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Mistake on the Mile

Kim Fuller
Special to the Daily
The group looks down at Ptarmigan Ridge before they dropped. Intending to do the Minturn Mile, four members of the group made a wrong turn and ended up in the Two Elk Creek drainage.
Justin Dinardo | Special to the Daily |

VAIL — Many Vail skiers and snowboarders know about the Minturn Mile. It’s an out-of-bounds, backcountry run, accessed from the side of Vail Mountain, offering a varying, intermediate bowl and tree terrain.

With so many people dropping in to ride the Mile these days, it’s imperative to go with someone who knows the route well. One wrong line can take you into a place you don’t want to be, and a potentially very dangerous situation.

Jan. 7

In whiteout conditions, Jesse Froeschle, of Vail, and his three riding partners didn’t realize they were starting to drop toward the far bowl leading to the Two Elk Creek drainage, south of the Mile route.

They moved down toward the bowl that resembles the Minturn Mile, carving through piles of untouched powder. In minutes, they reached a flat creek bed gully with deep snow. The valley walls had 60-degree-plus, avalanche-prone inclines.

Unable to move quickly, they grouped together, found a sheltered spot under a large rock and created a plan of action.

Luckily, the group still had cell phone service and were able to make contact for help and share their location. As the afternoon light began to fade, they relied on a topographical map and a headlamp to gradually locate a route down the makeshift passage into Minturn.

With the map, the group maneuvered back and forth across the river, evading cliffs, fallen trees and large holes, staying together in a close formation.

Froeschle stayed serious and urgent, while another member of the four-man group helped to keep everyone’s spirits up. One of them had a good knowledge of the backcountry, which kept them all confident.

3:15 p.m.

Hours earlier, the group of four stood with two others on the top of Ptarmigan Ridge on the edge of the Vail Mountain boundary, ready to drop in toward the Mile.

“We discussed our route plan and who had any experience with the route,” said Vail resident Justin Dinardo. “As I looked up after stepping into my board, everyone just started down the ridge.”

The front four riders dropped left, and Dinardo and his girlfriend dropped right.

“She had done the Mile once before, and headed right toward the area we had discussed, and the way she had gone before, and the way I intended us all to go,” he said. “Right from there is where we all split.”

After warming up their cold, shutdown phones, Dinardo made contact with Froeschle, who shared the information needed to access his Find My iPhone app, which pinpointed their location. Dinardo sent Froeschle a digital topographic map of the area.

“From there we were able to track their progress, which allowed us to feel comfortable about the situation as well,” Dinardo said. “We were in cell range almost the whole time. The group themselves felt as though they had enough supplies to spend the night, and could be comfortable with that if it came to it.”

Rescue scenarios aren’t uncommon in the mountains, and both Dinardo and Froeschle are very familiar with this reality. In just moments, a comfortable situation can become unsettled, and quickly become dangerous, even deadly.

In October of 2014, they lost a good friend, Jarod Wetherell, to a series of wrong decisions on a steep face of North Maroon Peak, outside of Aspen.

After Wetherell’s death, Dinardo and friend, Bobby L’Heureux, co-founded Big Heart Big Hands, a nonprofit founded to support awareness of mountain safety and education, to raise money for mountain rescue organizations and to assist with funding for those who have been rescued and their families.

Lessons learned

Through conversation, teamwork, calculated decisions and maybe even some help from Wetherell’s own big hands, Froeschle’s group made it out of the Two Elk drainage at about 8:30 p.m., with extra assistance from a snowmobiler who became aware of their location and picked them up, one by one, at the bottom of the drainage.

Froeschle said even through the hard, humbling choices — like when the group had to turn around and redo a decision when it proved dangerous — they stuck together to keep one another safe, calm and on the right path.

For more information on Big Heart Big Hands, visit http://www.bigheartbighands.org.


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