Broken leg leads to six-day ordeal for mountain camper

Posted: Thursday, August 08, 2002

POWELL, Wyo. (AP) -- At times, Charles Overfield wasn't sure he would ever make it out.

A search plane flew over Saturday afternoon, and Overfield -- stranded alone for five days in the Beartooth Mountains with a broken leg -- threw green branches onto a campfire trying to generate a smoke signal.

He watched helplessly as the wind blew the smoke into the treetops, where it dissipated.

Racked by pain from his fracture, he then crawled up a rock face and waved a cooking pot at the plane high overhead.

''The plane flew over me five times that day,'' Overfield said Wednesday. ''That was probably the most disappointing time.

''As the plane flew away, I thought, 'Where are they going?'''

Finally, on Sunday, searchers on the ground and then the plane spotted the injured man waving a yellow tent fly.

''The plane moved in and tilted its wings at me to let me know they saw me,'' Overfield said. ''A big ol' rush of relief came over me. They could at least call my parents and let them know I was alive.''

He said he was amazed at the search and rescue teams that found him and helped him out of the mountains to safety.

''My hat's off to them,'' he said. ''These guys are unsung heroes.''

Overfield, 41, recounted his six-day ordeal in the Beartooths on Wednesday while recuperating at his parents' home in Powell. The search and rescue operation over the weekend was one of the largest in recent years, stretching over three days and involving 25 people and seven agencies.

A Cody native, Overfield spent 20 years in the Navy before moving to the Chicago area for a job as a maintenance mechanic at a bottle-making company.

He had planned his fishing trip in the Beartooths for months.

''I know it's bad to go in by yourself, but my vacation didn't correlate with anyone that could go with me,'' he said.

Overfield set out early last Tuesday from the Gardner Lake trailhead west Clark with plans to meet his father on Friday.

He followed a horse trail toward Deep Lake; the trail petered out, then reappeared. It eventually led him to a narrow pasture and vanished. Overfield picked up another trail but by then was thinking he was going the wrong way.

About 1:30 p.m., he crossed a creek and sat down to consult his map and compass. With a new plan to head up a nearby rise, Overfield recrossed the creek. But this time, a stone he had traversed moved beneath his feet.

''It slipped out from under me, I fell back on my foot and heard a noise,'' he said. ''A 'pop' is probably the best way to describe it.''

X-rays later showed that Overfield had broken a small bone connecting the ankle and the shin.

He fell in the water as his leg started to throb. Unrolling his sock, he didn't see any protruding bones.

''I just let my leg lay there in that creek, numb it up,'' he said. ''I sat there trying to think things out. I knew my foot was hurt for sure.''

Overfield spent the next couple of hours fashioning a crutch and splint from tree branches. It was too painful to walk uphill, so he hobbled downhill and through flat areas until he found a place to camp.

''It was fairly flat ground, within about 15 feet of a creek,'' he said. ''So I set up my tent on my knees, crawled inside and took off my splint.''

The pain made for difficult sleeping. On Wednesday morning, he assessed his situation.

''My dad used to take me hunting and fishing. I think I learned a lot from him about surviving and using common sense,'' Overfield said. ''I counted how many Fig Newtons I had in my bag, how much jerky, peanuts, bullets and matches I had and how many feet of rope.''

The leg pain was debilitating.

''It was really swollen, I couldn't even sit up,'' he said. ''I was in the tent all day except when I crawled to the creek to get water in my canteen. It was probably 15 feet away but took 40 minutes to an hour. ''

With nothing to read or otherwise distract his mind, Overfield tried to focus on the positive and figure out his next move.

''When I broke my leg I thought, 'Well, the fishing trip is over. This is a survival trip now,''' he said.

Over the next several days, he gathered firewood, studied his map and worked at keeping a cool head. He reflected on conversations he'd had with his children in which he'd throw out scenarios about outdoor mishaps and quiz them on the best way to survive.

''I was thinking that I've got to survive, otherwise my words to my kids would mean nothing,'' he said.

On Saturday morning, Overfield woke to the sound of airplanes overhead. He scrambled to dress and put the splint on his leg. He got his campfire going again and tossed green branches into the flames to make smoke.

''The plane flew over me three times while I was trying to get the smoke going,'' he said.

Overfield spent more than an hour climbing and crawling up a rock face with his gun, a cooking pot and canteen. He hoped the sun might reflect off the pot and be seen by searchers in the air. The plane made three passes, with no result.

Disappointed, he returned to camp Saturday afternoon. On the way down the rock face, Overfield looked at his camp, saw his bright yellow tent cover and had an idea.

With planes flying overhead again Sunday morning, Overfield gingerly worked his way back up the rocks, this time with the tent cover in tow.

''It wasn't easy trying to crawl up there. Pushing my items a little, crawling and then pushing them in front of me again,'' he said.

Overfield attached the tent cover to a pole and began waving it to the passing plane.

In the early afternoon, a ground crew on a nearby mountain spotted Overfield's yellow flag and notified headquarters.

A ground crew from Teton County was the first to reach Overfield. They helped him move to one clearing and then another, looking for a place where a helicopter could land. But with the wind kicking up, the helicopter couldn't get in and Overfield had to spend another night in the mountains -- this time, with company.

More search and rescue volunteers reached Overfield Monday morning. Together, they loaded him and his gear onto a stretcher and began moving him toward a clearing.

Overfield said he was deeply impressed with how much effort the search crews put in.

''One guy who stayed up there didn't even have a sleeping bag. He could've left, but he didn't,'' Overfield said. ''I gained a lot of respect for those people. I think they should be recognized.''

Overfield and the rescue crew eventually made it to a spot where a helicopter could pick him up and take him to the Beartooth Highway, where an ambulance was waiting to take him to West Park Hospital in Cody.

He underwent surgery Monday afternoon and returned to his parents' house that night.

Overfield returns to Illinois this weekend, and will spend six weeks in a cast.

The episode won't keep him from returning to the outdoors -- but he won't try another solo trip, he said.

''I couldn't believe that happened on the first day out,'' he said. ''I didn't even get to fish one cast.''

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