Sunday, September 17, 2006
In the basic conflict of man versus nature, life in the mountains amplifies the appeal of survival stories set in the backcountry. Many of those stories are so affirming and unique they're never forgotten. One story in particular continues to turn the spotlight onto a Steamboat local.
The October issue of Backpacker Magazine lists Charles Horton's April 2005 experience of surviving for nine days in the Dunkley Pass area - about 45 minutes south of Steamboat - as one of its Top 10 "Survival epics," behind the likes of Major J.W. Powell and the Donner Party.
Horton's not sure if he would put his struggle - he was unable to make it three miles back to his vehicle after severely breaking his leg - on par with Powell's Grand Canyon voyage or the Donners' (allegedly) cannibalistic turn in the Sierra Nevadas. But then again, he was surprised with the attention to begin with. "All I did was lie around for nine days," he said.
After a hectic media deluge following the incident, Horton said there's been a recent lull. The Discovery Channel even passed on using Horton's story for an upcoming series because there would be a lack of a sensational re-enactment.
"The guy kept saying, 'You're too calm, you're not dramatic enough,'" Horton said. "But that's why I'm alive, because I stayed calm."
The 57-year-old also is extremely contemplative and happy to share his convictions gained through the personal odyssey. He said he is "still unwrapping the gifts learned out there," but he has accepted the power his story has on listeners.
Although Horton has regained the 30 pounds he lost and now can dance on his frostbitten foot, he still feels the effects, not only in his pocketbook from the hefty hospital bill. He says his body chemistry still feels out of whack. Mentally, however, he has tapped the experience in one way or another every day since to help him grow. "I realize how it applies day to day, overcoming feelings of, 'I'll never get through this,'" he said.
Pushed to the brink of accepting the possibility of death on night No. 8, Horton said he "called up" family and friends and asked for forgiveness and was still alert, in this serene mental space, when he whistled back to Routt County Search and Rescue members the next day.
His story begs the question: How would I react when action and decision result in another day? Would I let go, like Horton, and make the decision to accept my lot, keep my wits, waiting and listening to the birds with calm reflection, or would I keep pushing myself on the broken leg, succumbing to hypothermia and exhaustion?
I hope to never find out, but I'll keep reading the stories while Horton continues working on his book. And although his tale may lack the dramatic flair of a severed arm that landed Aron Ralston a spot in Miller Lite commercials, it will not be forgotten by eager listeners.