VAIL, Colorado — On Dec. 16, 2010, Cpl. Daniel Riley of the United States Marine Corps stepped on a bomb and lost his legs.
On March 11 of this year, Riley skied out of bounds from Vail Mountain to the town of Minturn on a “sit ski,” or monoski.
Determined to be the first person he had ever heard of to complete such a journey, Riley insisted on receiving minimal help along the way, aside from moral support and the occasional push from behind. No one followed him with a harness and ropes, and no one pulled him up the inclines in a snowmobile. He was joined by a group of five or so of his friends — they think it may have been a monoski first descent but they're not sure. Readers are encouraged to write in to the Vail Daily with any info on the subject.
First descent or not, Riley was elated to have completed the famed “Minturn Mile,” a treacherous, experts only out-of-bounds descent that includes sections of deep powder, windlips, tight trees, a stream crossing, a mudslide and a narrow, icy luge.
Here's his story.
‘Conscious the whole time'
Riley was never the daredevil type.
A Colorado resident since 1999, he's always been adventuresome but was never a diehard thrill seeker, he said.
He joined the Marines in 2006 to pay for college and on that fateful day in December 2010 he was on a routine foot patrol, clearing out a compound in Afghanistan. He was 25 years old.
“I stepped right on it,” he said of the improvised explosive device that left both his legs and the left side of his body mangled.
He remembers the entire ordeal.
“I stayed conscious the whole time,” he said. “I didn't pass out at all. They airlifted me out of there, flew me to the nearest base, and from there it gets a little woozy because they started drugging me pretty good.”
Along with his legs, his left arm and left lung were also badly wounded. He was close to death on several occasions, and after having both legs amputated above the knee, as well as three of his fingers on his left hand, he pulled through.
“They transferred me to the naval hospital in San Diego, where I started working on rehab, physical therapy and prosthetics,” he said. “The Navy has a recreational therapist, and winter came around and she said I should try this ski thing.”
The retired life
Riley said his first day on the monoski, which occurred in January of last year, wasn't exactly a life changing experience.
“I was a little apprehensive,” he said. “Not too thrilled about it.”
By day three he had a different take on the sport.
“I still couldn't ski very well but we were running around the mountain, posing for crazy EpicMix pictures, and it was enough to get me hooked,” he said. “Since then I've been just trying to find ways to get back to the mountain.”
Now fully retired from the Marines, people often ask him what he's “doing” now.
“I believe the term is ‘ski bum,'” he said with a laugh.
An official ambassador for the Vail Veterans Program, he said he owes a great deal of his newfound passion to the program.
“They got me on the mountain and taught me how to ski, and now they can't get me away,” he said. “And they do that for a lot of guys. It's a great program.”
Instructor Josh Perkins taught Riley the sport, and now Perkins and Riley are good friends.
Perkins was among those accompanying Riley down the Minturn Mile.
Under Perkins' tutelage, it didn't take Riley long to master the sport.
Riley ripped groomers last season, shredded powder here in Vail during December, but didn't start thinking about the Minturn Mile until January or so.
“A bunch of friends of mine were going to watch the ski joring competition in Minturn, and they said they were going to take the Minturn Mile to get there,” Riley recalled. “I was like hmmmm, I'll have to try that some time.”
And so began the obsession.
“I got it in my head and I just kept thinking ‘I want to do it,'” Riley said. “I had buddies who were doing it and I thought if they're doing it I should be able to do it ... Finally it was a Saturday, everyone was in town, and we just said ‘Let's do it Monday.' We didn't even consider the conditions or anything.”
Fortunately for Riley, the conditions weren't bad.
“We left from Game Creek Bowl, and it probably only took us another 5 minutes longer than most people just able-body walking up (Ptarmigan Ridge),” Perkins said. “We took turns pushing him.”
They were off to a good start, but it wasn't exactly smooth sailing from there.
“It was great up top, lots of fresh powder, some great turns,” Riley said. “Then I started breaking everything I have.”
He lost a few bolts along the way, broke one of his outriggers for his arms, and by the time he hit the notorious “Beaver Dam” section Riley was leaning to the right pretty severely.
“If he hadn't broken anything, we would've been down a lot quicker,” Perkins said with a laugh.
The Beaver Dam was snowed over, and Riley made it across without an issue.
“I let him cross on his own,” Perkins said. “I was just waiting there in case he went face down in the river.”
The mudslide detour — 20 feet of severely steep, brush-covered face with a 2-foot wide path along a river waiting as your only way out — held Riley up for a minute, but proved to be only a minor hangup.
Before embarking on the luge, Riley said he had heard good and bad things about the icy, narrow section.
“One way or the other I'm going to get to the bottom,” he said. “I always say I've been blown up, so what can this do?”
He skied it expertly, maneuvering from edge to edge in the same way a snowboarder might, and actually caught air off some of the little jumps in the middle.
Once at the bottom in Minturn, Riley, Perkins and company put Riley's monoski on top of the car they had waiting, and drove the quarter mile down the road to the saloon.
“One guy was out shoveling his driveway, and he saw the monoski on top of the car, dropped his shovel and just stared at us with an open jaw,” Perkins said. “Everyone at the Saloon said it was the first they'd ever heard of a monoskier doing the Mile.”
Riley was not paying for his own beer that night.
“Everyone in town was showing up, wanting to buy him a drink,” said Vail native Paul Agneberg, who encountered Riley and company while riding the Mile and accompanied them to the saloon. “The locals all said they had never heard of such a thing. It was a really cool vibe.”
Riley says even if it was a first descent, his goal-setting is far from finished as far as the Minturn Mile is concerned.
“I've done it, sure,” he said. “But now I want to come back without the equipment problems and really become the master of it.”
They transferred me to the naval hospital in San Diego, where I started working on rehab, physical therapy and prosthetics,