How Jeremy Cadwell Almost Won a Darwin Award on Boulder's Flatirons

When most of us make a mistake (especially a public one), we generally either avoid talking about it or do so in a manner that puts the best gloss on our actions.

Not Jeremy Cadwell. The new Colorado resident is refreshingly candid about his rescue from Boulder's Flatirons earlier this week, after a night spent fearing he was about to tumble to his death.

He refers to errors in judgment, failures of maturity, the good-natured insults heaped upon him by family members and how close he came to winning a Darwin Award — all because he wants to make sure others avoid his mistakes, not to mention the risk of ending their own story with a much unhappier ending.

In his words: "It's better if I embarrass myself."

Cadwell and his girlfriend moved to Colorado from the Columbus, Ohio, area on July 20. They're both nurses — his focus is psychiatry, hers is intensive care — and when she landed a job here, he eagerly agreed to relocate, in part because of the glorious opportunities for communing with nature that Colorado offers.

"I've always been an outdoor person," he notes. "That's kind of how I unwind and manage stress. But I felt like I'd pretty much explored everything within an hour's drive of where I lived — and it's so nice to have things like Clear Creek Canyon and the Flatirons so close. We're in Lakewood, so we're feeling pretty spoiled here."

He describes himself as "a little bit of an adrenaline junkie. I've been doing stuff like this pretty much all my life: climbing up cabinets as a toddler, then getting involved in extreme sports — scuba diving, motorcycling, skydiving. My parents are just the opposite. They want me to join a book club and stay on the ground, which is probably good advice."

Mountaineering is "pretty new to me," he acknowledges. "I didn't really have that option where I was living, so I'm probably a little overzealous at the moment, a little excited every day. I don't get enough sleep, because I'm having dreams about exploring new places. I'll wake up and tell my girlfriend, 'We've got to get up and see what else is out there!' And she'll be like, 'We need to do the laundry. We need to pay the bills and walk the dog.' But I just want to be out there, because there's a lot to look forward to — and also because I just turned 36, and I'm making up for all this lost time. I feel like I wasted a lot of my twenties being in Ohio, and even though 36 isn't super-old, I might not be able to do all the things I'm doing now much past fifty. I need to get going and start exploring."

That was his mindset on Monday, August 15. He'd already made two Flatirons climbs since moving to Colorado, and they'd gone so well that after a day spent dealing with HR paperwork for his own new gig, he wanted to "do something fun," he says. "But obviously, it was a very ill-prepared trek this time. The prior two times, I'd taken the gear out there I needed to navigate and not be at any risk — and to be honest, this time was going completely fine as well. I was making my way down safely. It was a very easy scramble."

At first, anyhow. But then he pushed his luck.

"I just got this impulse that I needed to live it up a little bit more," he recalls. "I didn't want to go home yet; I wanted it to be as exciting as it had been my last two times. It's just one of those things where maybe I need to grow up a little bit and learn to wait until the next day — go home and get some sleep and then go out again the next day. But I have this carpe diem attitude where I want to live it up as much as possible every time I go out."

For that reason, Cadwell "headed back up and scrambled around — and it progressively turned into more serious climbing. I never got into a situation where I thought I couldn't do something. But I dropped my water bottle up at the top: I was sitting, taking in the view, and I had a little twelve-ounce water bottle that rolled off my lap, and when I found it on the climb down, it had broken open, and, of course, all the water was gone."

As he became more and more dehydrated and the sky darkened, Cadwell "continued climbing along the face, and at one point, I decided, 'There really isn't a very safe way down from this.' And I didn't have my headlamp. I have a helmet with a lamp on it, but I didn't bring it; I had to use the flashlight on my cell phone, but it was hard to see really good hand-holds. And I normally take my tennis shoes in a backpack, but I didn't have that, either; they were tied to my waist. And even though I'd just gotten new climbing shoes, I think I was maybe putting a little too much trust in them. They were sticky rubber, but I slipped a couple of times, and I think I just kind of started to get a little distrustful of the shoes. So it was a really half-assed setup."

He admits that he was guilty of "underestimating the Flatirons, because it's easy climbing. There isn't really anything on the east side of them that I couldn't do without equipment, and I've seen people who look like they're almost in their eighties walking up that thing. So, for the lack of a better word, I maybe lost respect a little bit for the grade of climbing I was on, and overestimated my own competence."

His exhaustion was mounting, too, "and as I was starting to get tired, I ripped a big hole in the butt of my pants. I was kind of scraping down, inching my way down, and that started getting painful, because I was rubbing my butt cheeks against the rocks. I was like, 'This isn't cool.' And I was wedging my arms into places to make them extra-safe, and I started thinking about that movie 127 Hours with James Franco — thinking, 'What if my arm or leg gets stuck in there?' That'd be kind of a crappy night. I don't think I'd need to saw a limb off or anything like that; the place is so heavily trafficked that someone would come by and assist me. But I got to a position where I looked down and realized that if I started slipping, I wasn't going to stop until I hit the deck, which was at least a couple hundred feet below. And that's not survivable, as far as I know."

What followed was an internal debate, during which Cadwell "went back and forth in my head, wondering, do I try to climb out of it or do I embarrass myself and say I need some help? But then I started thinking about my loved ones, about all the stuff anybody thinks about when they're on an airplane that malfunctions or something like that. I wouldn't say my life flashed before my eyes or anything that dramatic. But I just started thinking about who would be sad if I were to slip. So I just said, 'It's not worth it. I know I'll get out of here safely as long as I don't fall asleep and roll off this ledge."

During the night, which he survived without any ill-timed rolls, Cadwell sent a number of texts to acquaintances he'd met since arriving in Colorado. Most of them didn't receive the messages until Tuesday morning, Cadwell reveals, "and they said, 'I'll come out there if there's no other way, but I have to work' — and a couple of people texted to say, 'There's the Rocky Mountain Rescue Group, and they're not going to charge you.'"

He wasn't so sure about that. "I thought, 'Maybe there's no up-front fees, but somehow I'm going to end up owing $1,000.'" So he decided to wait until he started to see early morning climbers who he might be able to coax into assisting him with a promise of a pizza afterward. But then, he says, "I started getting more and more impatient and concerned about the fact that I hadn't had any water in so long and I'd been exerting myself. I'm not an epileptic, but I was like, 'What if I have my first seizure? What if I have a heart attack or a stroke? What if I simply fall asleep?' A lot of what-ifs."

The accumulation of these musings convinced Cadwell to phone the Rocky Mountain Rescue Group, albeit with some hesitation. "I just hoped it wouldn't be a waste of their time. And I didn't really think it was a story-worthy rescue. I wasn't at the top of Everest with broken legs."

The rescue group showed up quickly, and Cadwell was happily surprised that there really wasn't a fee — "They told me the only way there would have been was if there was some medical issue" — and he characterizes their attitudes as "affable, as friendly as they could be." Once the rescue itself began, he realized that the climb out wasn't really as treacherous as it had seemed. However, his rescuers didn't want to take any chances. "Once I got to the top, I thought I could just walk off, but they didn't want me to take a single step without some equipment on me or someone having their arm around me. I'm in health care, so I get it."

Shortly after returning to flat earth, the Boulder County Sheriff's Office put out a press release about the rescue using Cadwell's name, kicking off a round of unexpected media coverage, as well as needling reactions from family members. "I have a younger sister who had a birthday this week, and I tried to talk to her, to say 'happy birthday,' but she just keeps raking me over the coals. She's like, 'I know you're a wild guy, but don't be such a dumbass. Just think about how everybody would feel if something like that happened.' Just giving me the guilt trip over and over again and publicly shaming me on Facebook. She's like, 'My brother's an idiot,' and I'm like, 'Touche, you're right.' It's a little bittersweet when they rub it in like that, but I know they're doing it because they care about me. My dad, I think I just aged him a lot faster than normal."

Another person who weighed in was a friend from Ohio who's also an adventurer, "an avid skydiver who does all kinds of extreme sports with birdman suits," Cadwell allows. "He was one of the first people to comment online. He put up something like, 'Fail to plan and you plan to fail'" — albeit with a winking smiley face.

Despite the ridicule, Cadwell knows he made the right decision in calling for help. As he puts it, "I knew I needed to sit down — because I was about to win the Darwin Award."

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts