Man rolls truck 250 feet down mountain outside of Aspen, walks away
July 1, 2016
A 31-year-old Denver man in a modified Toyota FJ Cruiser rolled about 250 feet down the side of a tight switchback near Montezuma Basin on Forest Road 102 on Saturday and walked away mostly unscathed.
James Scully was heading up to the Castle Peak and Conundrum Peak trailhead outside of Aspen and said he wanted to get to as high a campground as possible before starting his hike early the next morning. His quest to save his legs from several hundred feet of hiking nearly cost him his life.
“I don’t know how I walked away. I’m still trying to process and make sense of it,” Scully said.
Scully was on Forest Road 102 and passed two Denver men, both 19-year-old students at the University of Colorado, in a Jeep Wrangler before quickly approaching a tricky switchback on the four-wheel drive road. The driver of the Jeep, Parker Tinsley, got out to talk to Scully about how to maneuver through the switchback, which was a thin spot with a big snowfield, said the Jeep’s passenger Ben Crabb.
“He eventually got his (FJ Cruiser) up it,” Crabb said. “We started placing rocks on the snow for traction and then we got up that part.”
But that turn was just the beginning. Not much farther up the road, Tinsley and Crabb watched Scully attempt to cross another narrow section of road covered in snow, but this time there was a “harrowing exposure on the left,” Crabb said.
Crabb and Tinsley watched as Scully tried to drive through the snow.
“As soon as I saw it, I thought it was really sketchy,” Crabb said.
Scully said he didn’t think much about the snowbank, because while the dry part of the road was narrow, he figured he would just drive through the snow without incident. His FJ Cruiser was modified for off-roading with a 6-inch lift, 35-inch tires and a snorkel for driving through water, he said.
“I didn’t think it was that big of a deal,” Scully said. “The switchback before that had a little snow we had to drive over, but we did that pretty easily, so I just didn’t really think too much of it. I underestimated it, obviously.”
Tinsley and Crabb were parked about 40 feet behind as they watched Scully try to throttle over the snow.
“Eventually he came to a point where his front tire had built up too much snow. When he accelerated, it caused his left back wheel to fall off the slope,” Crabb said. “At that point, he tried to reverse and cut his car back to the right. That caused his front left wheel to fall off the slope as well.”
Scully got out of the car to look at the scenario. Crabb said he and Tinsley told him he shouldn’t get back in. They didn’t have a tow strap or a winch, so they suggested he leave the car overnight and come back with help the next day to remove it.
“We told him it was really risky,” Crabb said. “It wasn’t teetering, but it was steep.”
But Scully said he was just focused on getting his truck out of the situation. He heard Tinsley and Crabb tell him it was a tough spot, but he was determined to get out of it.
“I’m taking action to get myself out of this predicament I got myself in,” Scully said. “There wasn’t any time to feel any serious emotion. I was just in the moment and I just downplayed it.”
He got back in the FJ Cruiser and tried to back up and that’s when it started to slide down the steep slope to the left. Scully wasn’t able to put his seatbelt on when he got back in because it had locked up due to the position of the vehicle. So there he was, tumbling down the side of a mountain with no seatbelt.
“The weirdest thing was I just remained calm the whole time,” Scully said. “The biggest thing I remember was looking up at the ceiling and every time it hit the ground, seeing it slowly crushing in on me.”
When the vehicle came to rest on the driver’s side, he said he couldn’t believe that it stopped. He crawled out the back window and saw Tinsley and Crabb running down the slope toward him.
“They’re seeing cascading blood down my face, and I’m talking about my truck and my gear — I wasn’t even thinking about ‘Do I have any broken bones?’” Scully said. “They were like, ‘I can’t believe you’re alive.’”
Crabb said it took about 15 or 20 seconds for the FJ Cruiser to roll down the hill. He estimated that it rolled about seven times.
“It was like a movie, like slow motion,” Crabb said. “We were both just kind of frozen there, standing and watching this thing roll.”
Crabb and Tinsley ran to their Jeep to get a first-aid kit. Crabb said he changed into better hiking shoes and looked down and saw Scully standing outside of the FJ.
“We were in awe that he got out,” Crabb said.
Tinsley, a pre-medical student, helped bandage Scully up, Crabb said.
He had a couple of gashes on his head and his hair was soaked in blood.
“He was really in shock, shaking a lot,” Crabb said. “He was saying, ‘I should be dead.’”
They got in the Jeep and headed down the mountain to get Scully medical attention. They assessed that he wasn’t in immediate danger so they decided to drive him to Aspen Valley Hospital rather than call for help via a nearby camper’s emergency beacon.
Tinsley and Crabb waited for him to get cleaned up at the hospital and found him a bus route home. Scully took a Roaring Fork Transit Authority bus to Glenwood Springs and then a Greyhound to Denver.
Tinsley and Crabb turned around and headed back up toward Montezuma Basin and reached the highest campsite they could find below the sketchy switchbacks. They set up camp around 1 a.m. and woke up at 5 a.m. to hike Castle and Conundrum Peaks.
Scully, who said he’s lived in Colorado for eight years and often heads into the mountains for various adventures such as climbing, skiing or biking, is feeling especially grateful for running into Tinsley and Crabb that day. His FJ Cruiser is totaled and his insurance company is working on recovering it from the scene, he said.
“I’m getting another FJ Cruiser after it saved my life,” he said. “I rolled it eight times and didn’t get hurt that bad — it’s a pretty good truck.”
It’s hard to explain how he walked away from the crash, Scully said. He said he learned the hard way that he should have parked lower and hiked the extra vertical terrain. He hopes people who read about his experience can learn something, too. A good piece of advice he’ll follow while off-roading alone in the future: Turn around once the road gets to a point when you need to switch gears into 4-low.
He’s also been doing a lot of self-reflecting ever since.
“I definitely feel lucky, and I’m sort of questioning my existence and that type of thing,” Scully said. “It’s just tough to really make any sense of it.”