MOUNTAIN CITY, Nev. — At about 6,000 feet in a narrow valley surrounded by bulbous, snowcapped mountains, this tiny northeastern Nevada town sits roughly two hours from anywhere, in the middle of nowhere.
It’s that remoteness and grandeur that apparently drew Rita and Albert Chretien to the area around Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest as they made their way from Canada to Las Vegas. Albert Chretien has been missing in the wilderness since late March after the couple, guided by a new GPS, ventured off the highway onto muddy, washed-out forest service roads winding deep into the high country.
Rita Chretien was found Friday by a trio of hunters after spending seven weeks in the couple’s van stuck in mud, surviving off trail mix, hard candy and water from a nearby stream. Her husband set out on foot to find help, hoping to make it to Mountain City. He hasn’t been seen since.
Rita Chretien spent a few days in an Idaho hospital and was sent home with her family on Tuesday for treatment back in British Columbia.
“Them mountains are nasty, some of the gnarliest mountains you ever seen,” said Bill Landon, one of only about 20 year-round residents in town. “The mud up there is something terrible. You sink up to your knees in it. When it rains back there, those roads turn to plum mush.”
Locals such as Landon, who know these mountains well and know they can swallow a man without a trace, don’t even venture into the backcountry in winter, which can sometimes last well into April, even May. Tourists in these parts are a rarity until the summer sun dries the earth.
It’s hard to imagine how anyone, let alone outsiders, would attempt the off-road crossing the Chretiens tried, said Mel Basanez, a 74-year-old retired grocery store owner who’s lived here most of his life.
“I can’t imagine getting off the highway in this country at that time of year, even this time of year,” Basanez balked, looking up at the peaks that disappear into the gray clouds. “The minute the guy got off the highway, he should have realized he’s in trouble. Snow, mud, water, everything up there. It’s no place to be. It’s amazing she survived.”
While the search continues for Albert Chretien over miles of muck, snow drifts and washed out roads, Basanez is fearful that the landscape was too treacherous for him to survive.
“Couple of nights out there, 10 below zero, that old boy couldn’t have made it,” Basanez said. “Then you get the wind and the snow. How you gonna survive that? I know these mountains.”
The Chretiens were last seen on surveillance video March 19 while stopping for gas in Oregon. It’s not clear where they traveled next or what route they took into the spider web of forest roads that wind across the mountains.
The couple from Penticton, British Columbia, is believed to have turned their 2000 Chevrolet van, equipped only with two-wheel drive, off a highway somewhere in southern Idaho or northeastern Nevada near Mountain City looking for a shortcut to Jackpot, a stop in Nevada on their way to a Las Vegas trade show.
“The roads up there are all dirt roads, basically ATV trails. Water is running real high right now because of snow melt,” said Sgt. Kevin McKinney of the Elko County Sheriff’s Department, which is leading the search. “Many of the roads are just washed out, covered from rock slides, and there are deep pockets of drifting snow.”
McKinney said the Chretiens used their new GPS device to find the shortest route to Jackpot, nestled in Nevada’s northeastern corner. If they had typed in the town’s name into their GPS from anywhere in the area, the shortest route would have led them off-highway and along possibly a half-dozen different forest service roads only named with numbers. They apparently followed the route into the mountains without question.
“I’m no expert on GPS devices and how they work, but if you plug in for the shortest distance to any location, it’ll give you that, but that’s not always the best way to go,” McKinney said of the remote, rugged terrain.
They could have stayed on paved highways, driven south to Elko, Nev., about 85 miles from Mountain City, then east on Interstate 80 and north to Jackpot. Or they could have headed north on well-marked, maintained roads, and traveled through Idaho to their destination. But they chose to go off-road, for whatever reason.
The couple’s pastor in Canada said Albert Chretien had just recently bought the GPS unit.
“They planned to use it basically to get around Las Vegas,” said Rev. Neil Allenbrand of the Church of the Nazarene, who described Albert Chretien, the owner of an excavating business, as “a bit of an adventurer at times.”
Blindly following GPS units has led people astray in the past and has put them in precarious, life-threatening situations.
In December 2009, a Nevada couple got stranded for three days in the Oregon desert after they followed directions from their navigation device. Later that month, an Oregon couple spent about 12 hours stranded in the Northwest’s Cascade Mountains with their 11-month-old daughter.
Mike Ferguson, a Boise author of the backcountry guidebook “GPS Land Navigation,” said many inexperienced users can be led astray by putting too much trust in the devices as they seek out the shortest routes, not considering the terrain they might be facing.
“Unless you’re prepared for it, with a four-wheel drive, or maybe a snow machine in winter, when it sends you off into remote terrain, it can surely get you into big trouble,” Ferguson said.
In the end, Rita Chretien was found by a group of hunters on ATVs who themselves had made a wrong turn on the confusing patchwork of roads. It saved her life. Her husband’s wrong turn may have cost him his.