Image: Mel Basanez, left, and Bill Landon, look at a map
Brian Skoloff  /  AP
Mel Basanez, left, and Bill Landon, look at a map of the northeastern Nevada wilderness on Tuesday, in Mountain City, Nev. Efforts to find 59-year-old Albert Chretien were suspended Tuesday by rain, low clouds and flood warnings in a remote corner of Elko County, Nev., where Chretien and his wife became stranded along a muddy road on a trip to Las Vegas.
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updated 5/11/2011 6:50:22 PM ET 2011-05-11T22:50:22

Even for 911 operators, the idea that a woman had spent seven weeks in the Nevada wilderness alone in a van and survived was unbelievable.

"She's been in it for a month?" a clearly incredulous Elko County law enforcement dispatcher said during the emergency call from the hunters who found Rita Chretien, 56, in the stranded vehicle Friday afternoon. The hunters had just ridden nine miles through snow and mud to a remote ranch house to find a phone.

"She says March 19," replies Chad Herman. "She's about dead, and her husband took off about a month ago and never came back, so I'm sure he's dead."

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 stayed with the van, surviving for seven weeks on trail mix, hard candy and water from a nearby stream until the hunters spotted her.

Herman said she had draped colorful blankets from the van's windows to attract attention. As he told authorities where to find her, a helicopter scrambled into action.

The terrain was so remote, the conditions so difficult, that a sheriff's sergeant who joined the 911 call wasn't certain if 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 Twin Falls, Idaho, hospital. She remained at the hospital for a few days before being sent home with her family Tuesday for treatment in British Columbia.

On Wednesday, search teams resumed efforts to find any trace of her husband.

"Them mountains are nasty, some of the gnarliest mountains you ever seen," said Bill Landon, one of only about 20 year-round residents in Mountain City. "The mud up there is something terrible. You sink up to your knees in it. When it rains back there, those roads turn to plum mush."

Locals such as Landon, who know these mountains well and know they can swallow a man without a trace, don't even venture into the backcountry in winter, which can sometimes last into May. Tourists in these parts are a rarity until the summer sun dries the earth.

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. Snow, mud, water, everything up there. It's no place to be. It's amazing she survived."

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 Department. It was called off Tuesday because of flooding threats and rainy weather.

Search teams were advised to continue scouring terrain from the spot where the Chretiens' van was found and advance toward Mountain City.

But for locals like Basanez, the landscape simply may have been too treacherous for him to survive.

"Couple of nights out there, 10 below zero, that old boy couldn't have made it," Basanez said. "Then you get the wind and the snow. How you gonna survive that?"

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 only with 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, nestled in Nevada's northeastern corner. 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 only named 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.

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.

In the end, Rita Chretien was found by a group of hunters on ATVs who themselves had made a wrong turn on the confusing patchwork of roads. It saved her life. Her husband's wrong turn may have cost him his.

___

Associated Press writer John Miller reported from Boise. AP writer Todd Dvorak in Boise, Idaho, contributed to this report.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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