What To Do If You're Stranded In the Wilderness With A Broken Leg

March 30 2009, 12:25 PM
In the March issue of 5280, Steamboat Springs' Charles Horton, 59, details the days he spent stuck in the mountains with a partially crushed tibia. I was cross-country skiing in April 2005 on a road that's closed during the winter. While heading back, my ski got caught during a turn, twisting my right leg under me. I pulled up my pants leg to see my shinbones cocked at a crooked angle. I was three miles from my van, no one was close enough to hear the whistle I'd brought, and although I wasn't lost, people didn't know where to look for me. I put on all my layers of clothing and made a splint out of my backpack. I couldn't survive in the meadow overnight, so I inch-wormed down the road backward for about two hours until I found a tree well about a tenth of a mile away, lit a fire, and tried to sleep. The well became home for three days because it was too steep to climb out of. Any sudden movement of my leg would make me dizzy and I'd almost pass out from the pain. My kindling was too wet to start a fire; that first one turned out to be my last. Finally, on day five, the snow warmed up enough for me to dig a ramp out of the well, and I crawled on my back for about 12 hours toward a reservoir, where I thought someone might be fishing. But I couldn't make it, and that night I tried to find a dry spot to die in. Over the next several days, I slept a lot and waited. Once I crawled up to the road and found water flowing through a tire track. Even full of pine needles and dirt, it was the best-tasting water I've ever had. When it got windy and snowed again on day seven, soaking me through, I started making peace with dying, thinking about my family and friends and saying good-bye. On day nine I was awakened by the sound of a snow machine engine. I dug the whistle out of my pocket and blew three times, bringing the search and rescue team to me within seconds. They told me later that I'd been surprisingly alert even though my core temperature was 86 degrees. I spent 10 days in the hospital with a tibia that was partially crushed and had a spiral fracture, along with two fractured ribs from either the fall or the crawling. It was an amazing ordeal. Ford Church, of the Cottonwood Institute, evaluates Horton's survival strategies. What he did right
  • Put on all of his clothes to focus on his first priority: shelter and warmth. Also splinted his leg.
  • Found the tree well, insulated himself, and lit a fire.
  • Had a great survival attitude. Injuries make survival situations 100 percent more difficult. I have the utmost respect for this guy.
  • Carried a whistle to signal his rescue crew.
What he did wrong
  • Didn't tell anyone exactly where he was going. This is a common theme.
  • Didn't have the resources to keep starting a fire.
  • Didn't have a way to melt snow to stay hydrated. A metal cup and having three ways to make fire would have helped him tremendously.