Creek and the South Fork of the Imnaha River.
For nine consecutive winters, starting in 1982, Clemens and his friend, David Petrie, embarked on one of the more daunting journeys possible in Oregon: a midwinter trip on skis across the Eagle Cap Wilderness, the state’s largest.
Seven times they made it, twice accompanied by Clemens’ wife, Sue.
But in two other winters Dave Clemens and Petrie turned back, fearing the weather or, worse yet, the risk of avalanches.
Clemens, who’s 76, lives near Richland.
He moved to eastern Baker County in the 1970s and met Petrie, an Idaho Power Co. employee who had lived in the area since 1967.
On their first crossing of the Wallowas, in January 1982, Dave and Sue Clemens and Petrie skied very near where last week an avalanche killed backcountry skiers Jake Merrill, 23, of Bellingham, Wash., and Shane Coulter, 30, of Seattle.
Merrill worked as a guide for Wallowa Alpine Huts of Joseph, and Coulter was one of six clients on a five-day skiing trip in the Wallowas.
Dave Clemens said that when he heard about the avalanche, and where it happened, he immediately remembered skiing across the steep terrain near Little Eagle Meadows.
“I had a lot of empathy for what was going on, and I was hoping for the best,” Clemens said. “I’ve been through there in winter several times, and it’s risky.”
Clemens said he and Petrie had an advantage that guides and their clients don’t always possess: flexibility in scheduling.
“We would always wait for that high-pressure system that usually comes in late January,” Clemens said. “If we had that, and stable snow conditions, we would go.”
Then, too, Clemens had considerable experience traveling in the mountains during winter. Before moving to Baker County he climbed extensively in the Cascades, making many winter ascents.
Yet Clemens emphasizes that neither experience nor knowledge insulates a backcountry skier from risk.
Indeed, he said, nothing can do that.
“It doesn’t mean you’re going to avoid every danger,” Clemens said. “Accidents happen.”