Ryan Moss's Death and the Dangers of Extreme Hiking When Drunk or Stoned

Editor's note update: On the one-year anniversary of Ryan Moss's death, we published a new post based on an alternate interpretation of his autopsy results. Click to read, "Was Ryan Moss Not Drunk and High but Sober When He Fell to His Death?" Continue for our previous coverage.

On June 14, authorities at the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park recovered the body of 23-year-old University of Colorado-Colorado Springs student Ryan Wood Moss, a nature lover originally from North Carolina who'd been reported missing three days earlier.

Moss's family believes he died on June 9 after falling approximately 400 feet while hiking.

This week, more than a month later, authorities released Moss's autopsy results, which revealed that at the time of his death, his blood alcohol content registered at 0.211, more than double the legal limit for intoxication. In addition, the amount of active THC in his blood registered at around double the 5 nanograms established by the State of Colorado as indicating that an individual is driving under the influence of marijuana.

According to Brant Porter, supervisory park ranger with the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park and the Curecanti National Recreation Area, this level of impairment is particularly worrisome given the challenges inherent in the area's rugged landscape.

In his words, "It's a really rugged place, and folks can find themselves in over their heads even when they're at their best."

Climbing after partying is hardly a new phenomenon in Colorado — and when things go wrong, the results can make news. In 2013, the Boulder County Sheriff's Office had to rescue a CU Boulder student on mushrooms after she did a strip tease in Chautauqua Park. The next year, another CU Boulder student survived a 200-foot fall at the same location after reportedly ingesting hallucinogens.

Also in 2014, a Reddit-hyped "Hash Hike" at Mount Bierstadt, a Colorado 14er, stoked disagreements among outdoors sorts, with some arguing that cannabis actually makes them better climbers, since it sharpens their focus, and others maintaining that encouraging consumption before hitting the trail is risky and irresponsible.

Count Porter among the latter group, particularly in relation to what he refers to as the "extreme" terrain that can be found in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison.

"Each year, we'll get calls for assistance in the canyon from climbers or hikers when they're stone cold sober, but they stepped wrong or slipped," he says. "It's not the kind of place that folks who are heavily impaired tend to seek out."

One possible reason: People who want to climb in the canyon must go through a process that's intended to weed out anyone not prepared for the tests they'll face, thereby potentially avoiding unnecessary search-and-rescue operations.

"Any inner-canyon use, anything below the rim of the canyon, requires a wilderness-use permit," Porter notes. "And when issuing the permit, there's an interview briefing between the ranger and the person getting the permits. So if someone is impaired, or if their physical abilities don't seem to match up with their agenda, that becomes part of the discussion. We'll get folks who've never been hiking before wanting to go into the inner canyon, so the ranger will do some detailed explanation of what's involved. And if there's any sense the individual is impaired in any way, the ranger will get a second opinion from one of our law-enforcement officers or backcountry rangers, to see if they think their plans and abilities are consistent with going into the canyon."

In Moss's case, Porter concedes, there were "no warning signs. He came into the visitors center and asked for a permit to go into the canyon the next day, which is common practice; a lot of folks like to get an early start, especially during the warm season. The rangers at the visitor center recall that he was going to delay his entry into the canyon by a day. He was due out on the 11th and was supposed to be in touch with his family at that point. But when he didn't get in touch with them, they called us. Because it was late in the day when they reached us, we couldn't go out then — and a lot of times, people who are overdue in those kinds of situations self-rescue. So we went out early the next day and started searching his stated itinerary on foot, but didn't find him. That's when we put in a request for a helicopter, and late on the second day, the helicopter found him in an area that was inaccessible by foot."

Fortunately, the Black Canyon of the Gunnison hasn't had a large increase in the number of people trying to tackle the terrain while drunk or stoned, even though overall attendance at the park is up. That's a relief to Porter, who points out that "the Black Canyon is a place that requires high levels of situational awareness — being aware of what's going on around you with both the terrain and with wildlife. That's not helped by drinking. And since marijuana use is still illegal within national parks, it's not a great idea on multiple levels."

In addition, Porter recommends "hiking with a partner, with a buddy. It's not uncommon to see solo hikers go into the canyon, so that didn't raise any sort of red flag" with Moss. "But hiking with a buddy is a really great idea, especially when you're going into places that aren't terribly heavy with communications, with cell phone signals. At times like those, having a buddy can be your lifeline."

After all, Porter says, "the routes in the canyon are incredibly difficult."

Even when someone isn't impaired.

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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