This elk hunter bagged the ride of his life

Jan. 16, 2019
Jeff Schwerdtfeger poses with his wife, Jules, and daughter, Ella, during a hike in Hawaii.
Jeff Schwerdtfeger poses with his wife, Jules, and daughter, Ella, during a hike in Hawaii. Photo courtesy of Jeff Schwerdtfeger.

For Christmas dinner, Jeff Schwerdtfeger prepared an elk roast for his family. He slow cooked the rump roast in a macadamia nut glaze, giving a nod to the time they spend in Hawaii throughout the year.

“The roast happened to be from last year’s elk though,” said Schwerdtfeger. “This year’s hunt had a slightly different outcome.”

And by different outcome, he means getting thrown 20 feet in the air by a horse, landing on his back and being rescued from the backcountry.

Setting out for Antlers

Schwerdtfeger lives in California and has visited Colorado for a number of years, targeting his hunting to the southern part of the state. He and his hunting partners typically engage with a professional outfitter each year and have been able to fill their tags each hunt.

This year, however, he joined his best friend, Dave, and six others for a hunt in the Yampa Valley.

“They’ve done this hunt for 25 years with a local outfitter,” said Schwerdtfeger. “I drove in from Lake Tahoe on a Friday and we met at the Antlers Café in Yampa, which was fitting since we were there to hunt. By the time we got to the campsite, it was all set up.”

This photo shows a hunting camp with tents and mobile campers.
Base camp for Schwerdtfeger and his fellow hunters near the Yamcolo Reservoir in the Flat Tops Wilderness Area. Photo courtesy of Jeff Schwerdtfeger.

Basecamp for the two-week hunt was near the Yamcolo Reservoir in the Flat Tops Wilderness Area, about 30 minutes from Yampa. Half of the group brought their own horses, while the other half, including Schwerdtfeger, used horses from the outfitter.

Saturday morning came bright and early at 4 a.m. Horses and packs were loaded, and the group set out to put in a traverse path to help with directions and clear the path of any logs.

“We always hope for snow on these trips,” said Schwerdtfeger. “We had snow and cold temperatures, which was great.”

Schwerdtfeger and Dave were assigned a specific area and made the four-mile ride to the top of a hill without any problems.

“Horses sometimes take a little time to get used to a new rider, but we didn’t have any issues,” he said.

Unfortunately, they didn’t see a lot of elk tracks and called it a day about noon.

Rear-end collision

Horses graze on native grasses in this photo.
The hunting group used horses to access hunting ground in the Flat Tops Wilderness Area. Photo courtesy of Jeff Schwerdtfeger.

Overnight, another four to six inches of snow fell in the area. Schwerdtfeger and Dave again headed up the traverse. They tied off their horses so they could assess their spot a bit better. They were glad to see a few more tracks in the area compared to the day before.

In the quiet of the early morning, they soon heard three shots.

“We looked at each other and said, ‘Let’s go give the guys a hand,’ assuming the shots meant someone had gotten an elk,” said Schwerdtfeger. “I usually put my rifle in my scabbard (a sheath strapped to the saddle to hold a weapon). I couldn’t get it in there for some reason, so I put it on my back.”

Dave led the ride towards the other hunting party, with Schwerdtfeger following behind. They were in an open area when Schwerdtfeger’s horse, a younger mare, stumbled over something.

“Dave was about 100 yards in front of me when my horse took off running at full gallop,” he said. “I was raised on horses and know to usually let them go for a few seconds before trying to correct them. She wouldn’t obey anything. She didn’t want me on her anymore.”

The mare was still running full speed when she ran into the rear of Dave’s horse, knocking Schwerdtfeger’s feet out of the stirrups.

“She was bucking and kicking pretty good, and eventually there I went,” he recalls. “She threw me about 20 feet. I landed on my back, on top of my rifle, on a pile of rocks.”

Over the course of working as a paramedic and fire captain for 34 years, Schwerdtfeger has been “broken” several times and knows when that’s the case.

“The fall knocked the wind out of me, but thankfully, I knew I wasn’t ‘broken,’” he said. “I also knew we needed help.”

Dave, a paramedic as well, rushed to Schwerdtfeger’s side, knowing not to move his injured friend. He did a quick assessment before leaving to get the other hunters for help. Luckily, one hunter had a cell phone that was able to pick up a signal. They gave emergency responders GPS coordinates to where Schwerdtfeger was, and then they waited.

Getting out of the woods

Two paramedics with Yampa Fire Protection District were the first to reach Schwerdtfeger. They completed an initial assessment and started an IV. Additional responders, including an EMT who was able to administer pain medication, continued to arrive, including members of Routt County Search and Rescue (RCSAR).

This photo shows emergency response vehicles at the hunter's base camp.
Emergency responders from Yampa Fire Protection District and members of Routt County Search and Rescue worked together to get Schwerdtfeger out of the back country. Photo courtesy of Jeff Schwerdtfeger.

“We were in contact with Yampa Fire as they were headed into the field for Jeff,” said Kristia Check-Hill, incident commander with RCSAR. “Calls like this are fairly typical during hunting season. Local fire districts often need some of our backcountry equipment in order to rescue the injured person. In this case, it was our wheeled litter, as carrying just the litter can be cumbersome and heavy.”

Yampa Fire had a litter, a basket used to help move someone. But carrying it down what Check-Hill estimated to be a 30-degree slope, wasn’t going to be an easy task.

Once the wheeled litter arrived on scene and Schwerdtfeger was placed in it, rescuers slowly began lowering him out. They used 300 feet of rope, trees and team members to belay the basket down.

“We use the rope system because you don’t want the basket to roll down the hill, potentially creating more harm in the situation,” said Check-Hill. “We did three different sections over a couple miles to get Jeff out safely.”

Schwerdtfeger was then taken to UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center where emergency medicine physician Dr. Laura Sehnert received him.

“Jeff was a very lucky guy, as horses are extremely powerful animals,” said Sehnert. “You’re up in the air on a horse and if you fall, there can be significant impact.”

Schwerdtfeger was diagnosed with four broken ribs, a hematoma on his left lung and a bruised spleen. He said it was a great relief to know that none of the broken ribs had caused a pneumothorax.

Schwerdtfeger said Sehnert explained everything in detail and appreciated that Dave was able to stay at his side.

“Dr. Sehnert and the team continued to share information with me,” said Schwerdtfeger. “Even though I understood the medical terminology as a paramedic, they still took the time to explain it. I’ve never seen trauma center staff care as much as these folks did.”

This is a photo of Dr. Laura Sehnert, an emergency medicine physician at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center.
Dr. Laura Sehnert. Photo by UCHealth.

“As a provider, my goal is to make sure no matter your level of education or experience, that at the end of your visit, you understand not only your diagnosis, but also the plan moving forward and any signs and symptoms which would require additional evaluation,” said Sehnert. “Likewise, it’s important to involve the patient’s family, caregivers or friends when appropriate as that helps ensure nothing falls through the cracks, especially given patients may not have the clearest judgment due to the stress of the injury and impact of medication. Jeff was able to actively contribute to his plan of care, even in the significant amount of pain and distress he was in.”

That evening, Sehnert said Schwerdtfeger could stay the night or discharge from the hospital. He chose discharge, but there was no way he could go back to the base camp, and his hunting clothes had all been cut off.

“Luckily, they were able to give me some clothes and slippers, and a recommendation for a nearby hotel,” said Schwerdtfeger.

Homeward bound

The next morning, Schwerdtfeger boarded a flight from Hayden to Denver, with Reno, Nev. as his final destination.

“Let’s just say it was interesting navigating the airports with four broken ribs and still being in a good amount of pain,” he said. “Luckily, there were nice people on my flights who were able to lend a hand.”

Once in Reno, he headed straight to the radiology practice of his brother, Dr. Bob. Thanks to YVMC utilizing Epic as its electronic medical record, his brother was able to review his scans and was confident in the diagnosis Schwerdtfeger had received. And once home in Truckee, Calif., Schwerdtfeger’s primary physician was also able to review his chart.

“During my time at YVMC, I was treated with incredible respect, care and compassion that I have never witnessed in my time as a fire captain, paramedic and manager of a FEMA Task Force 3 in a large metropolitan area,” said Schwerdtfeger. “Each and every one who I came into contact with that day deserves a huge thank you, hug and recognition for their excellent service that is, in my humble opinion, well above and beyond any standard I have ever witnessed.”

There’s always next year

Schwerdtfeger took the next few weeks to recover from his injuries and is doing well. He even moved a half cord of wood just a month after the accident.

“We had a trip planned to our home on Kona, Hawaii, so the ocean air may have aided in my recovery,” he joked.

As for the rest of the hunt for the group? Some left the two-week hunt early, while others finished it out. The group ended up filling two of their elk tags. Schwerdtfeger said he’ll be back next year.

“I’m already looking forward to it and getting back to the Yampa Valley,” he said. “But next year, I’m hand-picking my horse. That, or I’ll get a lot of good hiking in.”

About the author

Lindsey Reznicek is a communications specialist at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. She has spent the last ten years working in marketing and communications in health care, an industry she never considered but one to which she's contributed through her work in media relations, executive messaging and internal communications. She considers it an honor to interact with patients and write about their experiences; it’s what keeps her coming back to work each day.

A native of Nebraska, Lindsey received a Bachelor of Arts degree in journalism, with a focus on public relations, from the A.Q. Miller School of Journalism and Mass Communications at Kansas State University – she bleeds purple.

She could see a Broadway musical every week, is a huge animal lover, enjoys a good shopping trip, and likes spending time in the kitchen. Lindsey and her husband have two daughters and enjoy hiking in the summer and skiing all winter long.