It’s been over a month since the news of former AS Outdoor Center Assistant Excursions Coordinator Jake Merrill’s death shocked and saddened the Western community.
Merrill was caught in an avalanche while backcountry skiing in Oregon. He graduated from Western in December with a degree in Outdoor Recreation and was interning as a ski guide for Wallowa Alpine Huts on the eastern-side of the state.
The avalanche occurred on the third day of a five-day trek in the Wallowa Mountains and also killed 30-year-old Shane Coulter of Seattle, as well as injuring two others.
“I don’t think I’ve ever lost a close friend like that to an avalanche. You hear about avalanches and deaths as a result of avalanche incidents and it doesn’t have the same impact as when it’s someone you are close with and know very well,” said Outdoor Center Assistant Excursion Coordinator Jason Davis, who had known Merrill since middle school.
Merrill was a Bellingham native and even attended the Child Development Center as a youngster. His mother Jill Hackerthorn is a senior instructor in the Physical Education, Health and Recreation Department. He also worked as a sales associate for local outdoor equipment shop, Backcountry Essentials and for Mt. Baker Mountain Guides.
During his time in the Associated Students, he worked with his fellow Outdoor Center staff members to make excursions as accessible as possible. Many incoming freshmen also had the opportunity to get to know Merrill while he worked as a WOOT [Western Outdoor Orientation Trips] leader.
“It was hard to come to terms with, for sure. It was hard to be here and in Bellingham and at Mt. Baker and all the places that I would run into him. The memories kind of stay in those places,” Davis said.
In the past month, the Outdoor Center staff has been working to memorialize him. Davis, along with OC Marketing Director Brian Bates, have been putting together three rentable avalanche safety equipment packs to incentivize avalanche education. The funding for the project was approved at the AS Board of Directors meeting on March 11.
“Right now, we have three avalanche beacons which were provided to us from the Suzie Green memorial fund which are designated to be rented to any student who has taken an Avalanche 1 class, so they can rent those beacons out for free. What we’re hoping to do is put together the entire package that you need for avalanche safety. So shovels, probes, and also backcountry skiing backpack with an airbag,” Davis said.
The avalanche airbag packs consist of a system produced by German company ABS and compatible backpacks made by Osprey. They function by increasing the skier’s volume when inflated during an avalanche, ideally causing the skier to float on top of the avalanche as it moves down the mountain. ABS claims that its system has a 97 percent survival rate to date.
“It’ll help incentivize avalanche education because you can say ‘hey, I can take this $225 course and have the opportunity to use this thousand dollar package for free,” Bates said.
The idea to put together the packs came pretty quickly after the OC employees were informed of Merrill’s death, Bates said.
“A lot of people deal with these things in different ways and we just instantly knew we had to give him some sort of everlasting presence in the Outdoor Center. This was just such a perfect project that Jake would have really supported,” he said.
In order to make the project happen, Davis put together an email talking about Merrill’s life, what he meant to the Outdoor Center and the importance of this effort to memorialize him. ABS responded within a day, and offered to provide the systems at a less than wholesale cost. Osprey, a company to which Bates has a close connection, also committed quickly.
Merrill’s legacy in the OC is one focused on positivity and education. Also a scholarship in Merrill’s memory, the Jake Merrill Outdoor Leadership Scholarship, has now been created through the Western Foundation.
“Jake was always smiling and always upbeat. He was an incredibly wonderful, goofy guy that brought an incredible energy to every interaction. He was a natural leader in a way because people gravitated to him and that positive energy, and it was easy to follow someone like that,” Davis said.
AS Personnel Director Nidia Hernandez remembers when she first met Merrill while recruiting for Spring Hiring in the Viking Commons.
“He went over to the cashier and was like, ‘Can I grab a plate of food?’ And they were like, ‘You’re already here, go for it.’ So he goes in and brings back a huge plate of just french fries and ketchup and puts it on the table between us,” Hernandez said.
His passion for his job, the outdoors and sharing the outdoors with others was evident, Hernandez said.
“He left us with this passion for [this work], at its most basic level. He wanted this to be a way for students and the Western community to experience the outdoors in the best possible way,” Davis said.
The packs will be available for rent through the Outdoor Center by next winter. The Outdoor Center is also looking to make patches saying “Ride For Jake” available for sale at its facility.