A host of searchable news reports from the beginning of this month note the finding and positive identification of the remains of Albert Chretien in the mountains of Elko County, Nevada. The late Mr. Chretien was the husband of the couple who in March 2011 followed a GPS route off of paved roads in nearby Idaho and onto graded gravel then two-track trails as they penetrated deeper and deeper into an area rarely traveled in winter. Their van got stuck and after 3 days Mr. Chretien took the GPS, a blanket, and a handful of food and attempted to walk out to the tiny community of Mountain City, NV to get help. He was never seen alive again, and in nothing short of a miracle, Mrs. Chretien survived some 46 more days in the van until a family on an ATV outing found her on Mother's Day weekend.
In early October 2012, elk hunters found the body of Albert Chretien on the upper slopes on the north side of Merritt Mountain, over 18 months from the time he'd started walking out for help. He'd walked around 7 miles from the van and was some 6 miles away from Mountain City. Searchers did not find his GPS, but it was of the variety which re-charges its battery from hook-ups in a vehicle's 12-volt system or from household current, meaning there was no way to replace batteries. The searchers noted he'd left detailed information with his wife as to his intended route from the van to Mountain City, and from the location of his body, they speculate the GPS battery failed and he wandered off-course to the north, gaining over 2,400' of elevation, walking into deeper and deeper snow, and ultimately sought shelter in a "tree hole", a common feature in high snowpack mountains, where a tree's branches and boughs prevent deep accumulation, providing something of a shelter from wind and falling snow. His body was found at the base of a large tree, which precluded locating it from the air and which prevented ground searches from locating it.
The episode was roundly discussed here in "Gear-up" back then. Having a keen interest in off-road travel in exactly the part of Nevada the tragedy unfolded in, I've spent some time with maps and Google trying to determine more exactly where their van was found and where the search for Mr. Chretien was focused. The whole episode is sad, with not a small dose of shocking. The initial foray took the Chretiens off of I-84 at Mountain Home, ID, south down a paved 2-lane road which does enter and traverse the mountains in Nevada, leading to the Great Basin and connecting to other routes to Las Vegas, their destination. But the Chretiens were trying to make it to Jackpot, NV, on the ID-NV line on US 93, for an overnight stop, before continuing to Vegas the next day. Mrs. Chretien told searchers and investigators they'd realized they'd turned off of I-84 too soon and were miles and miles down ID-51, the two lane road, before realizing their error. At that point, Mr. Chretien consulted his new GPS, purchased to navigate the streets of Las Vegas, and searched for a more direct route to Jackpot, saving them the time and distance of backtracking up to I-84. There are US Forest Service roads, county roads, and BLM roads all over that border area of ID and NV, so Chretien came up with a route, but the problem was these roads enter and traverse mountains over 5,000' higher in elevation than the Snake River Plain from which he was departing. They're not maintained in winter, and nobody ever attempts to enter the mountains from the Idaho side until May or June.
The "shortcut" started at Grasmere, ID, a dot on the map now uninhabited. After some 30 miles, it enters a steep-walled canyon and reaches an intersection which would lead over a range to intersect the road to Jackpot. Chretien must have realized his mistake by this time, and he turned south, looking for a road leading to Mountain City, a much closer route by which to reach a town with motels and fuel, Elko. Once again, such roads exist, but he was in fact going farther and farther into the mountains, and farther away from the direction where help might come from. He ultimately turned off of a "main road" along Meadow Creek and attempted to drive up a steep canyon road more directly in the direction of Mountain City, up Taylor Creek Canyon. Realizing, after a couple of miles, that he could not get up the canyon's road, he tried to turn around, got stuck in the mud alongside the road, and that was as far as the van went. Attempts to un-stick it were futile, and after 2 nights, he started walking out on Day 3.
It is said that hindsight is 20-20. Truer words were never spoken about the decisions made by Albert Chretien in March 2011. As is most often the case, the Law of Serial Consequences took hold, too, with one bad decision creating opportunity for another, and with a compounding effect. Absence of a paper map, absence of "situational awareness" as to the general nature of the geography his trip was intended to traverse, reliance solely on GPS, then continued reliance on GPS to get him out of the mess it had gotten him in to, right down to having the unit die on him at the very point he needed directional guidance most, leading him to walk away from help instead of more directly towards it, killed Albert Chretien in March 2011, and it brought his wife to within days of death from starvation and exposure.
The hope is, of course, that travelers can learn from the tragic mistakes of others. RIP, Albert Chretien.