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The Silver State’s enticing backcountry can prove dangerous if visitors don’t take the proper precautions.
Photo: Illustrations by Tony deRonnebeck
Every year thousands of outdoor enthusiasts are drawn to Nevada by the rugged beauty of its high mountains, sweeping valleys, and remote backcountry. Others passing through arrive by happenstance. Regardless of reason or circumstance, those who accept Nevada’s hospitality must be prepared to reckon with myriad contingencies that could place them in harm’s way.
The Silver State’s enchantment is defined by four distinct seasons, humbling peaks more than 10,000 feet tall, extreme deserts whose temperatures range from 30 to 120 degrees, a meager average annual rainfall of seven inches, a sparse population of less than 3 million, and vast tracts of public land that beg to be explored, but demand to be respected.
The majority of people who visit Nevada’s cities and wide-open country annually enjoy their experiences and return home without incident. Occasionally, though, some folks have their trips end prematurely and sometimes tragically because they encounter situations for which they are unprepared and know little about.
Such was the case of Albert and Rita Chretien of Penticton, British Columbia, who were on their way to a Las Vegas trade show on March 19, 2011 when Albert turned off Idaho State Highway 51 to follow a shortcut indicated on his new GPS. The road eventually deteriorated into steep, muddy canyons and snow-covered hills, one of which caused the Chretiens’ van to slide into a muddy rut and become inextricably stuck in a remote Nevada canyon in the Humboldt-Toyiabe National Forest between Mountain City and Jarbidge. Their ordeal, which I’ll cover in more detail later, proves why it’s paramount to have basic survival skills.
Lack of knowledge, poor physical fitness, overconfidence, poor planning and preparation, and just plain bad luck are prime reasons a survival situation may rear its ugly head. No one is exempt from the perils that spawn wilderness emergencies. Even seasoned outdoors people are vulnerable to crises in the wild.Survival Stories
Ron Pierini, an avid Nevada outdoorsman and longtime sheriff of Douglas County, was hunting birds north of Midas in the Osgood Mountains of Humboldt County. With bad weather and darkness descending, he started down a steep canyon and slipped on an ice-covered plateau, sliding several hundred feet into a jagged shale bed.
Though injured from a concussion and bleeding profusely from a head wound that would require 27 stitches, Pierini emerged from a life-threatening situation because he knew what to do. He did not panic, he “ate the pain,” and he compressed the wound. Recounting his story, Pierini says, “I was really bleeding, but it was still a long way to the truck. I had to stay conscious, and I had to stay calm. I’m just glad I had the outdoor survival knowledge to get me through it.”
Pete Van Arnum, a seasoned veteran of Nevada’s outdoors, and a friend were hunting in an area that required a six-mile hike into the Jarbidge Wilderness. Van Arnum’s sidekick stopped to tie his bootlace with a muzzleloader rifle cradled across his knee. The gun discharged, hitting Van Arnum with a .54 caliber round ball in the back of his leg. His hunting partner ran a whole six miles out of the wilderness to get help from a man with a ham radio.
It was later discovered that the rifle in question had a defective safety, which caused it to fire. Because both men were in superb physical condition, did not panic, and knew what to do, Van Arnum survived. He was airlifted to safety and has since fully recovered. Of his ordeal, he says, “I was lucky. Back then [in the 1980s], they didn’t have the technology they do now, and it took eight hours to get the helicopter in.”Common Sense and Planning Are Key
There is nothing magical about wilderness survival. The previous examples were of experienced Nevada outdoorsmen—hunters who were not expecting trouble, but were prepared to deal with it when it happened. The most important tool that will help anyone safely emerge from most wilderness survival situations is common sense. Most potential survival situations can be overcome at the kitchen table during the planning stages of a trip. Good planning addresses essential questions involving where you are going, the time of year, purpose of the trip, and length of stay. Only after those questions are answered can a determination be made of what kind of gear and food should be taken.
Another purpose of the planning stage is to formulate and file a detailed itinerary of where you intend to be each day, along with the time you plan to return. It is important to give your plan to someone you trust. If they accept it, it then becomes incumbent upon them to act immediately if you do not return at the scheduled time.
A flight plan may have been the single most significant item that the Chretiens needed. Rita spent 49 days in the remote Nevada backcountry because nobody knew she was there. If she had called family from Baker City, Oregon saying they were taking a shortcut, they would probably have been home safely within a few days. The Chretiens, though, should not be criticized for their actions. They found themselves in a challenging situation, and they dealt with it as best they could.
They were in an area that was shrouded in winter and not heavily traveled. They were completely stranded with no prospect of help. After three days, in an effort to save his wife and himself, Albert made a critical decision to strike out for help. His few tools included a new GPS with which he was not familiar and little or no food or water. He may have been ill prepared for his trek, but given the Chretiens’ circumstances, as a 30-year wilderness survival instructor I applaud his decision as courageous and perhaps necessary.
In the ensuing seven weeks, Rita did many things right. She never gave up, and she did not panic. Her positive attitude and faith sustained her. The next important thing Rita did to ensure her survival was to stay hydrated. Rita also rationed the trail mix and hard candy she had purchased in Baker City, and she had enough warm clothing to stave off hypothermia.
The epilogue to the Chretien saga has not yet been written, and probably won’t be until the family receives closure regarding Albert. The physical portion of Rita’s ordeal is over. She is safe after surviving 49 days in a harsh environment.Avoid Hypothermia and Heat Stroke
Hypothermia is the number-one cause of death in the outdoors, and last year in Nevada several people perished from its effects, including Tommylee Leighton, 46, from Reno, who died December 10, 2011 after being submerged in the cold water of Desert Creek south of Wellington while trying to free his stuck vehicle. There are many other recent cases; all unique and all unnecessarily tragic. Hypothermia is not necessarily a cold-weather killer. The breeze, working with the perspiration absorbed in clothing, can create a fatal dose of hypothermia even on a nice day.
The antithesis of hypothermia—heat stroke, a dramatic increase in body temperature—is also a preventable killer that claims many lives in Nevada and the desert southwest yearly. In August 2009, a 28-year-old mother and her 6-year-old son were traveling from Las Vegas to Death Valley National Park for an overnight camping trip. Their jeep got stuck in sand on a desolate road 20 miles east of Trona, California. They had water and provisions, just not enough. In the sweltering summer heat of Death Valley, it did not take long for young Carlos Sanchez to die of heat stroke. His mother, Alicia, was rescued, but her condition was dire.
Alicia did tell her family that she was headed to the vast national park, but she was not specific with her itinerary. It was also reported that she was misguided by a GPS with which she was unfamiliar. With better planning, the Sanchezes and Chretiens could have avoided being the exception, and instead been among the millions who regularly enjoy Nevada’s great outdoors and return home safely to tell about it. Photo: Tim Hauserman
Survival equates to knowledge, planning, and preparation.
• Learn and practice survival skills.
• Learn how to build a fire in the rain.
• Train yourself to think rationally, without fear and panic.
• Do not let your imagination run rampant.
• Learn how to use a map and compass.
• Join a Red Cross-sponsored First-Aid class.
• Pack your vehicle with essential items:
• Fixed-Blade Knife
• Folding Lock-Blade
• Utility Tool
• Water Bottles
• Water Purifing Tablets
• Cotton Balls dipped in Vaseline
• Bandana (brightly colored)
• Meals Ready-to-Eat (MREs)
• Freeze-Dried Meals
• Granola or Protein Bars
• Tube Tent or Tarp
• Rope or Paracord
• Space or Insulated Blanket
First Aid Kit
Dress appropriately for all possible weather conditions:
• Wear layers in all seasons and adjust appropriately to conditions.
• Minimize exposed skin in hot weather.
• Carry rain gear.
• Avoid cotton and opt for synthetic water-wicking materials.
WORTH A CLICK
Friends of Nevada Wilderness
Mountain Survival Tactics & Skills
Nevada Wilderness Project