WINTER PARK - As the intensive search for missing snowboarder Jeff Miller approached its third day, volunteer Bret Statezny, standing in a line of searchers, took a few steps and found the popular 26-year-old Fraser man.
"On my third step, I probed and found him," said Statezny, who did not know Miller, during a gathering of mourners at Ullrs Tavern in Winter Park on Wednesday.
"I walked away and let his friends dig him out."
The search ended Wednesday at 10:20 a.m. in the area where Miller was last seen below the "fingers" of Berthoud Pass at the bottom of avalanche debris .
After covering 7.5 miles on Tuesday, more friends and rescuers resumed the search Wednesday morning.
Among those who helped dig out Miller's body were his longest-standing best friends from his home state of Oklahoma, according to close friend Katie Looby, former Winter Park resident and former Sky-Hi News reporter who now lives in Denver.
"We all want him back," Looby said. "I've never met anyone up here who didn't love him."
Miller was passionate about snowboarding, loved girlfriend Bruhna Adriguti and worked at Smokin' Moe's in Winter Park.
He was an expert snowboarder and often took to the terrain on Berthoud Pass, no matter the season. He would hike up in the summer and build jumps and took part in hut overnights. "He loved Berthoud," Looby said.
Miller was snowboarding during a powerful winter storm Monday morning on the pass with friend Nick James, 29, and Miller's German shepherd Beau. James last saw the dog and Miller behind him above a small slide, according to official reports.
James then finished his run through the drainage to the bottom. When Miller did not show up, James hitched rides and did two more passes looking for him. After the second pass, James called for help.
Search teams on Monday initially utilized a search and rescue dog as well as a Recco device, which assists rescue teams in locating people buried in avalanches. An incident command vehicle was located at the base.
Miller was without a beacon, a shovel or a probe, according to search officials.
On Tuesday, the pool of searchers grew to 41, including citizen volunteers.
And on Wednesday, 22 search and rescue personnel from Grand County, Summit County and the Front Range and about 50 volunteers were in the field.
A large network of friends had organized, making sure everyone among them had beacons, probes, snowshoes and boots. Businesses supplied gear. Meanwhile, Winter Park restaurants such as Smokin' Moe's and Rise and Shine catered food for them.
"That's the largest number of searchers we've ever put in the field at one time," said Greg Foley of Grand County Search and Rescue.
Due to avalanche danger, normally GCSAR would not enlist citizens to help in the field, he said. But if Miller hadn't been found on Wednesday, rescuers would likely have called off the search and resumed in the spring, he said.
A small slide blocked Berthoud Pass before searchers and volunteers who were close friends of Miller's were able to leave the mountain after finding him. So they gathered in a warming hut at the summit.
Inside, Don Thompson, founding member of Search and Rescue and an East Grand Firefighter, stepped in as chaplain to provide some needed comfort.
"Everyone came together for Jeff. He was really loved," Looby said. "It breaks everyone's heart that we couldn't find him alive."
"I found the dog right next to Jeff," said a friend and search volunteer who identified himself as Johnny G. "They died together within a finger's reach of each other."
"He was always smiling," said Miller's close friend Alena Anderson, while at Ullrs. "He was one of the happiest people I knew. Like Iggy Pop says: He had a lust for life."
Looby said she had once heard Miller say the best way to die would be while doing something he loved.
- Reporter Reid Armstrong was a contributor to this story. Tonya Bina can be reached at 970-887-3334 ext. 19603 or e-mail email@example.com.