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A Climber We Lost: Ed Farrar

Each January we post a farewell tribute to those members of our community lost in the year just past. Some of the people you may have heard of, some not. All are part of our community and contributed to climbing.

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You can read the full tribute to Climbers We Lost in 2022 here.

Dr. Ed Farrar, 70, March 8

Dr. Ed Farrar was a skilled mountaineer and a veteran of the Himalaya, including peaks such as Cho Oyu (8,188 m) and Ama Dablam (6,812 m/22,349 ft), and those of his home stomping grounds in the Cascades, such as Mount Rainier. But his most impressive climb wasn’t in the alpine. 

After Farrar was struck head-on by a car while cycling to work in 2008, he was left paralyzed from the chest down, confined to a wheelchair for the remainder of his life. But the same dogged determination that carried him up peaks in the Himalaya helped him bounce back from an injury that would’ve left most people couch-bound. For the remaining 12 years of his life, Farrar kept himself unbelievably active and productive. He continued to practice medicine, rode a recumbent bicycle daily, and even “walked” again, with the help of a robot exoskeleton. 

Farrar was instrumental in bringing the robotic exoskeleton to the Wenatchee Valley area.

Farrar was born June 12, 1951 in Atlanta, and grew up in Orlando, Florida, where his father worked as an orthopedic surgeon. He attended Georgia Tech on a football scholarship as a linebacker, later transferring to the University of Florida to study biology. After taking time away from school due to financial issues—during which he worked at the recently-constructed Disney World—Farrar returned and earned a degree from the UF, and later the Emory School of Medicine, where he graduated second in his 112-person class. 

While in medical school, the native southerner traveled to the Himalaya, performing rural health care survey work in the Ladakh region of India. This trip introduced Farrar to the magic of the mountains. He returned to the Himalaya many times throughout the next several decades, both to climb and as a volunteer surgeon for the nonprofit Orthopaedics Overseas. Notably, he summited the 22,000-foot Ama Dablam shortly after knee surgery, as a mock “field test” of the replacement knee technology.

After an internship in Internal Medicine at the University of Washington, and more training at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, Farrar settled in Wenatchee, Washington, with then wife Cindy (Tripp) Farrar. 

Longtime friend and fellow orthopedic surgeon Dr. Mark Broberg, who met Farrar in Wenatchee in 1983 and shared a practice with him for many decades, recalled a friend who possessed a truly indomitable spirit. “Ed was someone who was able to overcome immense obstacles and achieve impressive goals, in spite of anything thrown against him.”

Farrar was a true polyathlete: an avid cyclist, mountaineer, kayaker, and linebacker for a Division I football team. But this long history of pushing physical limits was put to the test after his paralysis. 

On the morning of October 22, 2008, a Crown Victoria veered out of its lane and rammed into Farrar head-on while he was on his bicycle commute. The violent impact fractured all his ribs, collapsed his lungs, and broke his neck in multiple places. “It must have almost ripped the top half [of my body] off the bottom half,” Farrar told ESPN in 2009.

Despite his injuries and the permanent changes to his previously active lifestyle, Farrar continued to chase meaning and adversity in life. Broberg recalled with admiration how Farrar remained driven and disciplined even in the wake of his accident. He brought together a group of fellow cyclists, nicknamed “The B Team,” who rode alongside him as he operated his hand cycle. “Day in and day out he rode his hand cycle, at least 10 miles every morning,” said Broberg. Many days Farrar rode even longer, and regularly clocked up to 25 miles.

“He was just an extremely regimented and motivated guy,” said Broberg. “[Farrar] was a high thoracic paraplegic, and still every day he would get up early and exercise, do yoga, and meditate, all before coming into the office and working.”

Although he could no longer perform surgery, Farrar continued practicing medicine up until his death as a diagnostician and consultant. “Like a lot of us with orthopedic surgery, I think Ed was called to it because it’s a practice where you can help people,” said Broberg. “You can really fix things, and change lives. He certainly didn’t have to keep practicing. It’s not like he needed it financially, or to keep himself busy. For him, it was about helping people.” 

In particular, Farrar was instrumental in bringing the robotic exoskeleton to the Wenatchee Valley area. This technology—“a device that you strap into like a robot”—allows paralyzed individuals to walk unassisted, and Farrar was awarded “Person of the Year” in the Wenatchee Valley for his efforts to develop the technology for the local community. 

“I will never forget the evening in 2015 when, as a recipient of the Spirit of AZ Wells Award, [a] paralyzed Ed walked into the gala with the help of the [exoskeleton] and gave a riveting address filled with hope and inspiration,” wrote Rufus Woods, publisher emeritus of local paper The Wenatchee World. “You could have heard a pin drop during his speech and by the end, there was scarcely a dry eye in the house.”

Farrar with his orthopedic surgery partner: Dr. Hank Vejoda (top left), Dr. Mark Broberg (top right) and Dr. Fred Deal (bottom right).

In the 2009 profile of Farrar, ESPN’s Jim Caple recalled chatting with a friend of Farrar’s, fellow cyclist Terry Peters. “‘Ed must be well-liked in this city to have so many supporters,’ I said to Peters as we waited for him at the top of a hill. ‘Liked?’ Peters replied. ‘Worshipped is more like it. He can’t go anywhere without having someone thanking him, saying it’s because of him that they’re able to walk.’”

In addition to his skill as a doctor and prowess as an athlete, Farrar was “extremely well-read,” said Broberg, possessing a wealth of knowledge about a wide variety of subjects, from literature to philosophy, art, geography, and poetry. He was particularly passionate about environmental conservation and climate change. “You couldn’t hardly talk to him without hearing the latest development in the war on global warming,” said Broberg, chuckling.

Broberg said he was also impressed by Farrar’s emotional and spiritual depth. “He was very into spirituality, both yoga and meditation,” said Broberg. “I think that was part of the allure of Nepal, for him, and also a practice that really helped [him] in recent years, after the injury.” Broberg noted that Farrar wasn’t drawn to any specific religion (“If anything I’d say he was Buddhist”) but that he devoutly practiced, and exemplified, a certain “oneness,” that carried him through countless obstacles in life, and especially his dozen years as a paraplegic.

Farrar’s joie de vivre continued to inspire his family, friends and community at-large throughout his remaining years. He was a particular source of inspiration for his two sons, Tyler and Fletcher. The former became a professional cyclist himself, citing his father’s passion for the sport as motivation, and was celebrated as one of the world’s leading sprinter cyclists. In 2011, the younger Farrar became the first American to win a stage in the Tour de France on the Fourth of July. 

Dr. Ed Farrar died March 8, aged 70, due to various complications from his longstanding paralysis. Farrar was in significant pain in recent months, due to degeneration in his shoulder and lower lumbar spine, and Woods noted, “Everyone familiar with the situation feels he is in a far better place now — no longer in pain.” Broberg echoed a similar sentiment. “It was rough for [Farrar] those last few months,” he said. “And he had already vastly outlived expectations for someone of his age, suffering an injury like that.” 

Farrar is survived by his two sons, Tyler and Fletcher, his siblings Robert, Douglas, and Marcia, mother, Elizabeth, and several grandchildren, in addition to a large network of extended family, close friends, patients, and other loved ones.

—Owen Clarke

You can read the full tribute to Climbers We Lost in 2022 here.