MOUNTAIN CITY, Nev. — A hunter’s emergency call to report finding a Canadian woman on the verge of starvation in the Nevada wilderness has shed light on Rita Chretien’s plight and rescue.
“She’s about dead, and her husband took off about a month ago and never came back …” Chad Herman tells an Elko County dispatcher.
“She’s been in it for a month?” the incredulous dispatcher asked during Friday’s exchange.
“She says March 19,” said Herman, one of the hunters who drove nine miles on ATVs through snow and mud to a remote ranch house to find a phone.
The 911 tape, released Wednesday to The Associated Press and other media outlets, provides another glimpse of the inhospitable conditions where Chretien was stranded for 48 days — and where searchers are still looking for her husband, Albert Chretien, 59.
Albert Chretien set out on foot in search of help three days after the couple’s van got stuck on a muddy road and hasn’t been seen since.
Rita Chretien, 56, stayed with the van, surviving for seven weeks on trail mix, hard candy and water from a nearby stream until the trio of hunters spotted her.
Herman told the dispatcher Chretien was “really weak” when they found her and had draped colorful blankets from the van’s windows to attract attention.
As he described her location, a helicopter scrambled into action.
The terrain was so remote, the conditions so difficult, that a sheriff’s sergeant who joined the nearly nine-minute 911 call wasn’t certain whether rescuers on the ground could reach the van. Herman advised them not to come from the Elko side, to the south.
“From where she’s at, toward Elko, is all snowed-in and washed-out,” Herman said. “We got in on four-wheelers, and we were having a real tough time.”
Herman’s hunting party eventually met the rescue helicopter back near the van. The chopper then whisked Rita Chretien toward a hospital in Twin Falls, Idaho, where she remained until being sent home with her family Tuesday for treatment in British Columbia.
Those familiar with the backcountry where Rita Chretien was found say they know its dangers and don’t even venture into the area in winter, which can sometimes last into May.
“Them mountains are nasty, some of the gnarliest mountains you ever seen,” said Bill Landon, one of only about 20 year-round Mountain City residents. “The mud up there is something terrible. You sink up to your knees in it. When it rains back there, those roads turn to plumb mush.”
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 has 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 gray clouds. “The minute the guy got off the highway, he should have realized he’s in trouble.”
A team of about 20 on horseback and all-terrain vehicles set out Wednesday to look for Albert Chretien over miles of muck, snow drifts and washed-out roads.
The search also is getting help from at least one airplane, said Sgt. Kevin McKinney, spokesman for the Elko County Sheriff’s Office. It was called off Tuesday because of flooding threats and rainy weather.
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 with only 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.
McKinney said the Chretiens used their new GPS to find the shortest route to Jackpot. If they had typed the town’s name into the device from anywhere in the area, the shortest route would have led them off-highway and along possibly a half-dozen different Forest Service roads labeled only with numbers.
“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.
“I think that GPS really screwed them up,” said Ryan Stowell, whose family owns the ranch where Herman made the 911 call. “There’s no reason for us to be up there, unless we go up there to see if the road is open to Elko.”
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 the Rev. Neil Allenbrand of the Church of the Nazarene. He 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.
Associated Press writer John Miller reported from Boise. AP writer Todd Dvorak in Boise, Idaho, contributed to this report.