Fall victim recalls ordeal
Steamboat Springs — Throughout the long painful night of July 20, Brian McFadden relied on a token of his late grandfather’s love to sustain his hope that rescuers were on the way.
“I was wearing a cross my grandfather gave me,” McFadden said. “I held it in my hand. I was still holding it when they wheeled me in for X-rays.”
The only time McFadden, 19, let go of the cross during that lonely night was when the pain drove him to clutch his shattered left arm to his side.
McFadden suffered multiple fractures and a punctured lung in a fall that took place while he was attempting to descend Fish Creek Canyon just before dark last Tuesday.
McFadden was scheduled to undergo surgery this morning at Yampa Valley Medical Center, his third since the accident.
McFadden suffered nearly a half-dozen fractures in his left arm alone, Dr. Bryan Bomberg said.
The list of McFadden’s injuries also includes a “multiple-part fracture of the patella” (his kneecap), a broken rib and a bad ankle sprain, Bomberg said.
Despite his many injuries, McFadden was able to sit in a wheelchair and enjoy the sun Saturday morning with family members outside the hospital. McFadden is from Warrensburg, Mo., not Pittsburgh, Pa., as previously reported. He has been spending the summer working a landscaping job in Steamboat before returning to Central Missouri State University in Warrensburg.
In recounting his ordeal, he is emphatic about one thing — when he and two friends left home about 4 p.m. Tuesday, they had no plans to go rock climbing.
“We set out to go hiking out there and walk the trails,” McFadden said.
There are some gaps in his recollection of the evening’s events. It is evident from his descriptions that he and his friends were exploring a creek bed within the steep-sided canyon of Fish Creek above the major waterfall that is the area’s main attraction.
The men were boulder-hopping, each exploring where his curiosity led him.
“We weren’t all in a group holding hands, but in general we were pretty close to each other. I know for certain I wasn’t on the trails, but I was keeping up with them,” McFadden said.
Gradually, McFadden fell behind his friends. It’s difficult to play catch-up in the canyon because it is filled with obstructions. As the light of day began to fade, he became concerned.
“I could see them, but I was not sure how to get down. I had no idea where to find a trail. I was yelling to keep voice contact.”
McFadden reassured himself by reasoning that the stream had to lead back to the parking lot at the trailhead, and he couldn’t become truly lost.
He was wearing long pants and shoes made specifically for indoor soccer, and soon they became soaking wet.
“I crossed the creek several times, and I had fallen in waist deep,” he said.
At times, he attempted to climb to high points in the canyon to get his bearings, but he didn’t succeed and the canyon was dictating his route.
Darkness sets in
“I couldn’t decipher where I was exactly,” McFadden said. When the canyon began to drop more steeply, he hesitated for a time. He decided that the only option to descending was spending the night in the canyon. He decided to try and wedge his way down a “rock chute.” It was a fateful decision.
“I could hold my arms out and hold myself up,” he recalled. But when he reached a difficult section of the descent he was in trouble.
“I’d gone pretty far. I might have gone 10 feet, but I lost my footing completely and I just fell the rest of the way. I fell like maybe 25 feet.”
McFadden knew immediately he was hurt, but his first reaction was that he would be able to get himself to the footbridge about 250 yards from the base of the waterfall. But when he tried to get on his feet, his left knee buckled and refused to support his weight. He resigned himself to waiting for rescuers, whom he assumed would be summoned by his companions and arrive reasonably soon.
“I was hoping for helicopters to appear above me,” he said.
Instead, rescue was more than 12 hours away.
McFadden said he learned later from his companions that after waiting for him in the parking lot, they caught a ride home with someone else and left his car there, assuming he would follow along.
McFaddden said they subsequently visited him in the hospital and expressed great regret. They said they had come out the next morning to look for him, but could not locate him.
Back in the canyon, with the last glow fading from the sky, McFadden slept fitfully, sitting against a rock, and had some cruel dreams.
“I had dreams that I was being rescued, but then I’d wake up and I wasn’t,” he recalled.
Dreaming of rescue
After spending a cool night alone — temperatures dropped to the mid-50s — with no food or water, he scooted closer to the stream the next morning so he could use his right hand to cup water into his mouth.
The most frustrating part of his ordeal took place between 8 and 9 a.m., when he could see hikers ascending the usual Fish Creek Falls Trail. His desperate efforts to attract their attention were unsuccessful.
“I yelled for help and I waved. I thought I saw them waving back at me. It seemed like I was yelling all day,” he said.
Finally, growing tired of yelling with what would prove to be a punctured lung, he dozed off.
By the time Mark Norton and Melissa Unruh of Kent, Wash., discovered him, he was oblivious.
“The first couple that found me — I was sleeping,” he said. “I was really lucky they spotted me. They pretty much saved my life. I pretty much felt like the luckiest guy alive then.”
The complex rescue operation that unfolded remains a blur in McFadden’s mind.
But now, from the safety of the hospital, McFadden is focused on post-surgery rehabilitation and educational plans for the autumn.
Interested in studying commercial art in college, he already has a plane ticket for the fall semester abroad in the Netherlands.
“I think I can make it,” he said with a smile.
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