Man found in North Routt creek shares his story of survival
September 10, 2010
Steamboat Springs — For five nights, Craig Horlacher was propped with his torso on a rock and his legs in the shallow water on the banks of a North Routt County creek. His lower leg broken, Horlacher decided his best odds for survival rested on a plan to stay near enough to the creek to drink water and catch fish.
Horlacher, 57, broke his leg when he lost his footing on the rough bed of the stream as he was unhooking a fish Aug. 7. The Wheat Ridge resident told the story Thursday from a hospital bed at St. Anthony Central Hospital in Denver.
Horlacher said he had camped in a field the night before and was going to do a few hours of fishing before leaving Routt County.
Even though his car was only about a quarter of a mile away, Horlacher said he didn't think he could make it up the steep banks near the confluence of the Tennessee Creek and Middle Fork of the Little Snake River. He had come to Routt County from the Front Range the day before to fish. He said he has been to Northern Colorado many times but not to that fishing spot.
Horlacher said he realized his leg break was serious and reckoned his best option was to stay by the water. He said that if he had moved, he risked a compound leg fracture — when the bone sticks through the skin — falling and hitting his head or falling into the river, where even the 18 inches of flow greatly increased the risk of hypothermia.
"I elected to do it the way I did it because I kept the torso above water, I was visible, I could catch fish, I had clean water," he said. "It was probably also a good defense against animals."
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Horlacher said he spent his time caching rainbow trout and eating them raw or meditating with the sound of the flowing water.
"The days were quite mild and pleasant, so I was spending my time either throwing a line in or trying to reposition myself so I could be more comfortable with my broken leg," he said.
He did have a couple of "space blankets," the reflective emergency blankets, with him, and he used them at night when it got colder. He also sent pieces of the reflective fabric downstream to get attention, but he kept his backpack.
"One or two of the nights were fairly warm, but I had a few nights the wind was blowing and it was quite cold," he said. "I would say at night I meditated. I made my decision about how I wanted to handle it, and I was confident in that."
He said he was confident he would be found, but he considered the possibility that he might die.
"I initially thought it was unlikely, but then I became more reconciled to it," he said.
Horlacher had left his itinerary with a neighbor, who went to the Wheat Ridge Police Department when she saw that Horlacher had not returned for work as planned.
Wheat Ridge police sent the search notification to Moffat County on Aug. 10 but did not send the notification to Routt County until Aug. 11.
That night, a Routt County Sheriff's Office deputy found Horlacher's car, and Routt County Search and Rescue volunteers began searching the area. They continued until about 1:30 a.m. and resumed early Aug. 12, when they found Horlacher, delirious.
"Really, I was kind of conked out in the water," he said. "I was finally lying down on the rocks, I was so tired."
He had spent five nights injured in the creek.
Rescue teams used a system of ropes to pull Horlacher from the steep canyon into a waiting helicopter at the top of the ridge.
Horlacher said he doesn't remember his fifth night in the canyon or his rescue. The next thing he recalls is the flight from the Yampa Valley Medical Center to Denver.
Horlacher said he was in intensive care for 17 days and expects to remain in the hospital for another week. He suffered some of the indications of hypothermia, including internal bleeding, but other than his leg, he said he has mostly recovered.
Money for searches
Like all rescues performed by Routt County Search and Rescue volunteers, there was no cost to Horlacher for the extraction.
Search and Rescue President Russ Sanford said all of the costs accrued during missions — from the fuel for the helicopter to the food for searchers on long missions — are paid for through the Search and Rescue budget.
The total budget of about $100,000 per year comes from a variety of sources, he said, including donations.
Sanford said the goal for tonight's Search and Rescue fundraiser is $15,000 through ticket sales and raffles. The fundraiser, with food from the Steamboat Smokehouse, will be from 5 to 9 p.m. at Olympian Hall. Tickets are $15 and available at Ski Haus or from Search and Rescue volunteers.
The all-volunteer force has 28 members on the roster now, with five more going through training. Sanford said the goal is to have closer to 40 members, and information about volunteering will be available at tonight's event.