JOSEPH — Every winter the remote mountains of Northeast Oregon draw backcountry skiers and snowmobilers from around the West. For the last 10 years the Wallowa Avalanche Center has been winter enthusiasts' best resource for avalanche danger and snow conditions.
Through the center's website, advisories are posted once or twice a week. Victor McNeil, the center's director, also is one of three avalanche forecasters in the region.
"We are going out as much as we can to as many areas as we can," McNeil said.
While the center has been around for 10 years, Connelly Brown, owner of Wallowa Alpine Huts and progenitor of the center, said it is not supported by a U.S. Forest Service employee, a requirement for an avalanche center to issue danger ratings.
"The closest official center is the Northwest Avalanche Center in Seattle, which covers the whole coastline and the Cascades down into Oregon, but our snowpack is different over here," Brown said.
Richard Delbert Stephens, 33, of Haines, was snowmobiling with friends and relatives Saturday afternoon in the Elkhorn Mountains when an avalanche struck. The mass of snow trapped Stephens. He died at the scene. The other three riders were not harmed.
Wallowa Alpine Huts serves the northern and southern Wallowa Mountains and hosts nearly 500 skiers a year. Brown said typically when a backcountry skier looks at the homepage of an avalanche center, most of the polygons that outline an avalanche center's region are colored. The polygons outlining the terrain forecasted by the Wallowa Avalanche Center is gray and outlined in blue, indicating there is information for that area but no color-coded rating, such as green indicating low danger while red indicating a high danger.
Brown said most of the ski community that flocks to Northeast Oregon is from outside the area and is used to the color-coded rating — and need to read the advisories and observations carefully.
"Because we can't post the color-coded system, skiers have to read the conversation on our website, which takes more participation and afterthought," Brown said.
Skiers and snowmobilers also will call outdoor recreation retailers that sell Oregon Sno Park permits, like Outlaw Motorsports in Enterprise, to get the local snow report.
Dustin and Lorien James run the family-owned business and are both experienced snowmachine riders.
"Our mission is to increase snowmobile users' knowledge of avalanche danger, which is prevalent in our area," Lorien James said.
The Jameses said they are a sponsor and supporter of the center. For the past three years, Lorien James led a ladies snowmobile ride that culminates in a dinner with auction and raffle items bringing in more than $2,000 — all donated to the center.
James said they also support the center's training sessions.
"We participated in their first companion rescue course on this side of the mountain and we are looking to do some for Wallowa County Search and Rescue. It only does so much good to wear the beacon — if you don't know how to use it you are screwed," James said.