Handwritten notes detail stranded B.C. woman's ordeal in Nevada wilderness

Penticton woman instinctively did all the right things to assist her survival and rescue, experts say.

Photo of Nevada wilderness courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

TWIN FALLS, Idaho -- Stranded in her van, surviving on melted snow and as little as a spoonful of trail mix a day, Rita Chretien wrote notes during her seven-week ordeal in the rugged Nevada wilderness.

In the notes found in the van after the 56-year-old woman from Penticton was discovered last Friday by hunters, Chretien hopes for rescue.

"Please help. Stuck,'' begins one note, photos of which were taken by sheriffs and obtained by CNN. She notes they had been stranded since March 19, 2011.

"No food. No gas. Dead bat. (battery) Lost my way!''

She notes that her husband, Al, "went to get help. Find Mountain City. Did not return!'' Then, the last words on the page, written in red: "Maybe died along the way?''

Chretien and her husband Albert, 59, vanished while heading to Las Vegas on a business trip in mid-March.

Family members had all but given up hope by Friday, when the two hunters found the van where Rita Chretien remained holed up while her husband set out on foot to get help.

The vehicle was stuck in thick mud along the northern border of the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, at least a day's walk from the closest town and in an area with no cellular reception.

Albert Chretien set out for help a few days into the ordeal, and has never been heard from again. Searchers continue combing the area for the B.C. man.

Doctors said Monday they were pleased with Rita Chretien's improving health after seven weeks rationing a scant amount of food and fish oil pills.

A medical team at the Idaho hospital where she is recovering said she would not be discharged just yet, but announced she had started eating solid foods again.

"She's making the progress the doctors would have hoped for, having the solid food was the next step,'' said Ken Dey, spokesman for St. Luke's Magic Valley hospital. "So everything is remaining positive and she remains in fair condition and it's a progression as we go forward.''

An update from the hospital said she preferred rice over potatoes and salads, and she would have a choice of six small, regular meals per day.

"Given her condition, it is important to introduce solid foods slowly,'' said the update, adding she was receiving physical therapy and "her spirits are extremely high.''

Darkness, some wrong turns and a belief the roads they were taking were "more reliable'' resulted in a desperate situation for the couple, said their son, Raymond.

After several days of waiting for help that did not come, the pair agreed Albert should depart with a GPS device as guidance. He never turned up.

Raymond Chretien and his wife, Jennifer, spent Mother's Day at Rita's bedside focusing on the "amazing'' woman, while uncertainty over what happened to their father lingered in their minds. American authorities were continuing a narrowed search on Monday.

The search didn't progress far over the weekend in the rugged terrain of northern Nevada, near the Idaho border, where roads are described as a spider web that can be confusing to navigate.

Rain, snow and high winds forced searchers to end their efforts early Sunday. Poor visibility meant aircraft couldn't be used in the search, and travel was difficult because some roads have been washed out or covered with rock slides.

Elko County Sheriff's Sgt. Kevin McKinney was not immediately available to provide an update on the search Monday.

Chretien read the bible, wrote in a journal, drank melted snow and didn't expend too much energy, carefully eating small portions of trail mix, hard candy and fish oil while she waited.

"She did a lot of things totally unaware that she was doing the correct things,'' said survival trainer Brian Phaneuf, who teaches with the Calgary-based Remote Areas Emergency Medicine and Survival group. "She kept a positive mental outlook.''

Another wise move would have been to create a signal or large S.O.S. sign using opposing coloured markers that could be seen from the air, he said.

"When it comes down to the stress of an event sinking in, a lot of these things don't just jump out,'' he noted. "That's why I'm so happy for her ... she made it through because she instinctively did things.''

Lack of food and shelter made his outlook for her husband more grim.

"The only thing I can hope for is he went to ground, built a shelter and he may be found, although I have just a sinking feeling that it will be a recovery, not a rescue.''

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