Will Toor was thinking he was at the end. He was pretty sure his leg was broken. He was shivering uncontrollably in the snow high in the mountains. He’d watched his injured wife limp away to get help two hours earlier.
Every few minutes he’d holler for help.
Then, in the distance, he saw two climbers coming his way.
“That was just a wonderful sight,” said the 61-year-old Toor, who works as the head of the Colorado Energy Office.
When climbers Markian Feduschak and Riley Gaines heard Toor’s faint calls, they rallied.
“I’m glad he yelled for help and I’m glad we were there,” said Feduschak, an accomplished Eagle mountaineer who earlier this month helped rescue Toor from a snowy mountainside in Rocky Mountain National Park. “It’s questionable how he would have done alone for a night up there.”
After Toor and his wife, Mariella Colvin, tumbled nearly 1,000 vertical feet down an icy couloir, Toor had a broken femur. Colvin, 59, had nine broken ribs, fractured vertebrae and a broken sternum but still bushwhacked over talus and downed trees to reach campers almost 2 miles away.
Of course neither of them knew the extent of their injuries as Colvin went for help. Now, as they face a long recovery with a good prognosis, Toor said they are reflecting on “our heroes.”
“I don’t think I’d be here if it wasn’t for them,” he said from his rehab hospital room where he and Colvin will remain for at least another week. “I’m still kind of having trouble believing it actually happened and I definitely have moments when I’m like ‘Why did this have to happen?’ But mostly, mostly I feel lucky. So lucky.”
Tumbling, confusion and a scream
It was about 11:30 a.m. on Sunday, July 10, when Toor and Colvin reached the bottom of the snow-packed Ptarmigan Fingers couloirs on the north face of Flattop Mountain above Lake Helene in the center of Rocky Mountain National Park. They had hiked about 4 miles to the alpine basin from the trailhead after entering the park at 8 a.m. They climbed the western couloir last summer and were eyeing the easternmost chute, which climbs about 1,200 vertical feet, with a steep section at the top, but no overhanging cornice.
They were wearing helmets and crampons and carried ice axes. Their packs held extra layers, food and water. The snow was good and they climbed pretty much straight up. After a couple hours, Toor pulled himself up the steep exit onto flat snow. Colvin was a bit below.
“Things get fuzzy from here,” he said. He recalls tumbling. And confusion, because he was done climbing. He remembers hearing his wife scream. He tried to self-arrest with his ice tools, but the fall was violent.
He stopped sliding about 100 feet from the bottom of the couloir. He wasn’t able to move, with sharp pain in his right leg. Colvin clad Toor in extra layers and said she’d go for help.
“I saw her walk away and she is incredibly tough,” Toor said. “The only thing she said was her back was a little bit sore and she thought she maybe broke her wrist. I watched her walk away and she looked like she was in decent shape. Which was a huge relief to me.”
Feduschak and Gaines had spent the morning on a multi-pitched technical ascent of Notchtop Mountain. They were scrambling down the peak to their daypacks in the basin below the Ptarmigan Couloirs when they heard someone yelling for help.
It was about 3:30 p.m. when Gaines hustled over to Toor and wrapped the shivering climber in his jacket. When Feduschak arrived a few minutes later they tucked more layers beneath Toor and the snow. A third climber showed up and they gently lifted Toor into a trench they dug in the snow and lined with their packs.
Feduschak and Gaines are certified wilderness first responders. Feduschak is a veteran climber and ski mountaineer who spent years as an Outward Bound instructor and is president of the Walking Mountains Science Center in Edwards. Gaines is an instructor at the center. Feduschak was able to reach his wife on his mobile, who then called the National Park Service to initiate a rescue.
Gaines triggered the SOS rescue feature on his satellite-connected device, and park rescuers responded with a plan to be there in about three hours.
Then they waited, even huddling over Toor to protect him during a brief storm of rain and sleet.
Feduschak said they were worried about hypothermia and were prepared to move Toor off the snow if the rescuers were going to be any longer. They chose to leave him in place, worried that movement could displace a broken bone and cause internal bleeding.
“Will was a trouper. I know he was in tremendous pain but he was alert and oriented … that kind of reassured us that while it was an emergency, I felt like if we could get him out of there before dark he would be OK,” Feduschak said.
They kept Toor talking, worried he may have struck his head in the fall. Feduschak knew of Toor but they had never met. His career in outdoor education — and service on the board of Energy Smart Colorado — aligned with Toor’s push for renewable and sustainable energy at the Colorado Energy Office.
“We talked a little shop,” Feduschak said.
Two paramedics from Rocky Mountain National Park Search and Rescue’s “hasty team” arrived after a couple hours. They called in a Colorado National Guard Black Hawk helicopter from Buckley Space Force Base. The helicopter hovered and lowered paramedics who loaded Toor into a litter. By 8 p.m., he was on his way to Medical Center of the Rockies in Loveland.
Members of the park’s search and rescue team also reached Colvin at Odessa Lake, where campers had heard her cries for help. Rescuers spent the night with Colvin and a helicopter with Northern Colorado Med Evac rushed her to the hospital the next morning.
49 missions so far this year
Rocky Mountain National Park rescuers have been on 49 rescue missions so far this year. Some have involved fatalities, including the deaths in May of a climber caught in an avalanche on Mount Meeker and a woman who fell into Adams Falls.
That is pacing similarly to last year, when the team responded to 120 incidents and the park logged 4.4 million visits. In 2020, when the park was closed for more than two months during the pandemic, visitation fell to 3.3 million visits and the rescuers responded to 114 incidents. In 2019, when the park counted a record 4.7million visits, the search and rescue team answered 142 calls for help.
This summer the park continued a timed-entry system it launched in 2021. The program requires visitors to schedule and reserve windows of time to enter the park. Toor said he wanted to start earlier but was only able to secure an 8 a.m. entry reservation. Feduschak and Gaines, who ascended a much more technical route, entered the park before the timed entry system starts at 5 a.m.
“Eight was a late start, but we didn’t quite have the oomph to get in before the 5 a.m. cutoff,” Toor said. “Maybe we just need to suck it up and get there before 5 a.m.”
Mountaineers tend to start early. Hiking before dawn helps climbers reach summits before afternoon storms roll in or warmer temperatures impact snow stability. (Toor and Colvin were not late to the summit of their short climb and there is no indication that weather or midday temperatures played a role in the collapse of the block where they were summiting.)
“Our experience has been the majority of mountaineers and climbers start before the timed-entry permit system and their decision on when to start is based on making appropriate choices based on the conditions listed above for alpine routes,” park spokeswoman Kyle Patterson said, noting that most climbers start alpine routes in the park around 3 a.m. or 4 a.m.
“This sort of restores your faith in people”
Colorado adventurers know that offering aid could be part of just about every outing. While the state’s robust crews of volunteer rescuers live ready to respond at a moment’s notice, it’s those already in the wild who are likely to be the first responders to a call for help.
Toor has a long list of people he wants to thank.
Like Jennifer Perlow and Chris Stevens, the campers who gave up their tent and sleeping bag and tended to Colvin before rescuers arrived at Odessa Lake. And the campers who found Colvin near the lake and guided her to the campsite. And Feduschak and Gaines. Toor said he’s shared the story with friends and colleagues about the “calm competence” of his rescuers and “it turns out everybody knows Markian and they all have tremendous respect for him.”
“This sort of restores your faith in people, just seeing everybody pitch in in every way they could,” Toor said. “It’s kind of amazing when you think about it.”