DOWNIEVILLE, Calif. — A California man survived a week stranded in the Sierra Nevada after following his GPS navigation system down a treacherous mountain road and getting hemmed in by deep snow.
Harland Earls, 29, was rescued by a helicopter crew on Sunday, hours after emergency dispatchers tracked his cellphone to a unplowed road in the heart of the Tahoe National Forest, and seven days after he started on what should have been a 60-mile drive home to North Lake Tahoe from a friend’s house, the Sierra County Sheriff’s office said.
The construction worker declined a request for an interview, but his mother said he has recovered from the ordeal thanks to his “tenacity, resourcefulness and survival skills.”
“He didn’t lose hope, he would not give up. He said he couldn’t do that to his family,” Julie Earls said.
Earls had visited friends in Grass Valley the weekend before the worst of a winter storm hit California. Interstate 80, the main route over the Donner mountain pass, was closed on Jan. 24 due to heavy snowfall. Earls told a friend he would take State Route 49 to pay her a visit in Truckee on the way to his home, but his GPS rerouted him to travel on Henness Pass Road.
His pickup truck got stuck on a dirt portion of the remote road as the storm dumped 6 to 8 feet (2.44 meters) of snow.
He first tried to turn the vehicle around using a chainsaw and rope, but didn’t get very far, his mother said. When his clothes and cellphone got wet, and night fell, he decided to hunker down, rationing on two cans of beans, bread and some sausages. He used a propane heater kept in the truck to melt small amounts of snow for drinking water. To stay warm, he duct taped his pant legs to his boots and huddled in the back of his truck, which was topped with a camper shell.
His cellphone wouldn’t recharge for several days due to the moisture. To dry it, he stuffed in a Ziploc bag with spaghetti noodles and a hand warmer, Julie Earls said.
At one point, she said, he spread out a blue tarp and burned found objects in the truck to send a smoke signal, but a helicopter that flew by didn’t notice it.
Family members who hadn’t heard from Earls searched for him on their own before reporting him missing on Saturday. The next day, as authorities launched a search by air and by snowmobile, Earls strapped snowboards onto his feet, repurposing them as snowshoes, and hiked about 4 miles (6.44 kilometers) to a high point with cell service and called 911.
The call dropped, but not before dispatchers confirmed his GPS location.
“That area has spotty cell service. He was fortunate that he was able to locate a spot with a signal,” Sierra County Sheriff-Coroner Mike Fisher said. He added that Earls was lucky to have enough supplies to get through the week.
After his 911 call dropped, he kept trying until rescuers arrived.
“He was soaking cold with snow up to his chest, he thought he’d be a goner,” his mother said.
Authorities say they conduct dozens of searches and rescues on Henness Pass during snow season, as motorists stuck in ski traffic rely on their navigation devices for alternative routes. One winter day in 2018, Fisher said 50 cars got stuck in the snow on the eastern end of the road.
“People blindly follow their GPS,” Fisher told the San Francisco Chronicle. “When you’re in the city, the worst thing that could happen is, it takes you out of your way. When you’re in the mountains, you might die.”
Fisher said while he wishes navigation apps provide warnings when they redirect drivers, motorists need to be better prepared for winter travel when they come to the mountains to avoid putting themselves in dangerous situations.
“At what point is it the government’s responsibility to ensure you’re driving on a proper road versus personal responsibility to identify that you’re in a situation that just doesn’t look right?” Fisher said. “At some point, when the snow is getting worse and worse, common sense should tell you to go back to the main highway.”