S’mass miscue leaves tourists out in the cold | AspenTimes.com
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S’mass miscue leaves tourists out in the cold

John Colson

Seven tourists spent the night huddled around a campfire in the rain and snow in the West Willow Creek valley Wednesday night after skiing off the backside of Snowmass Ski Area late in the afternoon and getting lost.

The tourists, some of whom only had T-shirts on, walked out on their own steam Thursday morning, soggy and scared but otherwise all right, after getting directions by cell phone from Rick Deane of the T Lazy 7 Ranch. The ranch sits at the mouth of the Willow Creek drainage where it joins Maroon Creek.

“So far as I knew, there was no medical emergency,” said Pitkin County Deputy Sheriff Mario Strobl, who talked by cell phone with one of the group, a man named Joe Marshall, Wednesday evening.

Marshall was one of three men who skied off the backside of Snowmass around 2 p.m. The three were reportedly here to participate in the 12th annual North American Police Ski Championships.

The identities of the other two men were not available from police Thursday, and none of the three had provided a statement to police as of Thursday evening.

Wednesday night, the initial group of three was soon joined by four younger men, three snowboarders and one skier, who had followed some snowboarders’ tracks off the backside. Marshall told Strobl he could see the second group approaching, and Strobl suggested the groups join forces and hang out for the night.

The families of the younger members of the reluctant camping party, all from New Jersey, spent a night of desperate worry, though they did have information that their sons – Kenneth Burkhardt Jr., 19; Christopher Burkhardt, 16; Ryan Lugo, 17; and Michael Gervasoni, 16 – were not in any danger.

“My God, frantic, shaking, crying,” was the way Joanne Burkhardt described her night wondering whether her sons were injured or worse. “I’m still a wreck.”

The kids, however, seemed none the worse for the ordeal, although Ken Burkhardt said it was “cold, miserable and wet” all night long.

“The first words out of my son’s mouth were, `It was awesome,'” said Al Lugo.

He added, “I don’t want to condone behavior of this kind in any way.” But he was smiling when he said it.

Lugo called police Wednesday night and learned that a group of lost skiers had reported in by cell phone. But no firm descriptions were available at that point, and the lost skiers were not expected to call police again until the next morning.

“We didn’t even know if they were our kids until 6:30 this morning,” Lugo said.

Another parent, however, said he was fairly confident the kids were the ones known to the sheriff’s office, since no one else had been reported lost.

The group was made up of males ranging in age from 16 to 30, according to Pitkin County sheriff’s deputies, and some of them were dressed for warm spring weather. One of the young men was wearing only a short-sleeved T-shirt, while a couple of others had long-sleeved T-shirts.

Strobl said he urged the group to find a place to build a snow cave and wait out the night, since it was not expected to get very cold.

He said the Willow Creek drainage is treacherous terrain due to tree falls and undergrowth. After consulting Mountain Rescue Aspen and the Snowmass Ski Patrol, it was decided the best course of action would be for the group to simply wait out the night and come out when it got light.

But instead of making a snow cave, the group decided to spend the night on a rocky ledge where there was no snow, building up a fire to stay warm.

Ken Burkhardt Jr. said the younger ones hunted around for firewood and got the fire started. They kept the fire alive despite rain and snow, and in the morning the group walked out together.

“To get out, I just followed the cat tracks,” said Burkhardt, explaining that he spotted the tracks of a mountain lion heading down the valley floor.

He said that coming out, his skis would sink deep into the snow, making the trek very difficult and tiring. He added that “for the other guys [on snowboards] it was even worse.”

Asked why he and his friends went off the backside of the ski area, Burkhardt said they were at the top of The Cirque thinking about what to do next and, “Two old guys, in their 50s or something, said, `Oh, it’s fine, go on down.'” So he and his compatriots headed through the gate at the top of The Cirque intending to ski around to the Big Burn or The Wall.

But they traveled too far down to make the traverse back to the ski area and ended up heading into the West Willow drainage. Burkhardt said that at one point they stopped and made a ramp of snow and “had some fun doing some jumps,” before continuing their descent into the valley.

At one point the snow disappeared and they ended up on the rocks, tossing their ski gear ahead of them as they clambered down.

Their campsite, he said, was “a little farther west than the backside of Buttermilk. We watched the snowcats at Highlands all night.”

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