A Steamboat Springs man spent nine days in the backcountry with a broken leg and little food or water before he was rescued Monday morning near Dunckley Pass.
Search and Rescue personnel from Routt and Rio Blanco counties located 55-year-old Charles Horton on a snow-covered U.S. Forest Service road near Chapman Reservoir in northeast Rio Blanco County after a one-hour search. Horton found by rescuers but was suffering from dehydration, hypothermia and frostbite.
"This is stuff books are written about," said Sgt. Anthony Mazzola of the Rio Blanco County Sheriff's Office. "The hum-an spirit, the will to live -- that's what amazes me."
Horton set out for a one-day cross-country ski trip April 17, friends said. He fell and broke his right leg later that day while skiing down a moderate slope on unimproved Forest Service Road 940, Mazzola said.
An experienced outdoorsman knowledgeable in wilderness survival skills, Horton slept in rudimentary shelters during his eight nights alone. He built a fire the first night but was unable to collect wood for any additional fires, rescuers said. His wool and GORE-TEX clothing and a space blanket also were instrumental in Horton's ability to survive the cold nights with limited water and food, Mazzola said.
"His skills and knowledge, his gear and his will to live are what kept him alive," Mazzola said.
He was located about two miles from the command center established by rescue personnel early Monday morning. Horton was transported via ambulance to Yampa Valley Medical Center, where he is listed in fair condition, hospital spokeswoman Christine McKelvie said. Horton is being treated for mild hypothermia, minor frostbite on his toes and dehydration. He is scheduled to undergo surgery to repair his broken leg.
The search for Horton began Sunday afternoon when the Routt County Sheriff's Office received a call from Johnny Walker, Horton's close friend and landlord. Walker and his wife and daughter became concerned about Horton's whereabouts when they returned from vacation Sunday to find houseplants that hadn't been watered and a cat that hadn't been fed. Their concern intensified when Horton's answering machine was full of messages from clients and friends wondering where he was and why he had missed scheduled appointments. Horton is a certified massage therapist who specializes in visceral manipulation. Horton's girlfriend lives in Moab, Utah, and was at a wedding last week, and his close friends were on vacation, Walker said.
"There's a little check system in the family where if he doesn't come home, we can pretty much figure out where he is," Walker said. "This time, it didn't work."
Walker told sheriff's deputies that Horton had planned to cross-country ski near Dunckley Pass last weekend.
"We were just praying they wouldn't find his car there," Walker said.
A Routt County sheriff's deputy made the 45-minute drive to Dunckley Pass on Sunday evening and located Horton's truck near the Forest Service road where he eventually was found.
Emergency personnel began coordinating the search immediately after the discovery of Horton's truck, Routt County Under Sheriff Dan Taylor said.
But without any solid leads as to Horton's exact location and condition and because of the limited nighttime visibility, rescuers opted to wait until daybreak to begin the search, Routt County Search and Rescue incident commander Jim Vail said.
"If he was unconscious or unresponsive, it would be virtually impossible to see him," Vail said about a night search.
Rescuers convened in Steam-boat early Monday and drove to the Dunckley Pass area, where they set off on snowmobiles, skis and in a snowcat. Two Search and Rescue dogs also participated in the effort. Rescuers considered using an airplane to help in the search but scrapped the idea because of Monday morning's cloudy conditions and the speed at which Horton eventually was found.
Rescuers found Horton one hour after leaving the command center. They were fortunate to find Horton when they did, Vail said.
The longtime Steamboat resident was probably sleeping in a stand of trees when the sound of snowmobiles woke him, Vail said. A rescuer whose snowmobile became stuck heard Horton whistle after he turned off the snowmobile's engine. Horton was put on a stretcher, loaded into the snowcat and transported back to the command center. A waiting ambulance took him to Yampa Valley Medical Center.
Through conversations with Horton, rescuers were able to piece together parts of his nine-day ordeal. After injuring himself south of Chapman Reservoir, Horton crawled on his elbows and dragged his injured leg in an attempt to get to his vehicle. He crawled about eight-tenths of a mile in the days following his injury.
At night, Horton slept in natural shelters such as stands of trees and used a space blanket to keep himself warm. Rescuers think Horton still had food when he was discovered Monday, but his water supply was gone or limited.
The Dunckley Pass and Chapman Reservoir areas are popular with snowmobilers and nonmotorized users during the winter, but rescuers think spring conditions have left the region devoid of visitors and potential rescuers.
Despite the length of Horton's stay in the backcountry, rescuers approached the search expecting to find him alive.
"We all started off this morning treating this strictly as a rescue," Mazzola said. "We always start off assuming they're alive, and he was."
Horton's close friends did their best to remain optimistic as the drama unfolded.
"We had almost written him off," Walker said Monday. "We were just praying. I slept for one hour last night. I was talking to him in my dreams. I felt he was alive."
Friends described Horton as a soft-spoken and spiritual man capable of dealing with such an ordeal.
"He's the type to think things through and not panic," friend Mary O'Brien said.
He was tired but in good spirits Monday afternoon, O'Brien said.
"He's doing great," she said. "His sense of humor is great."
Routt County Search and Rescue, the Routt County Sheriff's Office, the Rio Blanco County Sheriff's Office, the Colorado Division of Wildlife and Yampa Ambulance participated in the rescue effort.