Men still skiing together in Aspen 26 years after cliff rescue |

Men still skiing together in Aspen 26 years after cliff rescue

From left, Scott Suomela, Bob Johns, Terry Farrugia and Tom Dermody pose near the Sundeck on Aspen Mountain on Friday
Karl Herchenroeder/The Aspen Times |

A week after 12 people were cited in Snowmass for skiing closed terrain, a group of four friends returned to Aspen with memories of their own out-of-bounds excursion in 1979, when they were trapped above a cliff for hours at Aspen Highlands and subsequently fined $2,000.

In March 1979, the four friends from Michigan skied out of bounds near Picnic Point on the Olympic Run and headed toward Maroon Creek Road. They expected to find fresh powder, as they had done earlier in the season while out of bounds, but instead ran into a series of unskiable cliffs. Because of the steepness of the slope and snow conditions, they weren’t able climb back to the ski area, according to an Aspen Times article published March 8, 1979.

“We got to the end of a cliff and it was obvious we didn’t know whether it was 3 feet or 300 feet, so we just kind of froze and started screaming,” Tom Dermody, who was 21 at the time, said Thursday. “It was too much snow, so we hunkered down and built a shelter for ourselves.”

Two of the skiers, 20-year-old Terry Farrugia and 21-year-old Scott Suomela, weren’t wearing jackets, as it had been around 50 degrees that day. To keep warm, the group unsuccessfully tried to burn money and travelers checks. Sometime between 4 and 5 p.m., the group was able to get the attention of a cross-country skier in the valley below, who reported the incident to T-Lazy-7 Ranch. With Mountain Rescue Aspen performing a separate operation, a group of about 20 men with Aspen Highlands Ski Patrol responded.

“It was like a miracle,” Suomela said. “We’re sitting there freezing our ass off, hugging each other.”

“Making deals with the devil,” Dermody added.

“And all of a sudden, we see a light coming from behind us, and we look up, and lo and behold there’s two skiers with miners’ lights on their head and great, big packs coming down the freaking hill coming toward us,” Suomela said.

Farrugia said the patrollers passed zero judgment on his group and couldn’t have been nicer. According to Suomela, the fourth member of the group, 21-year-old Bob Johns, asked patrol if a helicopter was coming.

“That’s when the guy goes, ‘You’re going over the cliff,’” Suomela said.

Three of the rescue crew members belayed the group of friends with ropes and got them out of the backcountry around midnight. According to the article, mountain manager Don Robinson lamented the fact that the crew had to perform such a risky rescue in darkness and questionable conditions. Ski patrol later forwarded an itemized list of expenses the group, which totaled about $2,000. Farrugia and Dermody, who were living at the Silverking apartments during the season, also had their passes pulled. However, the group remembers negotiating the amount to around $1,000.

On Thursday, Johns brandished an Aspen postcard he found recently at his mother’s apartment in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

“I had the worst run of my life last night,” Johns wrote to his mother the morning after. “It was eight hours long and unbelievable, so don’t worry. I’ll tell you more about it when I get back home.”

Face to face with the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office on the night of the incident, Farrugia and Dermody tried to convince officials they were only visiting.

“We still had Michigan driver’s licenses,” Farrugia said. “We just played the tourist card.”

But when they tried to use their ski passes again, they didn’t work. Soon after, Farrugia and Dermody went to California on a road trip, and Johns and Suomela returned to Michigan for school.

Though Farrugia and Suomela live in Michigan, Johns is in Castle Rock and Dermody is in Monument, the four have stayed close friends over the years. They’ve returned to Aspen a handful of times, either together or on individual trips.

“We all ski together still,” Dermody said.

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