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2 US climbers presumed dead on Argentina mountain

  • Article by: DINESH RAMDE
  • Associated Press
  • January 8, 2014 - 4:50 PM

MILWAUKEE — Two men from Wisconsin and Pennsylvania are presumed to have died while climbing an Argentinian peak last week, their families said Wednesday.

Jarod VonRueden, 22, of Clyman, Wis., and Frank Keenan, 28, of Clarks Summit, Pa., were climbing Mount Aconcagua on New Year's Eve. The 23,000-foot peak is the highest in North and South America.

The U.S. Air Force told VonRueden's family on Dec. 31 that VonRueden's rescue beacon had been activated, said his cousin, Julie Feldman. VonRueden's parents said Feldman would act as the family spokeswoman.

Feldman said the family wasn't immediately sure how to interpret the news. Relatives speculated on different scenarios, from the possibility it was pressed in error to "something majorly wrong," she said.

Daily weather updates provided by the U.S. Embassy proved disheartening. Strong gales, bitter cold and stormy weather combined to make rescue efforts treacherous, they were told, and while relatives hoped for the best they began preparing for the worst.

By Sunday, the embassy told them rescue workers in a helicopter had spotted the climbers' bodies about 200 yards down in a fissure of rock and ice. Feldman was told the climbers were presumed dead and that it could take several days to recover the bodies.

Officials speculate that the climbers fell, Feldman told The Associated Press.

Keenan's mother, Diane Lozinger, said she had been told the two climbers reached the summit but had an accident on the way down and fell into a crevice. The deaths were difficult to grasp, she said, because Keenan had trained daily for years and focused specifically on rescues from crevices and survival techniques. A student at Johns Hopkins University, he hoped to work as a guide for international mountain climbers.

But Keenan also recognized the dangers in climbing, his mother said. She recalled stopping him for a kiss as he rushed out the door for this trip. He knew she was frightened.

"He said, 'If anything happens, just remember, I died doing what I loved,' " Lozinger said.

VonRueden was just beginning a career as an emergency medical technician, Feldman said. He always seemed to have an adventuresome spirit, but he developed a real passion for traveling after he finished high school in nearby Watertown, she said.

He backpacked in China and the Grand Canyon, he went mountain-climbing in Ecuador and he'd just scaled Alaska's Mount McKinley last summer, Feldman said. What people will remember about her cousin is that he lived life with passion, adventure and no regrets, Feldman said.

"He lived more in four years than most people do in their entire lives," she said. "He was an incredibly positive spirit. He always had a smile, an infectious energy. People just loved being around him."

Keenan and VonRueden met online after Keenan's regular climbing partners couldn't make the trip to Argentina. They grilled each other for months about their climbing experiences and training, knowing their lives could be in each other's hands, Lozinger said.

"You save your partner first. It's the rule of the mountain," she remembered her son telling her.

One of Keenan's usual climbing partners, Scott Borrillo, of St. Augustine, Fla., said they became fast friends after meeting on a climb at Mount Rainier four years ago.

"He was always one I would clip into," Borrillo said. "I just felt the safest with him. He was so passionate about mountain climbing — well, we all are — but he would live, eat and breathe it."

Borrillo said he and Keenan were part of a group that took a two-week trip to Ecuador in January 2012 to climb three mountains, especially Mount Chimborazo, the highest mountain in the country. They got only halfway up before a storm forced them to turn back.

Keenan obsessed over not being able to scale the peak, so he went back alone the next year, hired a local guide and reached the summit.

"Climbing was his passion," Borrillo said.

Feldman said there were no immediate funeral plans until the bodies were recovered. She said donations to support the recovery efforts could be made at any Chase Bank under the Jarod VonRueden Benefit Fund.

© 2014 Star Tribune