ELKO, Nev. – A Canadian man whose wife survived for seven weeks in the Nevada wilderness hiked within 10 kilometres of a nearby town but veered off course into some heavy mountain snow before dying, police say.
Albert Chretien’s whereabouts have been a mystery since the couple’s van got stuck in the mud in March 2011.
The couple got lost when they decided to take a shortcut to a Las Vegas trade show from their home in Penticton, B.C.
Authorities in Elko County shed new light Monday onto the tragedy, just two days after elk hunters discovered Chretien’s body in a secluded area of Merritt Mountain, west from where he set off.
Deputy David Prall of the Elko County Sheriff’s Office said Chretien had hiked more than 14 kilometres on his winding route and was within 10 kilometres of the community of Mountain City when the battery in the GPS he was using probably burned out and his path began to angle too far north.
“Once he lost the ability to use that GPS, due to the snow drifts, he couldn’t tell where the road was,” said Prall. “He did a lot of unnecessary climbing. He was heading literally for the summit of the mountain.”
Had Chretien kept his bearings, there’s a chance he might have made it to a highway and then into town, said Prall.
“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,” said Prall. “This man had tremendous courage and inner strength to get where he was.”
Rita Chretien stayed with the couple’s van and was found on the verge of starvation 49 days after her husband went for help. She survived on trail mix, hard candy and melted snow, and has said her Christian faith kept her going.
Prall said that when Albert Chretien left the van on his hike to find help, there wasn’t much snow at the elevation he was at, which was about 1,800 metres,
But he said Chretien ended up climbing to an elevation of more than 2,400 metres, with deep snow drifts and a dense forest.
“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.”
Det. Dennis Journigan of the Elko County Sheriff’s Office said Chretien’s remains were intact and hadn’t been scattered by animals when they were found.
Chretien was identified by items found in his pockets, including business cards and an address book, police said.
Det. Jim Carpenter said the hunters in their 40s found a backpack that Chretien carried when he left the van. It contained a spiral notebook and sunflower seeds.
The hunters then went up the mountain and found his body, Carpenter said.
“They know of the story, of what took place and they were in the general area,” he said Monday. “They put two and two together and called us and said, `Hey, we think we found your missing Canadian guy.'”
The hunters led police to the wooded area, about a four-hour drive from the sheriff’s office, early Sunday morning, Carpenter said.
“It’s big news around here, and everybody who lives here knows the whole story.”
Rita Chretien was relieved to hear her husband’s body had been found after so long, Carpenter said.
“She’s obviously upset but she’s also relieved that we recovered Albert’s remains,” he said.
“This wasn’t anything that we gave up on. We were continuing searches up in that area and always trying to cover more ground and the thing that people don’t know is this ground is steep, rocky, (with) trees. There’s roads there but they’re really tough.”
In the last 18 months, a search and rescue crew from Carpenter’s department has made countless trips to the area in hopes of finding Albert Chretien’s body, and the last search happened two weeks ago, he said.
“We’ve had our group, we’ve had groups from Idaho, we’ve had groups from Utah, we’ve had cadaver dogs. We’ve had a lot of people up there.
“From where their vehicle was, it’s miles and miles and miles of ground to cover up there. When you have 15 to 20 people up there at a time on a search, you can only cover so much ground.”
The discovery of Chretien’s body has brought relief to the whole community, Carpenter said.
“The good thing is that the family has closure. It’s kind of an end to the whole experience, the whole event. Everybody’s been putting in time and effort to give the family that closure that they need.”
— By Camille Bains and Keven Drews in Vancouver, with files from the Associated Press.