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Originally published February 13, 2014 at 8:37 PM | Page modified February 14, 2014 at 11:13 AM

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Seattle engineer, Bellingham guide ID’d as dead skiers in Oregon avalanche

The two skiers killed Tuesday in an avalanche in Oregon’s southern Wallowa Mountains were identified Thursday.


Seattle Times staff reporter

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Two skiers killed Tuesday in an avalanche in Oregon’s southern Wallowa Mountains were identified Thursday.

Shane Coulter, 30, of Seattle, and guide Jake Merrill, 23, of Bellingham, died when the avalanche came down on a group of six skiers and two guides, according to the Baker County, Ore., Sheriff’s Office. Two other skiers in the group suffered broken bones and remain hospitalized at a Walla Walla hospital.

Thursday, relatives and friends described Coulter and Merrill as experienced skiers who were well-versed in outdoor safety. Coulter, who worked as an engineer for Atkins, a global aerospace firm in Kirkland, had skied all his life, according to Nelda Oldham, the grandmother of his wife. His wife, Laurel, had an injured foot but otherwise would have gone along on the five-day trip through the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest backcountry.

“Shane was very intelligent,” said Oldham, who lives in Bakersfield, Calif. “I don’t think he would have embarked on that tour unless he thought he could handle it.”

Oldham called the Seattle resident, who met his wife when they were both engineers at Boeing, a “wonderful young man.”

“I know that is easy to say when someone has lost their life, but he really was,” Oldham said. “He was great.”

Merrill was a guide at Wallowa Alpine Huts, the ski outfitter that organized the trip. He grew up in Bellingham and had recently graduated from the recreational-education program at Western Washington University, where his mother is a faculty member.

Merrill was a practical joker, said Dan Carlson, general manager at Backcountry Essentials, where Merrill had worked for two years. Employees at the Bellingham store knew not to leave their Facebook profiles open, or Merrill would write all kinds of funny posts.

“Man, what do you say about a guy that everybody likes?” Carlson said. “He was an incredible human being.”

Merrill was trained as a skiing guide, Carlson said, and was knowledgeable about safety when traveling through the backcountry. He had also worked as a guide at Mt. Baker Mountain Guides in Bellingham. The guide service lost a “promising young guide,” it wrote on its Facebook page.

“May your next adventure be as wild, ridiculous, and exciting as the last,” the post said.

The two skiers who were injured remain in satisfactory condition Thursday.

Susan Polizzi, 60, of Wenatchee, had two broken legs and a broken arm. She survived, in part, because of help from a ski guide who “scarcely left her side” and the rescuers’ skills, she said in a statement Thursday.

Bruno Bachinger, 42, of Snohomish, suffered a broken thigh bone, and released a statement thanking those who rescued them.

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.

The other four members of the party who escaped injury were identified as Allen Ponio, 36; Raymon Pinney, 32; and Quinton Dowling, 26 — all off Seattle; and Chris Edwards-Hill, of Enterprise, Ore. Edwards-Hill was the second guide.

Information from The Associated Press and Los Angeles Times was included in this report.

Paige Cornwell: 206-464-2530 or pcornwell@seattletimes.com



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