This article was taken from the Register Guard, a Eugene, OR newspaper, on June 13, 2000.


Family of college student journeys to site of his death

By The Associated Press

BOULDER, Colo. - Justin Colonna was just a few steps from heaven when he vanished during a snowstorm at 12,300 feet on a rugged Colorado mountain, his mother said.

Susan Lange said she thought of her son's favorite jazz song, "Seaven Steps to Heaven," when she and other family members hiked on Monday where the 23-year-old's body was discovered.

They left a pink, polished granite rock with his name on the spot where his head had rested on the ground.

"No one knows exactly what happened but we have more information," said Jerome Colonna, Justin's father. "I am going back to Redmond having had a chance to say goodbye."

Justin Colonna, a fifth-year senior at the University of Colorado, disappeared Dec. 18 while hiking near the South Arapaho Peak a few miles from the town of Eldora. He was last spotted by his hiking companion, Martin Saul, before an avalanche swept down the mountain, carrying Saul 30 feet and leaving him buried waist-deep in snow.

Searchers spent thousands of hours in recovery efforts, but probes, dogs and repeated ground searches were unsuccessful until a volunteer with the Rocky Mountain Rescue Group spotted the body on Saturday.

John Snyder said he found the body about 1.2 miles from the avalanche field after taking a new route and leaving the trail. he first saw part of the victim's blue jacket on rugged ground near a melting snow field. A closer inspection revealed the body.

Invesitgators with the Boulder County Sheriff's Department said Colonna had apparently avoided or survived the avalanche and died while trying to find shelter in a heavy snowstorm. He had climbed about 1,000 feet in elevation before he perished.

Initial autopsy results indicate Colonna died from exposure, Boulder County Coroner John Meyer said Monday.

Colonna's parents, who traveled from Oregon to Colorado after the discovery, said that they were relieved to learn that their son had a chance to fight for his life.

"He made a valiant effort," Lange said. "He had the courage to walk a mile and make it as far as he got."

Jerome Colonna, superintendent of schools in Redmond, said his son was an avid outdoorsman who spoke about finding peace in the high country and who spent his free time hiking, rock climbing and skiing.

"He died doing something he loved," Colonna said.

He said a memorial fund in his son's name was being created to pay for backcountry information signs and avalanche beacons to be used by area hikers.

Colonna said he hoped the community would learn from his son's death. He hoped hikers and skiers would become more aware of backcountry dangers and acquired a new appreciation for the precious quality of life.

He thanked the sheriff's department, the rescue groups and community members for supporting his family during the past six months.

"This is what has allowed our family to move forward," he said. "We leave Boulder stronger."

The Colonna family is planning to return to the mountain during July to bring friends and relatives to the site where Justin's body was found.

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