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Eastern Oregon Avalanche Forecaster Killed in Slide

Gunsight, as seen from the drone angle (below). Photo: Screenshot

The Inertia

Most of the Western United States has experienced huge snowfall totals in late February and early March. The storms have blessed ski resorts with much-needed snow, but they’ve also made the backcountry treacherous in places. Places like the Eastern Oregon mountains, where on Wednesday, March 6,  Nick Burks, an avalanche forecaster for the Wallowa Avalanche Center, was killed in a slide off Gunsight Mountain, which sits above the Anthony Lakes Ski Resort in the Elkhorn Mountains.

The crown jewel of the peak is Gunsight Couloir, a steep, off fall-line chute which runs majestically down the face of the mountain’s north side and can be seen while riding up the Anthony Lakes chairlift. Western Idaho and Eastern Oregon skiers and riders have, for years, coveted the couloir as a classic in the region. And it’s been known to slide, with the outrun tumbling into a forested area below the Gunsight bowl.

Apparently, Burks was knocked off his feet by a slide during the descent and was killed from trauma as the avalanche pounded him against terrain features and presumably trees.

“At approximately 4:30 p.m. on Wednesday, March 6th, an avalanche accident occurred on the north side of Gunsight Mountain (8342′) in the Elkhorn Mountains near Anthony Lakes,” wrote the Wallowa Avalanche Center. “We are deeply saddened to announce that Nick Burks passed away due to trauma after triggering an avalanche while backcountry skiing with a friend. Nick was an avalanche forecaster for the Wallowa Avalanche Center.  A full investigation and report will be forthcoming in the coming days.  Our backcountry community is small and we understand the tremendous grief many are experiencing. Our thoughts and prayers go out to all affected.”

The Wallowa Avalanche center covers a wide swath of rideable zones including the Elkhorns, which are on the southern side of Interstate 84 northwest of Baker City. The Wallowa Mountains are on the north side of I-84, and rise up above the Snake River forming the Oregon/Idaho border. There are several hut skiing options in the range that attracts skiers and riders from all over the West.

This isn’t the first time the Wallowa Avalanche Center has lost one of its forecasters. In 2016, Boise, Idaho native Kip Rand was killed in a slide while skiing Chief Jospeh Mountain in the Wallowas. Rand was the avalanche center’s director at the time of his death.

Burks was well respected in the community and had worked in snow safety at Mt. Hood. Burks, 37, was skiing with another experienced rider, William Sterling Sloop. Sloop told authorities that he rode the chute first. Then watched from the bottom as Burks took off on his line. An avalanche apparently triggered above him and overtook him. Sloop found Burks quickly, pinned next to a tree, given that Burks had released his avalanche airbag.

Burks was reportedly not buried and CPR was unsuccessful. He died at the scene.


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