Rescued skier ready to return to dancing

Posted: Friday, April 29, 2005

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colo. — Charles Horton spent eight cold, lonely nights stranded in the Colorado backcountry with a broken right leg, but now he has something else to worry about — dancing.

It was on his mind after the 55-year-old massage therapist and accomplished dancer was rescued early Monday after a short skiing outing turned into more than a week of survival without much food, water or warmth.

If he can make it through that, Horton can get back on the floor, his surgeon said.

''I think with Charlie's attitude, he's going to be back doing everything he was going to, everything he's doing, whether it's with his own knee or an artificial,'' Dr. Michael Sisk said.

Horton was in fair condition in a Steamboat Springs hospital Tuesday, but doctors postponed an operation on his broken leg until Wednesday. He also was treated for a fractured rib, dehydration, minor frostbite and moderate hypothermia.

Doctors at Yampa Valley Medical Center said they were surprised Horton wasn't in worse shape, although he will need months of physical therapy and runs the risk of developing arthritis or requiring an artificial knee at some point.

''I think there'd be a lot of people stiff as a board out there,'' Dr. Michael Sisk said. ''Eight days out in the woods this time of year is a long time, and unless you know what you're doing, I think the odds of success are very low.''

Doctors, rescuers and friends all agree that Horton knew what he was doing.

''That's why we all were always pretty clear and pretty strongly thought that he was still alive'' friend and spokeswoman Mary O'Brien said.

''If anybody could do it, it would be a person like Charles.''

Horton's ordeal began April 17, when he fell and broke his leg on what was supposed to be a one-day cross-country ski outing not far from his home in Steamboat Springs, about 100 miles northwest of Denver.

Horton had told just a couple people where he was going, but did not designate one person to check on his return. With most of his friends on vacation, it would be a week before anyone realized he was gone.

''We've all acknowledged that that is something that we are all lax on in this community, because we're all so accustomed to going into the woods and going on hikes,'' O'Brien said.

Horton spent the week alone, sleeping under trees or makeshift shelters and sunning himself during the day to keep warm. On the third day, he began to inch toward his car 3 miles away, using his elbows to drag himself along.

Horton had taken survival classes, but ''he wasn't able to use a lot of the things he learned because he couldn't move,'' O'Brien said. He did have excellent clothing for the conditions, some food and an emergency whistle.

His best days, O'Brien said, were the first couple, when he was in an area with good sunlight. Once he moved, he was more exposed and it became difficult to keep warm. Temperatures dipped into the 20s at midweek, but little snow fell, and Horton managed to stay relatively dry until Sunday night.

''By Sunday night, he was soaked pretty much to the skin. And at that time, he questioned his ability to go on much longer,'' she said.

On Sunday, his longtime friend and landlord Johnny Walker returned from vacation and found Horton's cat unfed, his plants without water and a slew of phone messages wondering why Horton had missed massage appointments.

Walker called the sheriff's office, and the search began early Monday.

About an hour into the hunt, when two rescuers had shut off their snowmobile engines after one got stuck in the snow, they heard someone blowing on a whistle.

''It was a little bit lucky,'' search commander Jim Vail said. ''(The engines) woke him up and then he started whistling.''

Searchers split into two groups, with Karin Satre and Pete Schwartz heading down a Forest Service road. Suddenly, Schwartz slammed on his brakes and Satre pulled up behind.

''I looked down and Charles was there. He was down the bank,'' Satre said. ''He had whistled right when Pete passed, and Pete heard it through the helmet.''

He was cold and wet, and Satre wondered how he had enough energy to lift the whistle to his lips. But he could answer questions, even though he could barely talk, and Satre said she detected a smile as he told them who he was.

''He said, 'I was doing real well, and then it rained on me all night, so now I'm really cold,''' Satre said.

Rescuers said Horton's warm clothing and the relatively mild weather helped him survive, but Satre sees another reason.

''He seems to have a personal calmness. He just seems very able to cope mentally,'' she said. ''You got to pray we all have that in us.''

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