RIDGWAY: Ryan survives fall from 1,800 feet

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Photo by Alan Todd
Joe Ryan gives the "victory" sign while recovering at St. Mary's Hospital after surviving a fall of 1,800 feet while skiing on Wilson Peak.

By Alan Todd

The physical therapist walked down the hallway of the second floor of St. Mary's Hospital toward a small group gathered outside of Joe Ryan's room. Inside, Joe was sitting up in a chair. He was flown to the hospital after falling 1,800 feet Thursday while skiing on Wilson Peak outside of Telluride. The therapist instructed the few standing outside of Ryan's hospital room that he was not to be left alone until the nurse arrived. He was in no condition to get up, and the hospital staff, already regaled by stories of the 64-year old patient's streak of independence, didn't want to chance him trying to get up in search of his next adventure.
Around midnight early Thursday morning, Ryan, Brad Johnson and Eric Ming began their journey to the pinnacle of Wilson Peak. By 6:00 a.m. they reached the summit and spent the morning plotting the pathway of their descent.
The snow pack was icy in most spots, according to Ryan, but nothing he hadn't encountered before on other high altitude ski trips.
"I've hiked (Wilson Peak) many times," Ryan said, trying not to jostle his four fractured ribs and fractured right scapula. "But I've never skied it."
Ryan, an experienced outdoorsman, is owner of San Juan Hut Systems in Ridgway.
He didn't get far. At around 14,000 feet, Ryan "lost his edge" on his skis. Roger Kriegshauser, pastor of Ridgway Community Church and close friend of Ryan, had learned that Ryan started doing cartwheels down the slope. One ski flew free, the other caught in the snow and flung him down. He dropped over two cornices and came to rest nearly 2,000 feet below.
Roger chalked it up to a miracle. Ryan wondered aloud how blessed he must be to be moving his arms and legs.
Ryan estimated the three started off on their descent at a 65 degree slope. He said he usually doesn't ski on slopes much greater than 50 degrees.
"I'd like to see what I did," Ryan said. "I have no idea what happened." It took Johnson and Ming about 15 minutes to reach Ryan. He didn't regain consciousness for another five minutes. He was bleeding from his ear and his shattered helmet had been ripped from his head by the fall.
"I must have taken some spins," Ryan said, putting his hand to his injured ear, still very dazed.
Ryan's daughter, Kelly Ryan, who is an International Mountain Guide, had yet to learn Saturday of her father's miraculous fall. She was in Alaska guiding in Wrangell-St. Elias and was out of communication.
"She's going to tell me not to go up there again," Ryan said.
"I've know Joe for 10 years," said friend Michael Ticherich. "Joe's part of the mountain. I think it was looking out for him."
The San Miguel Sheriff's Office responded to a 911 call just after noon on Thursday. The four-hour rescue operation included nearly two dozen deputies and search and rescue personnel as well as contracted helicopters from Classic Lifeguard Helicopter out of Moab and Olathe Spray Services. Sheriff Bill Masters said that the helicopters were “essential” in the rescue mission.
“Once we safely got rescue personnel on the ground and made patient contact, we confirmed that we would need to package and transport the patient to a more secure landing zone,” said Masters.
Classic Lifeguard transported Ryan to the Telluride Regional Airport where Flight Medics treated and prepared him for helicopter transport to St. Mary’s Hospital in Grand Junction.
Ryan is expected to be released as early as Sunday. For his friends, they know his next adventure is right around the corner but are grateful he survived this one.
"I love the guy," Kriegshauser said with a wide smile.