Watertown Daily Times - 3/4/2014
Family retraces some of mountain climber’s last steps
BY SAMANTHA CHRISTIAN
Every parent wonders what their child is up to on New Year’s Eve, but Renee and Peter VonRueden, of Clyman, had an extra reason to worry that night.
Their 22-year-old son, Jarod, was not out partying like most young adults. Instead, he was more than 5,000 miles away climbing a mountain in Argentina.
This was not Jarod’s first time on a mountain or going on any adventure, for that matter. He previously scaled Mount McKinley, climbed in Ecuador and Mexico, backpacked through the Grand Canyon, learned Mandarin in China and biked to the West Coast. He was aspiring to climb Mount Everest.
“He just assured me that he would be OK, and I would worry the whole time he was gone,” Renee said of each trip he took.
In December 2013, Jarod and his climbing partner, Francis Keenan, 28, of Pennsylvania, had been hiking and climbing Mount Aconcagua, which has the highest peak in North and South America at nearly 23,000 feet.
But when Jarod’s rescue beacon was activated on Dec. 31, 2013, his parents began to fear it was not pressed by accident – something was wrong.
After waiting days to hear if the climbers had been spotted on the mountain, the families were notified Jan. 5 confirming their worst fear: Jarod and Francis did not survive a fall just below the summit.
The last time Jarod’s family had contact with him was when he entered the mountain. He said he would lose phone reception and would be on the mountain for two weeks.
Sadly, both men remained there much longer.
Many factors contributed to the delay in retrieving their bodies, including difficult terrain, high altitude and uncertain weather.
For the next five weeks, the VonRuedens were in constant contact with the U.S. Embassy and made a connection with a local outfitter who was very familiar with the mountain.
The guide, Fernando Grajeles, flew over the mountain to obtain photographs of the location, which was at the bottom of a steep ravine of loose rock and ice on the Polish Glacier route.
Once their identities were confirmed, a recovery operation was performed on Feb. 17 by local park officials.
The next day Renee and Peter flew to Argentina. They were later joined by a representative of Francis’ family, with whom they had been collaborating through the whole ordeal.
The families had local legal representation so they could complete necessary, albeit tedious, paperwork to retrieve some of the men’s belongings, have them released from the morgue and returned home to the States. Maria de las Nieves Granata helped the VonRuedens navigate the bureaucratic system and interpret the language.
The VonRuedens traveled to Argentina not only to complete forms, but also to say their goodbyes and start to have closure.
With the help of Grajeles, they had the opportunity to fly over the mountain and retrace what Jarod did on part of his journey.
They were shown the park entrance, the first ranger’s station and a visitors center with a view of the mountain, along with where the men got their permits and mules.
Renee described the flight over the mountain as gorgeous. The helicopter dropped them off at base camp, called Plaza Argentina, where they enjoyed breakfast at a mess hall and were able to walk in some of Jarod’s footsteps.
This was the same location where Francis took a photograph of Jarod before they climbed to the mountain’s summit.
Although their backpacks, cameras and other gear may forever stay missing on the mountainside, a memory card from Francis’ camera was recovered.
“Frankie must have switched out his memory card the night before their last day, so we have pictures of their entire trip other than the very last day which is really, really nice,” said Renee.
After an emotional and exhausting weeklong trip, the VonRuedens spent their last day relaxing and sightseeing in the city of Mendoza.
“We were able to get a lot of peace and understanding of the mountain and people,” said Renee. “We always knew why Jarod did what he did: he loved to be adventurous.”
While they were there, the VonRuedens found out the park closed at the end of February when the winter season begins.
“We were within days of not being able to get into the park or possibly have them recovered. We were fortunate that everything lined up and worked out and we were able to bring them home. As much of a tragedy as it is, it could’ve been a whole lot worse. They could still be on the mountain or we could still be battling with the legal (system),” said Renee.
Since a memorial Mass celebrating Jarod’s life already took place in January, there will be no funeral service for Jarod when he returns.
The VonRuedens extended their sincerest gratitude to their family, friends and the community.
“We want to thank everyone for their prayers, thoughts and support. It’s been unbelievable and it’s truly appreciated. Without all of them, this would’ve been a lot harder,” Renee said.
The VonRuedens hope to use some of the generous donations they received through the Jarod VonRueden Benefit Fund at Chase Bank to establish a scholarship in Jarod’s name.
The scholarship would most likely be through Watertown High School, where Jarod graduated from in 2009, for someone in the area who could use a little help to further their education.
Jarod had not been on a traditional timeline as a student. After high school he spent two months bicycling from Wisconsin to the West Coast. He took flight lessons at Watertown Municipal Airport and got his pilot’s license when he was 17. He later bought his own plane and often flew up north, to the East Coast and even Seattle, Wash., before heading to Alaska for a summer where he attended National Outdoor Leadership School.
When he was not traveling, Jarod took classes at University of Wisconsin-Baraboo, UW-Waukesha and obtained his emergency medical technician certification at Madison College. He later joined the Lebanon EMS as an EMT and started paramedic school last fall.
Renee said his career aspirations seemed like a logical fit with who he was – full of adrenaline, adventure and compassion.
“He was a very giving person and would help anybody,” said Renee.
His love of the outdoors began at a young age when he was a Boy Scout. As he got older he started hiking and rock climbing at Devil’s Lake, and he was always looking for the next challenge.
“He loved it – the freedom, the peacefulness and the challenge. He was very free-spirited and driven. He knew who he was and what he wanted, and he stayed true to himself. He wasn’t going to conform to what people wanted him to be. If he had an idea, there was nothing there to stop him. He went for his dreams,” she said.
Along the way he became friends with many interesting people, some of which Renee had never met until they approached her at the memorial service and told her stories of their travels together.
“When he became a young adult he spread his wings and (they) took him a lot of places a lot of us will never see. We all get caught up in our day-to-day routine, and unfortunately we kind of have to in order to make ends meet,” said Renee.
Although the last few months have been very difficult on the VonRuedens, Renee said she realizes there is always someone who has it worse, even though it is sometimes hard to see.
“I think everybody has rocks in their road of life and some rocks are just bigger than others. You find strength between friends and family and God, and you just take one step at a time and make it through each hour and each day and it will get better. Just lean on friends and family and let them help and you’ll make it,” she said.
The VonRuedens invited friends and family of the two climbers to light a lantern in their honor and release it at exactly 7:15 p.m. on New Year’s Eve 2014, exactly one year after Jarod’s beacon was activated. Those who participated posted photos and videos on Facebook, using the hashtag #forjarodforalways.