RIO BLANCO COUNTY -- 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 was conscious and coherent when 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 human spirit, the will to live -- that's what amazes me."
Horton set out for a one-day cross-country ski trip on April 17, friends said. He fell and fractured a bone in 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. 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 all 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 was eventually found.
"My heart just sank," Walker said.
Emergency personnel began coordinating the search immediately after the discovery of Horton's truck, Routt County Under Sheriff Dan Taylor said. Using information from Horton's friends and acquaintances, rescuers determined he was an experienced outdoorsman who last year took a two-week wilderness survival course in California.
Without any solid leads about Horton's exact location, 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 of 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 with which Horton eventually was found.
"We were gearing up for a probable four-day search," Vail said. Instead, rescuers found Horton just one hour after leaving the command center.
They were fortunate to find Horton when they did, Vail said.