DAVID BERGELAND/Durango Herald
MANCOS – Twenty miles west of Durango, just south of U.S. Highway 160, Maggie Rock rises from the horizon like a watchful sentinel. The piñon- and scrub oak-covered ridge climbs sharply from the meadow below before culminating in a crown of rocky outcrops, 8,650 feet above sea level. From a distance, it resembles a sawed-off, less grandiose Chimney Rock.
It was from the apex of Maggie, 45 years ago, that a teenage Beth Murphy lost her footing and took a horrific, 200-foot tumble that nearly – and probably should have – ended her life.
After decades away, this week she came back, a woman on a mission: to vanquish any residual anxiety from her mind by standing tall atop Maggie Rock again.
Now 60, Murphy and her seven siblings grew up in the shadow of Maggie Rock. Her father owned and operated a logging company, complete with its own sawmill for processing. The family lived simply, Murphy said. The kids, predisposed to gallivanting and scraped knees, used the wooded lands around their property as a de facto playground, with arroyos for slides and windswept boulders standing in for jungle gyms.
Murphy was one of those kids. A self-professed tomboy, she spent countless days traipsing around the hilly terrain with her friends or with her younger brother, James, who shared an enthusiasm for the outdoors.
“You’d think I would have tagged along with my older sister, but she was more of a bookworm, an artistic type,” Murphy said. “Jimmy and I had more in common. We would spend so much time outside, daylight to dark.”
At the time of her accident, Maggie Rock was no stranger to Murphy. She had scaled it, calamity-free, at least three times before. But that fateful afternoon in late April 1967, it all went wrong.
The day began like any other. The morning air was brisk and the spring foliage was yet to fill in. Murphy rallied two friends who lived nearby – Pauline Eppich and Eleanor Bartel – and the trio set out to summit Maggie again.
“In those days, we traveled light. We didn’t have fancy climbing equipment or hiking boots,” Murphy said Wednesday as she struggled to adjust the newfangled Camelback supplied by her younger sister, Ruth Dillon.
“I have to teach my big sister how to drink water,” joked Dillon, who now lives in Moab, Utah. Of the octet, she has retained the most wilderness know-how.
Murphy’s lifestyle, on the other hand, is quite removed from the jaunty days of her youth. The exodus of all eight siblings from Southwest Colorado has taken most of them to tamer pastures. Murphy ended up near Fort Worth, Texas.
Speaking in a faint Southern drawl she has acquired, Murphy admitted to being out of top hiking shape. But her spirit has lost none of its vigor. She was committed to addressing some unfinished business atop Maggie Rock.
During the ascent, she deplored the onset of a splitting altitude-induced headache, and her creaky knees gave her some trouble on longer uphill strides. But all things considered, the rust didn’t show much. She was back in her element.
Dillon wielded a machete trudging through the tangle of underbrush – like before, there were no defined trails here. Meanwhile, Murphy described the epic fall of 1967 and its grisly aftermath.
’Twas the gum that did it
It began innocuously enough. After finishing a scenic lunch at the Maggie Rock summit, the trio of friends threw their empty paper sacks over the edge; out of sight, out of mind.
“It sounds irresponsible now, like a bunch of litterbugs. But people thought differently (about environmentalism) then,” she said. “And there was no plastic. Only biodegradable materials.”
Suddenly, Eppich realized she had left a pack of chewing gum in her discarded sack and scampered down to a protruding ledge, about 15 feet below, to retrieve it. She tried – once, twice – to toss the gum up to Murphy, but they couldn’t make the connection. On the third attempt, Murphy stretched out her arm, leaned forward a bit too far and was gone.
Murphy’s epic plummet was slowed momentarily by colliding with the ledge. The impact knocked her out cold. It probably was for the best because her ill-fated journey down the mountainside was just beginning. She continued to fall through the air, now limp as a rag doll, before meeting the ground 150 feet later. From there, Murphy tumbled through a thicket of shrubs, ricocheting this way and that before finally rolling to a stop.
“I’m not sure how long I was out. When I came to, I remember looking up toward the rocky cliff and the sky and being unable to move,” she said. “I remember the girls hollering to me from above. I remember being cold.”
Flitting in and out of consciousness, Murphy had no choice but to wait for help. She was incapacitated. Her ankle was broken, her lumbar vertebra cracked, she had nerve damage in her lower right leg and raw lesions covered her entire body.
“My clothes were shredded. I was a bloody mess,” she said.
She also displayed concussion symptoms. When her two friends arrived on the scene, Murphy was unable to distinguish them.
“I called them the wrong names,” she said. “I saw the fear in their eyes.”
While Eppich ran to fetch help, Bartel stayed by her side. Murphy said her friend’s presence was instrumental in keeping her lucid and calming her nerves.
“Buzzards were circling overhead. They knew I was weak,” she said.
It took five hours to reach the hospital, where Murphy would spend the next four days in convalescence.
While confined to bed, she still managed to secure a prom date.
“I held the covers over my face as he asked me,” Murphy said, cringing.
Her wounds took months to fully heal. Forty-six years later, her body still carries scars from that day.
Counting their blessings
Back in the present, the Maggie Rock summit is drenched in sunlight. A few thunderclouds rumble in the distance, but they’re far off. Dillon struggles to hold back tears. Ironically she appears the more emotional of the two.
“I don’t know how the hell she survived that,” she said, peering warily over the edge. “We almost lost her. I’m so, so grateful we didn’t.”
For her part, Murphy gives thanks on a regular basis.
“I could have easily died or had serious brain damage or broken my neck,” she said. “It was a miracle. It really was.”