Washington runner crawls 8 hours to find cell service after breaking ankle on remote mountain trail

A Washington trail runner snapped his leg on a remote mountain path Friday evening and crawled for eight hours on his hands and knees, shredding his skin raw, until he found cell service to make a call for help, officials said.

The 26-year-old was alone on the Duckabush Trail in Olympic National Park in northwest Washington state when he suffered a broken ankle around 5 p.m., Jefferson Search and Rescue (JSAR) wrote on Facebook. He was about 10 miles from the trailhead.

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The runner, later identified as Joseph Oldendorf, told KIRO-TV how his tibia had “completely snapped off,” leaving his ankle “flopping” after slipping on ice. From a hospital bed, Oldendorf recounted how he survived in the sub-freezing temperatures with no cell service and no one else around for miles.

“I had to crawl on all fours and my knees – it’s a rocky, snowy, dirty, wet trail – and after a while, my knees were just raw,” he said. “So I had the idea put my shoes over them so I would at least have some traction and a little bit of protection, but they’re still really messed up."

A graphic photo shows Oldendorf's bloody knees and his left leg swollen from the injury.

The 26-year-old crawled for several miles until he finally heard his cellphone beep from a text message, rescuers said. He called 911 around 12:45 a.m. – more than seven hours after the injury – and continued dragging himself down the trail as the temperature dropped.

The first rescue team to reach Oldendorf had to hike about four miles up the trail.

The first rescue team to reach Oldendorf had to hike about four miles up the trail. (U.S. Coast Guard)

A rescue team located Oldendorf at 4 a.m. on Saturday. He had crawled on his hands for 5 or 6 miles until the Brinnon Fire Department located him by voice, JSAR said.

He was treated for a broken ankle and exposure at the scene while rescuers waited for the U.S. Coast Guard to send a helicopter to airlift Oldendorf from the remote trail.

Oldendorf crawled for eight hours before he phone acquired service.

Oldendorf crawled for eight hours before he phone acquired service. (U.S. Coast Guard)

An MH-65 Dolphin helicopter crew reached the scene at 7 a.m., the Coast Guard said. The crew hoisted Oldendorf from the trail and took him to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.

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The JSAR praised Oldendorf’s “grit” and said that his determination to “self-rescue,” along with carrying a charged cellphone, likely helped prevent more serious injuries.

A Coast Guard helicopter crew airlifted Oldendorf to a hospital.

A Coast Guard helicopter crew airlifted Oldendorf to a hospital. (Jefferson Search and Rescue)

The will to survive and crawl through the pain came from thinking of his family, along with the fear he would die if he stayed put, Oldendorf told the station.

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“I don’t want my family to hear I died in the wilderness,” he said. “I think it’d be unbearable.”