Steamboat Springs It was a simple toast, and it came from a tall, white-haired man with rosy cheeks who raised his plastic cup to a room full of people who helped save his life four months ago.
“L’Chayim,” said 57-year-old Craig Horlacher. “To life.”
Across the room at the Routt County Search and Rescue barn on Yampa Street, 20 team members and their families raised their glasses to the man at the heart of a remarkable story of survival.
“We’ve all read books on survival,” Search and Rescue volunteer Matt Piva told Horlacher. “It’s what intrigues us. And you showed us an incredible will to live.”
Horlacher, a Denver resident, was rescued from North Routt County on Aug. 12 after he spent five nights on the rocks in the middle fork of the Snake River after breaking his tibia just below his knee.
When Search and Rescue workers located him, medical experts said he was hypothermic and only hours from death.
After 33 days in the hospital and months of physical therapy, a smiling, joking Horlacher returned to Routt County on Saturday to throw a thank-you dinner party for the Search and Rescue team.
As he greeted the team members downstairs in the squad’s headquarters, he listened to each of their names and shook their hands vigorously.
He poured wine and showed the group how he could two-step without any problems on his leg, which had been fused with nine screws and a metal rod.
“It was good fishing up there,” he told them. “From what I remember, it was good.”
Lying in wait
There wasn’t one moment of panic, he said.
In the three days he was conscious, Horlacher said he never once second-guessed his decision to stay where he was — visible in the middle of the river — and not run the risk of compounding the fracture in his leg and developing an acute medical issue by trying to move.
He called his time next to the river meditative and spiritual, as he was soothed by the sound of the river.
“My rational mind told the rest of me that this is the best hand I can play,” Horlacher said. “And it was a beautiful place.”
He had left a note about where he was for the lady who watches his parakeets.
So Horlacher, a geologist, settled fittingly among the rocks — Pre-Cambrian, he noted — and waited for someone to come.
He started shivering by the second night. He had caught two trout with his fly rod and eaten them raw. They were rainbows, and they were good, he said. Full of protein.
But hypothermia began to take over. He slipped into the water and his body temperature sunk below 90 degrees.
Back in Steamboat Springs, Search and Rescue got the call Aug. 11. Horlacher might be in Routt County, they were told, and had been missing since Aug. 7.
During the dispatch communications, a Colorado Division of Wildlife officer mentioned someone matching Horlacher’s description had told him he wanted to fish the Snake River.
Within 18 hours of getting the call, Search and Rescue was lifting Horlacher out of the water with a rope system.
“A lot of things happened right,” said Search and Rescue volunteer Kevin Kopischke. “And just in the nick of time.”
While they were searching for Horlacher, however, visions of the worst-case scenario were creeping into the minds of rescuers.
“I wrote you off,” Search and Rescue team member Scott Scherer told Horlacher. “I thought we were looking for a cold, dead body. You changed my outlook on searches. It was enlightening to hear you were alive on the radio. It was very gratifying, and it’s great to see you here, vertical and breathing.”
From rescue to recovery
Saturday’s dinner provided enlightenment and closure for both sides — the rescuers and the rescued.
Horlacher learned about all the details, the strategic planning and tactics surrounding the rescue that he has no recollection of.
He learned about the rope system that descended the steep river embankment and how he kept asking, “Where are we going?”
And the rescue volunteers learned about the man who was delirious when they found him — in an “altered state,” one said. They learned about the decisions that led to his condition and his calm acceptance of reality.
They learned about his recovery in Denver, a follow-up story that rescue workers don’t always get.
He brought pictures of his campsite, of the river, and X-rays of his legs. He shared magazine articles that had been written about him.
He thanked each rescue worker individually and repeatedly.
Aside from the dinner party, Horlacher’s actions since the accident have shown his deep gratitude to the Routt County rescue workers.
He donated money to the all-volunteer organization, and his company in Denver opted to match any donations from other employees. Incident commander Kristia Check-Hill said the organization received almost $6,000 from his efforts.
At the beginning of the evening, a Search and Rescue volunteer commented that Horlacher was “quite the hero” for surviving five days in the wilderness.
“Hero?” he responded. “No, I’m not the hero here.”