“I wouldn’t have made it another day due to dehydration, my injuries, and hypothermia,” he told the Dolores Star. “On the fourth day, when I saw the helicopter landing then the rescuers across the creek, it was powerful.”
Nurnberg, 71, often hikes the backcountry alone. His harrowing ordeal began Aug. 18 as a routine hike in the Taylor Mesa area north of Dolores.
After a day of hiking, he was returning to his truck with his regular hiking buddy, a friend’s dog named Lucky.
“I got tripped up in the tall grass and fell down a steep embankment, hurt my hips, hyper-extended my knee and hit my head hard,” he said. “I was pretty banged up. After that, I was dazed and could not get my thoughts connected. It can happen just that fast.”
Concerned for Lucky, Nurnberg searched for his 15-year-old companion but wore out his flashlight battery and two lighters.
“That was my first mistake,” he said. “I keep those lighters for emergencies only.”
It was dark. He was alone, injured and in the fight of his life.
When he failed to return Tuesday to his home off Lebanon Road, his wife, Karen, called the Dolores County Sheriff, and a rescue was organized.
By Wednesday morning, a search was underway that grew to 30 ground crew, a helicopter, a dog team, and two F-16 fighter jets from a regional U.S. Air Force base.
Flawed decisions kept Nurnberg hidden from rescuers.
Turned around by his concussion, he mistook which way his truck was and ended up descending into the forested Stoner Creek drainage area, where there were no trails or roads.
“I should have climbed to either Taylor or Stoner Mesa, but I was foggy and could not think logically,” he said.
Nurnberg had a locator beacon that emits a GPS signal to search-and-rescue teams, but when he tried to activate it, the batteries were dead.
Settling into some bushes for a second night, Nurnberg was grateful for the two space blankets he carries in his pack, some M&M’s and a couple of granola bars.
“I had a balaclava, a watch cap, my knee pads, two water bottles, emergency whistle and a light vest, but I left my jacket in the car,” he said. “I did not sleep much.”
The third day and night were the most difficult.
He followed Stoner Creek downstream, climbing over endless deadfall, and fell into deep water more than once.
“I was so hungry and tired and felt myself sailing away into unconsciousness, but while I respect Buddhism, I was not ready for reincarnation yet!” he said. “Around every bend, I was hopeful for a trail or road, but it was just more and more rugged canyon with fallen trees.”
Wet and shivering, he believed that he would die if he fell asleep. A curious bear kept him alert and occupied.
“I was moving my legs to stay warm and awake, but I kept drifting, and my last thought was ‘I love you Karen,’” he said with emotion. “Then I heard these crunching footsteps slowly coming toward me – a bear. I realized I was a weak, injured animal in its territory!”
He broke out the whistle, and began blowing while lying on his back, nearly defeated.
“I had been (urinating) blood, and I had open wounds on my arm,” he said. “To a hungry bear, I smelled like blood and meat!”
The bear moved off, but Nurnberg said he could sense it was still nearby. After an exhausting night, he tried the emergency beacon, and this time it indicating that a signal had been sent.
The rescue helicopter honed in on his location, deep in a remote section of Stoner Canyon, eight miles from his truck.
“The chop-chop of the helicopter was the best sound. I just wanted to go home,” he said.
Nurnberg was hospitalized for five days with dehydration, hypothermia and a concussion. He had lost two liters of fluids.
“They said he was dying and was in ICU for three days,” Karen said.
Nurnberg is recovering, grateful for the rescuers, and to Sheriff Jerry Martin, who kept the helicopter in the hunt on the critical fourth day. Nurnberg carries a Colorado fishing license, allowing Dolores County to be reimbursed for the rescue..
“I’d hate to pay for those jets,” he laughed.
Ron said special gratitude goes out to his wife of 44 years, who just a few months ago saw he was not carrying the GPS locator on his hikes.
“I said that won’t do you much good sitting on the floor, and he put it back in his pack,” she said.
Lucky was found uninjured near the truck.