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‘Maybe tonight is the night I die’

A short skiing trip led one man to nine days in the Colorado wilderness with no food or water and freezing temperatures. NBC News' Jack Chesnutt reports on one man's cautionary tale of survival.
/ Source: NBC News

It had been nine days since Charles Horton fell off the ski trail. Eight nights alone in the wilderness near the Continental Divide with a badly broken leg. Temperatures were below freezing. Horton’s core body temperature was hovering in the 80s.

Then, a storm moved in. Horton could barely crawl. He was out of food and fire, and he was running out of time.

“I thought, you know, maybe tonight is the night I die.”

An experienced outdoorsman
Charles Horton was not a likely candidate to be on the verge of death in the Colorado backcountry. He had attended wilderness survival classes. He was an experienced winter camper and had taken dozens of trips into the wild country on foot, by kayak, and on skis. It was a sunny morning on April 9, 2005, and seemed like the perfect opportunity to enjoy a few hours cross-country skiing in the mountains.

“It was a beautiful spring day. I parked at the end of where they plow the road, and skied in on the road, probably about three miles. I tried to make a turn, and actually fell and broke my leg. Pretty much on the road.”

Three miles from his car, Horton tried to crawl.     

“I figured out I could use my backpack as a splint for my leg.” But, crawling was agony. In 12 hours, he covered half a mile. “I’m thinking, I’m in trouble.”  Horton’s trouble was only just beginning.

For Randall Hannaway, president of Routt County Search and Rescue, Horton’s story sounds familiar.           

“It’s a classic line, ‘I was going out for two or three hours, I didn’t tell anybody where I was going because I was only going out for two or three hours.’ Rule number one: Tell people where you are going and when you’ll be back.”

Horton had obeyed half of rule number one. He had told a friend where he was going skiing, but he had not said when to expect him back.           

“So at that point, I knew, okay someone knows where I am. I might be out here, at the most two days” said Horton. “That’s what I thought.”

Unfortunately, it would be much longer before his friends noticed his absence. His immediate problem was survival. The sun was going down and it was getting cold.

Trying to stay dry and calm
Horton’s outdoor training paid off. He had brought two wool shirts and a vest and a nylon outer jacket. He had a knife, some dried fruit, and a half-bottle of water. Also in his backpack: matches, a lighter and metal rod that could be used to make sparks. He didn’t carry a space blanket (which he says would have made his experience “like staying at the Hilton hotel.”) But he did have a small inexpensive plastic whistle that would later pay a big dividend.

“I knew I needed to get out of the snow and out of the meadow where I was exposed. I was looking at that time of year around the trees, so you have a snow well. Under the branches is pretty much dry ground.”

Horton crawled under an evergreen tree. He collected a small bed of branches to elevate him off the ground and he made a small fire that first night, but he quickly ran out of fuel. Keeping dry was a key to survival. Search and Rescue’s Hannaway says someone who is wet looses body heat 20 times faster than someone who is dry.

“Hypothermia can kill and it happens very quickly,” according to Dr. David Cionni, an emergency room doctor at Yampa Valley Medical Center in Steamboat Springs.

“Staying dry is probably the most important factor,” said Cionni. “Conserving your body energy, if you can help it, and staying hydrated are all very important factors.” Cionni said even eating snow may help with the hydration, but it also chills the body’s core.

Horton ran out of water on day two. His dried fruit also ran out quickly. The days and nights passed and no one knew he was in trouble. When the sun was out, the temperature was in the 40s. But the nights were in the low 20s. On the eighth day, conditions got much worse: a blizzard.

“There were times when I would wake up from a nap and turn to talk to the person I had been talking to in a dream.”

Horton is credited with doing something else many people can’t do when stranded and hurt in the wilderness. He stayed calm.           

“I asked myself, if this is my last day alive, how do I want to spend it? I didn’t want to miss anything. I tried to pay attention to the snow; listening to a bird’s song; just noticing the incredible place that we are in, and how precious life is, you know?”

$5 plastic whistle to the rescue
On day nine, Horton’s friends missed him and broke into his apartment to find that his cat had not been fed, and that there were a week’s worth of unanswered phone messages. His car was found, and a ground search was quickly launched. Horton could even hear the snowmobiles in the distance, but he couldn’t call out.

“At that point, I was so dehydrated, it was hard to talk and I couldn’t have yelled loud enough. I was pretty weak.”

It was when a snowmobile became stuck in the snow and the searcher turned off the engine that Horton could signal. Three blasts on the $5 plastic survival whistle led rescuers to his position under the tree. It was Sunday April 17th, 2005 — nine days since Horton had originally set out on his ill-fated ski trip.

Horton still has a pin in his leg to repair the break he initially suffered and his feet have recovered from frostbite. Two years after treating him, Cionni still finds Horton’s survival, “amazing. We’ve never seen anything like that before.”

Still finds the beauty in nature
Horton took a return trip to the location of his accident. It gave him a new perspective on what he had gone through. “Initially, I was sort of like ‘what’s the big deal, all I did was lie around for nine days’ and yet, afterwards, going back out there and seeing the half mile that I crawled that one day, you know, I was amazed a little more about what I had done.”

Horton still lives in Steamboat Springs. He still loves to hike and ski into the backcountry — finding peace and beauty in nature.

“I’m not afraid of it. It’s not going to stop me from going back out. I mean it’s gorgeous. Life is worth it, you know, we have to live it.”