Climber’s dad: Situation was bleak, then instant elation
Tuesday was a tough day for Dave and LaShawn Montoya.
After searching the rugged backcountry around Pyramid Peak for two days that included one of the nastiest winter storms of the season, rescuers had found no sign of their 23-year climber son, Ryan.
“That was a bad day,” Dave Montoya said Wednesday. “We were pretty much thinking we’d lost him.”
Dave, a pastor from Paradise, Calif., spoke with a Pitkin County sheriff’s deputy about 3 p.m. Tuesday, who gave him the latest search updates and said Mountain Rescue Aspen volunteers planned to head back out to the 14,026-foot peak again Wednesday. The deputy said he’d call back at 5 p.m. for a final update.
When the phone rang again, Dave received unexpected news.
“He calls and says, ‘We found him and he’s alive,’ ” Dave said. “My wife just fell apart — in a good way. We were ecstatic.
“We went from the bottom to the top in a few seconds.”
Ryan, a Boulder resident who was climbing solo, had indeed emerged — relatively unscathed — from the East Maroon Portal under his own power. A person out running first contacted him on Maroon Creek Road about 4:15 p.m., then ran down the closed road to alert Mountain Rescue volunteers, who brought Ryan back to their command post at the T-Lazy 7 Ranch on a snowmobile, authorities said.
From there he was taken to Aspen Valley Hospital, then flown Tuesday night to the University of Colorado Hospital in the Denver area.
“The doctors said they definitely wanted to send him there to make sure he doesn’t lose any of his fingers,” Dave Montoya said.
Ryan’s injuries include the frostbite — mainly on his right hand — a fractured pelvis and a dislocated elbow, Dave said.
“Folks were telling us this just doesn’t happen,” Dave Montoya said of his son’s improbable survival. “It was just a moment of great relief and thanksgiving to God. We were elated.
“My heart goes out to people when it doesn’t end this way.”
Ryan, who continues to recover and was not ready to talk publicly Wednesday, has been climbing since he was 14. He trekked through Nepal last summer by himself. He chose the University of Colorado in Boulder not so much for the education as for the climbing opportunities, his father said.
And, fortunately for him, he enjoys misery, Dave Montoya said.
“If it was a rainy night in California, he’d say, ‘Let’s go out,’ and bring a plastic bag with him,” Dave said. “That was his idea of a good time.”
Ryan sometimes sleeps outside his home in Boulder during the winter months to improve his toughness, his dad said.
“He said, ‘If you can get used to the misery, you can do the mountain stuff better,’ ” Dave said.
Ryan attempted to recruit friends in Boulder for the ascent of Pyramid Peak on Sunday, but they all thought he was crazy and begged off, his father said.
“It wasn’t the danger,” Dave said. “It was the misery. He wanted to face the misery.”
Ryan certainly got his wish.
He parked his car at the T-Lazy 7 on Saturday, then skinned up on skis to somewhere below Pyramid’s West Face and built a snow shelter as planned, Dave said. He left gear — including his sleeping bag, backpack and bivy sack — inside the snow cave and kept going on skis Sunday morning in an attempt to summit the peak, according to Dave and authorities, who found the gear.
He later stashed the skis and boots under a rock and kept heading up the mountain. Ryan climbed to within 40 feet of Pyramid’s summit and was on the mountain’s East Face, when he stepped on a cornice that gave way, plunging him down 1,500 to 2,000 feet below, Dave said.
“He was sliding and falling — at times he was airborne,” Dave said. “His helmet has a big hole in it.”
Ryan landed in a snowfield, a soft landing his father believes likely saved his life. His elbow kept popping in and out and his pelvis hurt, Dave said, but he saw water of some sort — a stream or lake — below and started to move toward it. Before he arrived at the water, however, Dave said Ryan decided to make another snow shelter, possibly because he lost his headlamp in the fall and darkness was falling.
Ryan had to build the shelter with just his right hand, because his left elbow was injured. That led to his frostbite injuries because his glove got wet and later froze, Dave said.
Nonetheless, he was able to get the shelter built. Ryan also had a little food and a camp stove with a bit of fuel left he used to melt water, Dave said. In addition, a friend had recently given him an emergency bivy sack, which he used to help insulate himself from the snow.
Ryan stayed inside that shelter for close to 24 hours, his father said, as the brutal winter storm descended, packing nearly 100 mph winds on Pyramid’s ridgeline above, frigid temperatures and snow.
Between 2 and 3 p.m. Monday, he emerged from the snow cave and began moving downhill toward the water source, Dave said.
“He knew he was on the east side (of Pyramid Peak) and that was probably not where people were looking for him,” Dave said. “So he knows he needs to keep moving.”
Ryan was right. Mountain Rescue Aspen volunteers on Monday found the snow cave he used below the West Face, then discovered his skis and boots Tuesday. They spent a good portion of Tuesday probing a large avalanche that slid near the location of Ryan’s skis, authorities have said.
After he started moving again, Ryan didn’t make it far Monday and built a third snow shelter to wait out Monday night, Dave said.
“He wasn’t very happy with that snow cave Monday night,” he said.
Tuesday morning — a bluebird, Colorado winter day — Ryan started moving again and reached a stream, which he followed until it hit Maroon Creek Road, the jogger and civilization.
“His first words on the phone were, ‘I’m so sorry,’ ” Dave said. “He’s a humble, shy guy. He’s going to hate all this attention.”
Dave Montoya joked about his current feelings surrounding Ryan’s continued mountaineering.
“As far as I’m concerned, as his parent, he’s grounded,” he said.
On a serious note, he said his son’s climbing attitude concerns him, but he knows Ryan isn’t a daredevil. For example, on a climb up Mt. Shasta last month in California, he reached snow near the top he didn’t trust and turned back, he said.
“He has shown us he’s smart,” Dave said. “He doesn’t do stupid things.”
And he doesn’t expect Ryan to give up his passion any time soon.
“I doubt (he’ll stop climbing),” Dave said. “He loves it up there.”
Dave said search teams were nearly as happy as he was that Ryan was found alive.
“They were emphatic that nobody survives falling from that face,” Dave said.
Hugh Zuker, a Mountain Rescue Aspen volunteer, told The Times on Wednesday that he was surprised first that Ryan was found alive and, second, that he was able to walk out on his own. The conditions Monday were so extremely cold and windy that the risk of exposure was very high, he said.
“You’ve got to know what you’re doing,” Zuker said. “We were delighted he was OK.”
A 49-year-old New Mexico man who went missing in September while attempting to climb the Maroon Bells — located just east of Pyramid Peak — still has not been found. Authorities searched for him for eight days in the fall before calling off the efforts.
Dave Montoya and his wife planned to drive Ryan’s car back to the Denver area on Wednesday.
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