MOUNTAIN CITY, Nev. (AP) — A Canadian man whose remains were found 18 months after he and his wife got stranded in their van in Nevada's wilderness had hiked within six miles of town when the battery likely failed on the GPS that steered them the wrong way in the first place, and he veered off course into heavy mountain snow.
Two hunters found the remains of Albert Chretien, 59, of British Columbia, over the weekend on a rugged mountainside in the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest near the Nevada-Idaho line, Elko County Sheriff Jim Pitts confirmed on Monday.
Albert Chretien was about six miles from where he left his wife, Rita, then 56, and vehicle in search of help in March 2011. She was rescued after 48 days, surviving primarily on stream water and trail mix in one of the most remote areas in the Lower 48 states.
The discovery of the remains on Saturday show Albert Chretien had hiked more than nine miles on his winding route and was within six miles of Mountain City when the GPS battery probably burnt out and his path began to angle too far north, Deputy David Prall told The Associated Press.
The GPS was the type made for a car with a battery that can't simply be replaced, he said, and Chretien ended up on a route a mile north of where he intended to be, about three-fourth miles east of the summit of Merritt Mountain, Prall said.
"Once he lost the ability to use that GPS, due to the snow drifts, he couldn't tell where the road was. He did a lot of unnecessary climbing. He was heading literally for the summit of the mountain," Prall told AP by telephone on Monday.
If he had been able to keep his bearings, Prall said there's a decent chance he might have made it to the town on state route 225 south of Owyhee.
"If he stayed on course, he would have been on the downhill side of his trip," Prall said.
"There's no way to speculate whether he would have made it, but he demonstrated by where he made it to it was far beyond what he was equipped for. This man had tremendous courage and inner strength to get where he was," he said.
Prall said the Chretien family had asked not to be disturbed by the media. He said they were keeping secret the exact location of the discovery of the remains to keep it private for family visits.
A public memorial was held for Chretien in April in his hometown of Penticton, B.C.
The Chretiens disappeared during a trip to Las Vegas and last had been seen in Baker City, Ore. Rita Chretien later said their van got stuck in the mud while following their GPS onto a national forest road in northern Elko County.
When her husband left the van three days later, Prall said there wasn't much snow at that elevation, about 6,000 feet.
But Chretien ended up climbing to about 8,100 feet with snow drifts six to eight feet deep "and in a very densely forested area," Prall said. "He was at the base of a very large tree. It's so densely forested the sun never really penetrates the canopy that much even at noon. So there would be no way to spot him by air."
Rita Chretien survived on the little stock of food they had so it's difficult to speculate what would have happened if Chretien had remained at the van, Prall said.
"If you're going to hike for help, the best way to go is the way he came back down. But they weren't trained in survival. They were relying too much on GPS without any personal knowledge of the area," he said.
"The best bet would have been to have never left the asphalt."
Prall was in charge of the original search for the Chretiens in the spring of 2011. He said it's hard to explain to people the remoteness of the area where Idaho's high desert collides with Nevada's snow-capped Independence Mountains. Rvers and streams with headwaters mostly in the wilderness area drain off 10,000-foot peaks to the north on their way to the Snake River.
"Somebody who's never really been outside of the Las Vegas city limits wouldn't understand, but it is very vast," he said.