A 19-year-old Fort Lewis College student who fell while climbing Saturday at Transfer Park north of Lemon Reservoir, suffering critical injuries, is likely to make a full recovery, his family said this week.
The climber, who has been identified as Jackson Lessig, a sophomore at FLC, was flown to University of New Mexico Hospital in Albuquerque. Authorities are uncertain how far he fell because no one was there to see it, but first responders estimate it could have been as much as 65 feet.
A fall of 65 feet is about equal to falling from the sixth or the seventh story of a building.
La Plata County Search and Rescue responded to a report just before 6 p.m. of a man who fell while climbing alone and without a rope at the popular climbing spot northeast of Durango.
His father, Rob Lessig, told The Durango Herald on Tuesday that Jackson remains in intensive care, but the family expects him to be downgraded to a regular hospital room sometime this week.
“The first 24 hours was scary,” Rob Lessig said. “But with each hour, he seems to be getting stronger, and we’re very optimistic. But we have a very long road ahead of us.”
Lessig said his son suffered a number of internal injuries, which will require an extensive rehabilitation period. But, Jackson did not hit or injure his head and has been communicating with his family.
“It’s a miracle,” Rob Lessig said. “It really is a miracle. He shouldn’t be where he is right now, falling that distance. I have no idea how he survived that fall.”
Lessig said Jackson is an avid climber, picking up the sport while in high school in Colorado Springs, where the family lives.
“My son loves climbing,” he said. “It’s part of who he is.”
Jackson moved to Durango to attend FLC, majoring in adventure education. He brought his love of climbing and started climbing more and more in the many popular areas around Durango.
On Saturday, Jackson was climbing in Transfer Park, home to a number of climbing routes. He was reportedly climbing alone and without a rope, a term in the climbing world known as “free solo climbing.”
But his father said Jackson had friends in the area climbing other routes.
Jackson reached the top of the route, and the rock where he had a hand hold came loose, causing him to fall, his father said.
Scott Scholes, emergency medical services chief for Durango Fire Protection District, who is also an avid climber, said free solo climbing is one of the riskiest forms of climbing.
“If you’re going to climb unroped and alone, you absolutely cannot fall,” Scholes said. “Because you know you are risking that, a fall is likely to produce serious or fatal injuries. You know that. You’re accepting that.”
There’s no data readily available that tracks how many people die free solo climbing. But Scholes said injuries or death are not uncommon.
“It happens to a lot of the people who push it to that limit for a long period of time,” he said. “Usually, something happens.”
Rob Lessig said Jackson’s friends climbing in the area found him after he fell and hiked out of the canyon to call 911.
Upper Pine River Fire Protection District Chief Bruce Evans said in a previous interview that rescuers hiked 10 to 15 minutes to reach Jackson, who was first taken to Mercy Regional Medical Center by Flight for Life before being flown to Albuquerque.
Evans told the Herald this is the third rescue of a climber in Transfer Park in the past two years. He said it is critical to have a backcountry beacon to alert emergency responders of problems because the area lacks cellphone coverage.
Lessig said his family was alerted of Jackson’s injuries around 8 p.m. Saturday, and they immediately headed for Albuquerque from Colorado Springs. Lessig said Jackson is surrounded by family and friends.
“The team, starting with search and rescue in Durango, and then the Flight for Life crew and then medical staff here at the University Hospital, have been just remarkable,” he said. “My son is alive because of them.”
Lessig said the family is staying positive when talking with Jackson, figuring out the rehab process and how Jackson can complete classes while at the hospital.
“My son is an amazing spirit, just his personality, the way he lives his life, the positivity,” he said. “I think that all of that is going to be challenged. But I know, with the force of his being, that this is going to be just another journey for him.”