Epic Survival Story from Colorado

His name is Ryan Montoya, and the mountain tried to kill him. It messed him up, to be sure, but Montoya kept his wits about him, and had a bunch of lucky breaks (and lucky things he didn’t break, starting with his neck).

First, we’ll let his hometown station, KRCR-TV 7, set the stage:

A mountain climber from Butte County [California] survived two days in the snow after falling about 2,000 feet from a mountain summit in Colorado. Doctors in Colorado told his family it’s a fall no one would be expected to survive.

Ryan Montoya, 23, of Paradise, is recovering in a Denver hospital. He went missing Sunday while climbing alone trying to summit Pyramid Peak, a 14,000 foot peak near Aspen, Colorado.

via Climber reveals survival tale after 2,000 ft. fall from mountain – KRCR.

Pyramid Peak is located in the Maroon Bells Snowmass Wilderness inside the White River National Forest — not a good place to be down and need help. Its ascent is considered hazardous by mountaineers due to the loose rock and bad footing on the slopes, even though it’s not a highly technical climb.

The first thing he had to survive was an out-of-control succession of plunges and slides, interrupted by bone-crushing impacts, down icy slopes on the East side of the peak. And that was just the beginning.

Montoya’s mother said he was about 40 feet from the summit when the ice he stepped on collapsed, sending him sliding down the mountain. She shared what he told her about how he survived.

This is a bit atypical, in that Montoya fell approaching the summit. (Falls are more common on the descent from the summit, a disparity that feels to us like 20% biomechanics and 80% complacency).

Also, people who are accustomed to reading about assaults on the 8,000 meter monsters of the Himalayas or the 20,000 footers of the Andes, but who haven’t climbed, might be dismissive of a 14,000 foot peak. Don’t. At that altitude you are already suffering some effects of hypoxia, and the first thing it affects is your psychology. Much like alcohol intoxication, oxygen deficiency first takes away your judgment about how you are affected. You think you’re perfectly fine, but you’re already in a cognitive deficit relative to your sea level self.

The weird thing is this: even when you’ve had a lot of instruction about the physiology, and you know the facts of how it must be affecting you, you retain a strong instinct towards denying it is having any effect on you.

And this is entirely apart from the weather/atmospheric effects of being at that altitude. Even in the tropics, the crown of a 14,000-foot mountain can have snow and conditions like a temperate zone winter, except with higher winds. In the temperate zones, that altitude produces fully-arctic conditions.

So now that we’ve had a few frightening words about the environment, let’s return to Ryan Montoya, whom we’d left at the start of a slide down the face of Pyramid Peak. It has probably taken him longer to fall this far than it has taken you to read this far, but, of course, for him the experience is more… immersive.

Montoya slid an estimated 1,500-2,000 feet down East face of the mountain, later telling his mother he fell long enough “to do a lot of talking, thinking and yelling all the way down.”

Once he came to rest in a snow field, he was unable to use his dislocated left elbow. He saw water, pulled out his shovel, and used it as a sled to slide down toward the water.

Good survival move. Human habitations are always begun near waterways and water sources, and build out form there. If a stream is too small or remote to have cabins or settlements, follow it downstream… most streams join a larger one. Keep following the water, and you’ll get to help.

Of course, sometimes in the mountains, a stream leads you to a dead-end lake with no outlet.

His stream-following led neither to humans, nor to a dead end lake. Ryan Montoya knew that when night fell, the temperature in the mountains would drop like a rock. He needed shelter… and he had to make it himself.

One-handed. (And as we’ll discover, later, one disabled arm was not the extent of his serious injuries by any means).

He survived by making a snow cave with his good hand. He hunkered down overnight Sunday as winds howled around him. He had an emergency bivy sack (lightweight shelter) and had enough fuel to heat snow and make water.

A snow cave is an excellent survival technique. (It’s essentially what huskies do, when the sled driver pitches a tent or piles into a cabin). But water is critical, and you can bet that Montoya had perspired heavily during his terrifying series of glissades. So, having that fuel is important. People think that you can just eat ice or snow and let your body melt it. Well, sure you can… if you’re not planning to live. (You’ll actually lower your core temperature, and lose as much water as you gain, so eating snow is a net loss for survival).

Montoya had been hit with two of the three greatest hazards of sub-8000-meter mountaineering — a fall, and low temperatures. The third was coming: bad weather. (Above 8000 meters, oxygen deprivation’s many effects launch it into the position of #1 threat).

On Monday he stayed put because of the inclement weather and he needed rest. That afternoon, he moved  along a creek to stay near water. Before nightfall he made another snow cave and stayed there Monday night.

Good judgment all along the way. That brief paragraph understates the difficulty of what he was doing, but he was doing all he could to improve his odds.

On Tuesday, he got moving again, and made his way along the stream to a road and walked along that until he saw a runner. He yelled at the runner who figured out that Montoya was the climber who had been reported missing.  The runner alerted the search and rescue teams who took Montoya to a nearby rescue station.

Note that it helped that the runner knew someone was missing in his area, and that he passed the word. Imagine if he had finished his run, thinking, “Man, I gotta start eating a healthier breakfast, I just imagined seeing a Sasquatch!” and keeping his sighting to himself. But he was, perhaps not expecting to see Montoya, but alert to the possibility of finding him.

Most of all, Montoya did not quit. It’s one of those very simple things that Napoleon warns us are very important — but very difficult.

As the extent of his injuries shows, he could very easily have curled up and died. He took the painful choice to move when it was right (and to hunker down when it was not, in the cold and dark of the night).

Montoya suffered severe frostbite, a broken elbow, and a broken pelvis. The fall even broke a chunk out of his helmet. He is being treated at University Hospital in Denver for frostbite to his right hand. They are trying to prevent him from losing his fingers after his glove got wet and froze.

Bad news for Montoya, if the fingers fully froze he’s probably going to lose them. Good news: with all ten fingers, only five, or some number in between, he’s still going to be the bold and gutsy young man who nearly summited Pyramid — and who survived a half-mile uncontrolled descent (and crippling injuries) by strength, will, faith and presence of mind.

Back in climbing days, we disdained a helmet. That the chunk was out of Montoya’s helmet and not his head tells us that he was right and we were wrong.

You may never fall off a mountain, or ever plan to climb one. But there’s a lot to learn from the adventure of Ryan Montoya.

Update: Montoya’s Story

He talked to Colorado media and described his fall:

My goggles were all fogged out. So I don’t really remember much, except some big drops, and a lot of sliding and some impacts. I think I even started praying at one point. I just wasn’t really sure what was going to happen.

The fogged goggles are a normal result of a sudden change in atmospheric pressure, consistent with a fall.

I think at the point, more than any other time, I thought I was going to die.

I couldn’t believe I was conscious through the whole thing. Every time I hit something, I’m like, ‘I’m still going, it’s not over?’

So falling I was feeling like I was going to die. And then after I landed, I was like, ‘that’s still a pretty good chance.’

He expects to recover and climb again, and he has a new goal: volunteering for a mountain rescue squad, like the ones that came out to search for him.

12 thoughts on “Epic Survival Story from Colorado

  1. John Distai

    That will to live shows that he is a direct descendent of Inigo Montoya.

    Good tip on the eating snow thing. My dad used to tell me not to eat snow while we were out hunting. He said it would only make me thirstier. I didn’t believe him. Maybe the old man DID have some credibility after all?

    1. Hognose Post author

      The old man steered you absolutely right on that. Probably on other things, too?

      “When I was 17 my father was the dumbest man in the world. When I was 21 I was amazed how much he had learned in under five years.” — Mark Twain (quote approximate)

  2. Jeff

    Hey Hognose,
    Would you do that article about how to protect a map with acetal sheets? I’m dying to see how to do it and for some reason I can’t get Google to come up with anything.

    1. Kirk

      I’ll try to describe the technique, for you.

      Basically, you need a flat working surface, and a chunk of adhesive film big enough to cover your map.

      And, the map itself. You need to work the map and the film to where they both lay fairly flat–This may require rolling the two of them in opposite ways, to get the “curl” out of them. Once you’ve got them fairly flat, then you take the map and tape it down flat on the working surface. Then, take the film and peel back an even amount of the backing paper along one edge. Crease that backing paper, and then align the exposed film onto the working surface outside the actual map. Once you’ve got that, and are satisfied with the positioning, gradually work the backing paper off, and smooth the sheet of film down onto the map as you go. Working slowly and carefully, you should get the film onto the paper without creating bubbles or other issues.

      Actual use for this technique? It’s a fading art–You can get the majority of the topo maps you need these days printed out on waterproof paper, Tyvek, or don’t even bother with them, because they’re all on the GPS or your phone, anyway. Back-ups are handy, I’ll grant you, but the old-school techniques suited to working on water-soluble paper? Dying arts… If you need a small-scale map, I’d just get some Rite-in-the-Rain paper, and print it out with waterproof ink, these days.

  3. Bill Robbins

    Geez Louise, attempting to solo summit in the middle of winter? The Maroon Bells are beautiful year-round, but, this time of year, you’re lucky to see them at all, unless you are skiing the top of Ajax or Aspen Highlands. Among the most photogenic peaks in the U.S.

    Imagine soloing Mt. Washington via Tuckerman’s Ravine and Hillman’s Highway in the middle of winter. Not a good idea. Now, double the altitude and add another 1,500 feet or so. That’s Pyramid. Wicked pissah.

  4. Haxo Angmark

    in Sudbury, Mass. c. 1959…we 12-year-olds had a scoutmaster named Martin Hall. Who took scouting very, very seriously; among other things, he had a rather large pet coyote: “he’s ok, just don’t make any sudden moves and you won’t get bit.” Then he got the idea to take the troop out to Colorado for some actual wilderness experience. Most of the parents signed releases, and off we went. By bus, I think, and stopped in St. Louis along the way to hit the amusement part….the roller coaster was an old wooden thing, decrepit and frankly terrifying. Then on to Colorado and some mountain climbing…pretty easy, in High Summer. Only one I remember is Mt. of the Holy Cross @ just over 14,000 feet. We must’ve done the “easiest route, North Ridge: hike/scramble, YDS Class 2″…because all I remember is a long uphill hike where the air was so thin we had to do synchronized breathing just top keep putting one foot in front of another. Then followed a long trek deeper into the wilds, building rope bridges to cross raging streams – one flipped while I was on it, not fun – until Marty dropped us down into a verdant valley with great fishing. We had brought along enough dried food, but mostly we caught, cooked, and ate cuthroat trout. Yum! After 3 weeks he brought us all out and home again, none the worse for wear. I wonder if the Boy Scouts still do this sort of thing….probably not.

  5. Loren

    Several points based on living in a house at 9,400′ on a Colorado cliff top for a few decades.
    Decent is always harder than ascent and has not much to do with complacency but rather sight lines and controlling as opposed to overcoming gravity.
    The climbers fogged goggles were likely the result of his climbing exertions rather than the fall lowering pressure in them. The fogging also likely was responsible for his misplaced step that led to the fall.
    Running water in the mountains does lead to larger water courses and often roads as that’s where the roads are mostly but they are often the hardest places to walk. They also have little in the way of sight lines and are the coldest location at night. Unfortunately more open slopes and ridges usually end in cross canyons and once you drop into a canyon the effort to climb out is more than you want to do. Still the best bet is to stay as high as reasonable until you see some place you want to go.

  6. Chris W.

    Kudos to the kid for keeping his head and living through this! Force of Will got him through it and I’m sure he will overcome his injuries (fingers notwithstanding). I too went without any sort of helmet back when I climbed regularly, and actually thought to myself at one point, while climbing with a female who wore a helmet, how silly they were. I stand corrected and will wear some sort of bump-helmet if I do climb in the future.

  7. LSWCHP

    “…while climbing alone…”

    And that was the reason for all of the subsequent and largely unnecessary drama. Yes, it’s a great story of grit and determination, but he didn’t need to go through it. And the brave search teams wouldn’t have had to work and suffer and risk their oen lives, either.

    Risk is an unavoidable part of life. Being able to assess and balance the risks, and making sensible choices is part of the measure of a man. Going extreme climbing in winter while alone shows a lack of judgement that crosses the border into foolishness in my view.

  8. Winston Smith

    I don’t criticize him for any of his decisions. If it is in his makeup to go it alone, that is his right. Sometimes we all prefer our own company only. He never whined about anything that I can tell; a man makes his choices and accepts the consequences. As is his right.

    It gladdens me that a man of his spirit and intellect survived. We need to keep as much of that in the gene pool as possible. We’re gonna need it.

    Good post.

  9. TBoone

    “Deep Survival” by Laurence Gonzales. Subtitle “who survives and why” is a well written discussion/exploration about survival situations.

    Goes into the neuroscience, survivor after accounts often using famous examples of ‘should not have lived….’ stories. The author survived a DC-10? crash by choosing not to take that flight.

    It covers mindset, outlook, intuition and slowly unfolds the WW2 survival story of the authors father. Bomber pilot shot out of the sky and sole survivor of his crew.

  10. Greg

    Former instructor for the National Assn for Search and Rescue and a former SARTECH I. First thing we teach in survival training was the most important thing you need is a positive mental attitude. I’d question some of the things he did to get where he got, but once he got there (if that made any sense) he did what he needed to do, and never gave up!

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