SURVIVORS: A series on close calls and heroes in the Colorado outdoors
MANCOS — It had been a hard summer for Thad Ferrell. He’d been hammering away at his construction job and not climbing as much as he wanted.
So when he had a free day, he called his climbing partner Lizzy Scully. She also had what he calls “the twitch,” a passion that was really an obsession for climbing rock.
They reached the fractured granite above the Florida River near Lemon Reservoir that sunny fall Saturday with full hearts. Ferrell would be at a birthday party with his daughter in a few hours. His close friend Scully cruised up the first few climbs, relishing her first time at the crag above the reservoir outside Durango. She was fired up. He was thrilled.
“I was living a balanced life. All was well,” says 40-year-old Ferrell.
“So psyched. Having a really fun day,” Scully says.
It was a fun day that Ferrell can’t remember, and Scully can’t forget. Somewhere around the third climb marks the moment when his memory goes blank. He’s pieced the rest of the day together from what friends have told him.
She doesn’t want to talk about it. They are holding hands in a cafe in Mancos, where she lives and works. A stranger with a notebook is prodding her to share. Ferrell is sipping coffee from a straw, because it’s the only way he can.
For the first few climbs that day, Ferrell rappelled himself down from the top of the route. After he had cruised up the difficult Holy Grail, he was cheering. Folks on the ground — Scully and two friends, Ian and George, who had walked up — cheered, too. He leaned over and gave Scully a thumbs-up.
A few seconds later, Ian yelled for Scully to look out. She thought it was a falling rock. It was Ferrell.
She started screaming. Climbers rallied. Someone down the crag had a personal locator beacon and sent an emergency call for help. Two wilderness-certified first-responders raced to Ferrell. He wasn’t breathing. They adjusted his shattered body and turned his mangled face. He gasped after almost eight minutes without a breath.
A woman gathered eight climbers, and they all jumped in a truck. She dropped a climber at every intersection so they could direct rescuers to the remote crag and raced to where her phone worked to make sure help was on the way.
Within a couple hours, rescuers had ferried Ferrell across the Florida River and flown him to Durango’s Mercy Regional Medical Center. Then he was in a helicopter bound for Denver’s St. Anthony’s. He doesn’t remember any of that. He doesn’t remember most of that day or the following two months. He woke up in a rehab center, covered in wires and tubes and casts.
“I can’t even imagine how I looked,” Ferrell says, brewing coffee on the banks of the Gunnison River almost 10 months later. “But I understood months later when I saw my friend Ian for the first time since the accident. He came into the hospital and he thought he was looking at a ghost. I’ll never forget his face. That was the first time I felt the gravity of what had really happened to me.”
He had fallen 100 feet. He broke both ankles. Both heels. He split his pelvis in two. Fractured vertebrae in his lower and upper back and snapped his sit bone. He broke ribs and deflated his lung. And his lower jaw was pulverized. It has been rebuilt, sort of, with a piece of his fibula.
He offers a sip of beer to a pal: “The only thing that touched it was my leg,” he jokes.
He’s had more than a dozen surgeries. He’s got more to go, mostly to restore his toothless maw, which he has shrouded with a thick beard. Farrell has rebuilt his life. He’s back working and has even climbed a bit. He’s turned his once-rabid focus on climbing toward fishing and family and friends. And himself.
He used to bury emotions in exercise. He would run for hours and train for climbing. He pushed himself, often beyond his limits, testing himself with challenges and adventures. But he missed moments with his son, his young daughter and wife. Now, he bounces with joy when he sees a sunset or the flash of a trout in a river.
“I had to reinvent myself. I’m back, but I’m different. I feel like I’m living all these cliches that glossed over my whole life. Now they really mean something. Every day really is a gift, and I forgot that,” he says, still holding Scully’s hand, tears welling.
While he has channeled his intense focus on repairing his body, he worries about his friend.
She hasn’t climbed since that day, Sept. 9, 2017. She’s not sure she ever will. She’s found other passions to fill the void of a 25-year dedication that lured her to the world’s most remote faces of steep rock. Like gardening. And rafting. Hanging out with her boyfriend, who is Ferrell’s best friend.
Scully’s injuries are less obvious but equally traumatic, Farrell says. She was there to see him fall. He didn’t see that. Or the anguish that followed.
“I told Lizzy right off the bat I would not switch places with you if I could,” he says. “What she has gone through is just as hard if not harder than what I’ve been through. I have nothing but love for her.”
Scully has been meditating. Exercising. Focusing on her diet. She spends more time in her garden and hanging with friends. She’s started taking some medication to help. But where Ferrell has shifted his passions from scaling rock to fishing, Scully isn’t interested in finding a replacement for climbing.
“I don’t have a desire to be beholden like that anymore. Climbing was this all-consuming obsession for all my adult life, and this is the first time I haven’t been totally captured by the feeling that I have to go climbing all the time,” says Scully, who runs marketing for Alpacka Raft in Mancos and is developing a multi-sport adventure retreat with her boyfriend, renowned adventurer Steve Fassbinder.
“I could not care less about that climbing stuff any more. None of it matters. The only thing that matters are the people in your life. I mean, I thought Thad was dead. I knew Thad was dead. He wasn’t breathing for eight minutes, so technically he was. Other things matter now. Like daughters. Wives. Boyfriends. Having a good relationship with my co-workers. Not stupid shit that doesn’t matter.”
Ferrell laughs at that. It wasn’t that long ago that climbing mattered most. It defined him. He was a climber.
“It’s never going to be that way again,” he says.
“Yeah, me neither,” Scully says.