Bellingham man among two who died in Oregon avalanche

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDFebruary 14, 2014 

A Bellingham climber and skier is one of two people who died in an avalanche Tuesday, Feb. 11, on Wallowa Mountain in northeast Oregon, according to the Baker County Sheriff's Office.

On Thursday the local sheriff's office identified 23-year-old Jake Merrill as one of the people who died in the avalanche, along with Shane Coulter, 30, of Seattle.

Merrill was interning as a guide at Wallowa Alpine Huts ski outfitter and was on a five-day trek through the backcountry of the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, according to the Associated Press. He and another guide were leading six experienced skiers from Washington state on the group's third day of the trek when the avalanche struck the southern part of the Wallowa Mountains.

Preliminary information from the Wallowa Avalanche Center said the avalanche started about 440 feet from the top of the 8,640-foot Cornucopia Peak and traveled 1,200 feet. It took rescuers all day Wednesday to get the injured man and woman off the mountain amid heavy snow and poor visibility.

Two skiers in the group were injured in the avalanche - Susan Polizzi, 60, of Wenatchee suffered two broken legs and a broken arm, and Bruno Bachinger, 40, of Snohomish had a broken thigh bone. They were taken off the mountain in sleds pulled by snowmobiles Wednesday and then flown to St. Mary Medical Center in Walla Walla, where they remained in satisfactory condition Thursday.

Heavy snow and poor visibility delayed the rescue for the injured skiers. Recovery of the bodies of Merrill and Coulter has been delayed until conditions are safe.

Merrill grew up in Bellingham and studied outdoor recreation at Western Washington University, where he graduated in 2013. He worked off and on as a sales associate at Backcountry Essentials in downtown Bellingham.

"Jake was a very energetic and charismatic person," said Josh Atkins, who worked with Merrill at Backcountry Essentials. "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."

Atkins said he would miss Merrill's pranks most: Anyone who left their Facebook pages open and unattended around Merrill might end up with embarrassing posts. Aside from pranks and time spent with friends, Merrill was an outdoor enthusiast who loved skiing and climbing.

He did some guiding for Mt. Baker Mountain Guides, and owner John Minier described him in an email as a talented skier who was "contagiously happy" and lived life "one adventure after another."

"We would all be lucky to live as Jake did," he wrote. "His death is an enormous loss, and he will be remembered and missed by many in the community."

When Atkins started hearing rumors that Merrill had died in the avalanche, he didn't want to believe it, holding out hope until the sheriff's office confirmed Merrill's name Thursday.

"He was a really good man and he's going to be really missed," Atkins said.

Coulter, who also died in the avalanche, worked as an engineer and 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."

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.

A skier suffered minor injuries Thursday after being partially buried by an avalanche outside the boundaries of Sun Valley Resort in south-central Idaho. Officials said human-triggered avalanches were likely on wind-loaded slopes in the area.

Associated Press contributed to this report.

Reach Zoe Fraley at 360-756-2803 or zoe.fraley@bellinghamherald.com.

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