Jeff Bryan: Amputee Firefighter and Ice Climber
Today, on his 5 Year “Ampuversary”, we celebrate Jeff Bryan. Jeff has been part of the Paradox community since 2015, and does so much to encourage other amputees to give ice climbing a try. He reaches people across the country to offer them support, encouragement, and a climbing partner. We are grateful to have Jeff join us year after year in Ouray, and to share his story for the Paradox community in the blog today!
“Almost 5 years ago I was using a walker as I took my first steps. Today I am climbing 19,327 foot volcanos and working as a firefighter.” – Jeff Bryan
Read Jeff’s full story below!
Written by Jeff Bryan
In 1976 I came to Colorado to ski at Telluride. From that day forward I knew this would be my home one day. I graduated from Ohio University in 1987 and went straight into the Federal Law Enforcement Academy. I had the winter of ‘87-’88 off before I started my career, so I headed to Breckenridge (hard to believe Breck only had one traffic light back then). I left after a season and returned to Breck the following January after I was laid off. I was reassigned to Big Thicket Area in Texas, and after a lot of thought I decided to stay in Breckenridge. The life of a ski bum!
I was working nights as the Bell Captain at the Hilton and skied in the day. Life was great. I had just bought a new house in Placer Valley when tragedy struck. I hit a pole going about 60 MPH. I bent my knees and thought don’t blow out your knee. My right foot hit the poll dead on. I shattered my tibia and fibula to the top of my boot and broke my boot in half. I could barely look at it but immediately straightened it.
The sled ride down was beyond painful. I was loaded into the ambulance where I was given two shots of morphine. They wanted to fly me to Denver but I signed an AMA (refusal of medical assistance against medical advice) to go to Vail instead. I remember Dr. Janes saying they may amputate as I was led into surgery. I awoke in major pain: I had four pins, two plates and 16 screws in my leg. I would spend the next seven nights in the hospital and the next six months rehabbing. I rode the bike with one leg every day. It took me eight months to get back to 75%! The doctors at Vail were able to save my leg, but told me my extreme sports days were over.
Little did they know I was just beginning.
I went on to live a very active life of climbing, biking, paddling and Telemark skiing. I had worked my way up in the hotels. I was now active in Search and Rescue. Life was great. In 1996 I was faced with a major decision. Take a great corporate job or stay in Alma. I took the corporate job. I was now Executive Vice President of a bank and Facility Manager for over a million square feet of real estate. I ran IMG the sports group world headquarters, flew in Learjets, and negotiated with top Harvard lawyers.
After three years and some weight gained, I went climbing at Seneca and yearned for my old life. I quit my job, bought an RV and hit the road. I climbed, skied and biked all over the country. I spent a winter skiing at Kirkwood. I moved back to Colorado in the spring of 2001. That spring my ankle was really bothering me so I went back to Vail. I was told my ankle was shot. They drilled my talus bone to make it smooth and buy me some time. In Aug of 2001, I became a Firefighter. Now living in Conifer I rejoiced in climbing in the South Platte. I biked and climbed ice. I traveled to Europe and Asia for climbing and skiing. I was leading strong 5.10 trad and skiing the steepest couloirs. I was living the dream and just having a blast.
In 2008 I took a job on the Ute Reservation as a Firefighter/EMT-I and was back to where it all started the San Juans. I met my wife Tana in 2008 and we quickly fell in love. Within months Tana and her kids moved in with me. Every winter we would go to Phoenix climbing and hiking. In 2012 we were hiking in the Superstitions when I jumped over a rock and heard a pop in my ankle. It hurt, but it always hurt. About a month later I went to a doctor in Durango. I had three broken bones in my ankle and the doctor said I needed an ankle replacement. I was very leary and I said, “Can we just take out the broken bones?” They did, and things only got worse. I finally gave in and got the ankle replacement.
For three years I worked in extreme pain and was unable to do the sports I loved. I poured all of my time into my position as training officer and teaching Live-Fire. My last climbing trip would be to Sardinia where I climbed in pain and proposed to my wife on the beach in Sardinia. After that, all I could do was ride the stationary bike. In January of 2104 I was hurt on a structure fire. I broke my ribs and collapsed my lower left lobe of my lung. Unable to spin my bike, my ankle was locking up.
I went for a second opinion and was referred to the Steadman Clinic in Vail. The doctor said I had so many issues it would take a week to figure out what was not wrong. I had a bone scan before I left. The doctor called me three days later, on a Saturday while I was on shift. I knew this was bad. The radiologist said I had osteomyelitis (an infection of the bone), however the surgeon thought it was all fractures. A week later I went to Vail for a full week of tests. They aspirated my bone and within about 20 minutes three doctors called me in. They were sending me to Denver for an amputation. I had just worked a 72 hour shift as a Firefighter, and now I was getting my leg amputated. I was offered early retirement but I said, “I am going to make it back.”
On April 22, 2014 I had my lower right leg amputated. On my 50th birthday I was released from the hospital. I hit the ground running. I biked with one leg. I trained constantly and went to PT every day. Within four months I was leading 5.8 sport climbs.
The next winter while still training to get back to work, I went ice climbing again and met Mark Miller. He was so kind and said I had to get involved with Paradox Sports. He also said I needed to get in touch with Chris Folsom who could build me a crampon. He gave me his number and said call tomorrow. I was never able to make that call as a freak ice climbing accident took Mark’s life the next morning.
I went up to Ouray, saw a police officer and I asked where I could find Chris Folsom. He pointed to his house on the main road. I went up to the door and a woman answered. I said I was an amputee looking for Chris. The door swung open and the next thing I knew I was sitting with Chris, Chad Jukes, and would soon meet Pete Davis. They all said you must come to Paradox Ice.
My first Paradox event was in 2015. A bit cocky and arrogant, I wondered how much can these people teach me. I had been a climbing instructor at Colorado Mountain College and had been climbing ice since about 1991. Well, I soon learned I could learn a lot. Paradox brings in some of the best guides in the world who can fine tune anyone – and that’s what they did for me. The second night in Ouray is the annual Got Stump party with a raffle of awesome prizes and presentations. The night culminates with the presentation of the Got Stump award. It is truly a magical event, to be recognized alongside of the other recipients was overwhelming.
One month after my first Paradox Ice event, I became the First Amputee Line Firefighter in Colorado. It took me 11 months to return to duty. This has been my greatest achievement. I now run B shift and still work the front lines. Returning to active duty was one of the hardest things I have ever done. I have never missed a shift due to my amputation. At first people were skeptical of my return. Now I am just seen as a firefighter / EMT, my disability is not an issue at all. I have to have two prosthetics, thanks to 50 Legs.
The next winter I climbed hard and returned to Paradox Ice in Ouray for another outstanding event. And the following winter, in 2017, I won the Got Stump Award – an award to recognize adaptive climbers pushing their limits and helping encourage others. I looked around the room when Pete said, “old school climber”. My jaw hit the floor when he announced me! I was flabbergasted and did not even know what to say. To be recognized alongside some of the best Adaptive Climbers was beyond humbling. I was truly blown away. I was floating on air the next month. I did my best to keep within tradition of winning the award by spreading the climbing culture. I set up climbing routes at Battle rock charter school and took people with disabilities climbing. I became the first amputee to attempt and finish Ames Ice Hose in Telluride.
The fourth year, I returned to Paradox Ice, I gave a presentation on my story at the Got Stump party, and passed the award on to my friend Bee Mathis. I was so excited to hear Bee had won the got stump. A woman I met through Paradox who had become a climbing partner. I had watched Bee become an exceptional dry tool climber. In 2018 I passed the Got Stump Award on to my good friend Bee Mathis. I would end up summiting Cotopaxi with Bee September 28, 2019.
The next year I would return to Paradox Ice again.
In my 5 years of attending Paradox Ice in Ouray, I have always left ready for next year. It is one of the best adaptive events you can attend. I can’t tell you what a great event this is in words. The people are inspiring and humble. The price is worth the food and lodging alone. To spend one day with some of these guides would cost you hundreds of dollars. Paradox brings them in and they volunteer their time out of kindness. The Ouray Ice Park and Ouray Mountain Rescue rig the ropes and we climb as much as we can handle. Paradox provides a tent, heaters, food, warm cocoa and plenty of people to belay. The food, lodging, equipment provided and instruction are well above the bar.
Paradox Ice is just one of the many climbing events Paradox puts on. They hold multiple rock events and are instrumental in spreading the adaptive climbing culture through climbing gyms. You can’t go wrong attending an event with Paradox and they will make you a more accomplished climber whatever your skill level is. So take a leap and come climb with Paradox sports! I guarantee you will leave happy and satisfied. It’s just a great time and I hope one day to see you at Paradox Ice!