Man follows alternate GPS route, gets stranded in heavy snow for seven days

A man who became stranded during heavy snow in the backcountry of California’s Sierra Nevada mountains for a week after following the directions on his GPS was rescued alive after surviving on a small supply of food and melted snow.

Harland Earls, 29, was traveling from Grass Valley to Truckee for a birthday party on January 24, a drive that would typically take less than two hours, when a heavy snowstorm shut down Interstate 80. Seeking an alternate route, Earls turned to his GPS.

The device directed Earls to the shortest route on the map. But the GPS didn’t account for Henness Pass Road being an unplowed mountain pass and Earls ended up being stuck for days in snow so deep he was unable turn his vehicle around, the sheriff’s office said.

“The GPS doesn’t know if there’s six feet of snow on a road or if the road is clear and passable,” Sierra County Sheriff Mike Fisher said.

Stuck and unable to obtain a cell phone signal, Earls tried tying small branches to the tires of his pickup truck to gain some traction.

In the process, his cell phone got wet and stopped working. The resourceful man found some dry spaghetti noodles and handwarmer packets in his truck, and popped them into a Ziploc bag with his phone. It took three days, but the phone finally dried out enough to for him to charge it and make a call. But finding cell service wasn’t as easy.

While Earls survived on two cans of beans, some sausages and a few pieces of stale, moldy bread, the man’s family reported him missing and assembled search parties to hunt for him. Law enforcement was alerted and various agencies were on the lookout for Earls and his pickup truck.

The sheriff’s office said that Earls’ pickup truck had a camper that provided some shelter and he had winter clothing and some propane for a camp stove.

Earls was able to cut wood for a fire, and used a small propane camp stove to melt snow into drinking water, which he drank out of a small dog dish. He tried hiking out a few times, but couldn’t make it far enough to find a cell phone signal as he kept sinking into the deep snow. He had now been stuck for seven days.

“And then on Sunday (January 31), he really was desperate and he was out of provisions and … his phone was finally charging up to at least 50%,” his mother said. “So it gave him the chance to hike up to the highest point.”

Earls strapped two snowboards to his feet to use as makeshift snowshoes to hike to a place where he could get cell service. The connection was bad and the call quickly dropped, but it lasted long enough for him to give the 911 operator his name and birth date.

Law enforcement was able to pinpoint the GPS location of his phone and launched ground search and rescue teams as well as a helicopter. After scouring the area, the California Highway Patrol helicopter crew located him “almost immediately,” Fisher said.

Earls is physically doing well, his mother said.

“I’ve been feeding him all of his favourite foods and vitamins and rehydrating,” she said. “He drank probably a gallon of water the first day that he got here.”