On March 5, 2017, Ryan Montoya fell what rescuers estimated was between 1,000 and 2,000 feet from just below the summit of Colorado’s Pyramid Peak. At 11 a.m. that Sunday, Montoya remembers gazing at the mountaintop when he thinks his foot busted through a cornice, sending him tumbling head over heels, sometimes airborne, over rocks and snow. “It didn’t take long for me to realize what was happening,” Montoya says. “But it was a very surreal, out-of-body experience. I could hear myself. I could feel what was going on, but I didn’t register pain.”
When he finally landed in a snowfield, he was dazed but conscious and aware of his surroundings. He had broken his helmet, his phone’s screen, and also his pelvis in three places. Soon, he would have frostbitten fingers. He was on the east side of the 14,026-foot mountain, opposite of where he had planned to hike down, back to his skis stowed in the snow. Below him in the valley, Montoya saw a pond. Not able to walk, he scooted down the hillside on his shovel. At the open water, Montoya refilled his reserves and built a snow cave with one hand to wait out the first of two unplanned nights in the bitter cold.
As Montoya sat there with broken bones, he debated just how dire the situation was. It was the middle of winter and he was at altitude, completely alone with no help in sight. But he had also heard of climbers in much worse shape—surely, he was better off than them. During a sleepless night, his mind raced through fear and hope, all while trying to think of his next steps.
Montoya grew up in Northern California and latched onto the sport after he took a climbing class during a family vacation in Tuolomne Meadows near Yosemite. “After school, whenever I could, I was going climbing,” he says. It was his escape from the anxieties of adolescence.
Rock climbing helped Montoya build confidence. He beat fears. He set goals and met them. It became a spiritual pursuit for him. “I’d have these really incredible experiences in the mountains where I faced my fear and things were scary, but I overcame it,” Montoya says. “It was very satisfying.” When he moved east to attend University of Colorado, Boulder, life’s anxieties persisted. He found solace and peace not so much in rock climbing, but in solo mountaineering missions on moderate routes in the surrounding mountains. He was after the mental challenge more than the physical one. “I was pretty willing to throw myself at stuff I had never done before in the mountains and push myself to my total limits,” Montoya says. “I did know I was taking a risk and I was well aware of the consequences, but to me, it was worth it.”
Below Pyramid Peak, Montoya kept his mind and body engaged by moving down the East Maroon Portal, little by little. On his third day in the elements, a blue and clear Tuesday, he came in contact with the first person since his fall. Rescuers were close behind. Montoya was finally safe.
It’s been more than three years since Montoya’s fall. Recovery of his pelvis was quick, though healing from frostbite and torn soft tissue in his elbow is ongoing. He still feels pins and needles on one of his middle fingers that lost part of the tip. As soon as he could, he was itching to get right back to climbing. But something was different when he returned. The glamour and spiritualization of soloing were gone. “I realized there was so much outside of just myself and it robbed it of that pure, selfish experience I was looking for,” Montoya says. He’s acutely aware of how his fall affected his family. “Every time I took a risk, I was thinking about how I could just be screwing up the lives of everyone else around me if I got hurt or died.”
Montoya’s first solo trip after his fall was that very same July in Tuolumne. He was nervous, but not any more than he was before the accident. Still recovering from frostbite and the elbow dislocation, Montoya soloed routes that he believed were within his ability, like Matthes Crest and Cathedral Peak. Feeling good, he decided to solo Snake Dike (5.7R) on Half Dome, where the cruxes consist of friction smearing and committing moves. Montoya says that as he ascended, he didn’t feel in control—a familiar feeling, but now different in the context of his accident. “I realized how contrived, cheap, and meaningless the climb was for me,” he says.
This was his tipping point, he says, in realizing that he wanted to know more about what he was capable of through discipline, hard work, and choosing worthy objectives—not by throwing himself at minor yet dangerous objectives to achieve a spiritual high or prove to himself that he could overcome fear.
Montoya continues to reflect on how to define a “worthy” objective for himself. New climbing partners have introduced him to the more adventurous side of climbing and challenged him to push the physical limits in addition to the mental limits. He’s climbing harder routes, but his goals are no longer about taking bigger and bigger risks until he’s in another sticky situation.
While Montoya believes risk is a critical part of challenging himself and growing, his advice for anybody with a similar mindset is to consider what is a worthy risk. It’s possible to find yourself in a bad situation and be at peace with the decisions that got you there, he says.
“But I can speak from experience in saying the worst pain is realizing that the goal was never worth it in the first place, and now you and others have to suffer needlessly for your choices,” he says.