Front Range

The Survivor

Last August, fisherman Craig Horlacher spent five nights and six days in the Little Snake River after he fell and broke his leg. Here, he talks about the accident, facing his mortality, and the parakeets he credits with saving his life.

By
August 2011

The rocks in that area are all very hard Precambrian rocks, and the canyons are quite steep. There were a lot of cobbles and boulders that were very angular. I was maneuvering to get a fish when I just flat-out fell—sprawled forward, crashed, and hit one of these angular boulders. It was like a karate chop from a rock, right in what’s called the tibial plateau. My leg became swollen like a tree trunk.

I knew that some kind of desperate attempt to get out of there was futile. I reconciled myself that my fate was in the hands of God and other people who I had no control over. I had made my decision, as a man, how I was going to play this hand.

I was sitting in the river with the beautiful sound of gently rushing water. It’s a much more chaotic thing to face your mortality in the hospital, when you’re dealing with all this technology, with strangers, with the emotion of family and friends. I was going through it in paradise.

I have two parakeets—Isabelle and Juan Diego—whose existence probably saved my life. A neighbor takes care of them while I’m out of town. It’s been my practice to stick my itinerary on the wall next to the birdcage. [My neighbor is] a very diligent and thorough person, thanks be to God, and was the first to sound the alarm when I didn’t show up.

Thursday morning—that was the fifth night, sixth day—Routt County Search and Rescue found me. My body temperature was 86 degrees. I had aspiration pneumonia. At the hospital, I was on a dialysis machine for about a day. I had about three days of a bad gastrointestinal bleed. I got five screws in the break point, a rod down the side of my leg, and another four screws. I spent about 15 days in the ICU, and it was a total of 33 days in the hospital.

People want to talk about it. People are curious. I asked my ex-wife, “You know sometimes it bugs me, people just keep asking me about it and talking about it. Why is that?” She said, “You know, Craig, people want to be close to a miracle.”