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Just 40 miles from Nome, stuck in the snow

Posted: December 4, 2011 - 1:10am

Clifton Vial, 52, climbed into the cab of his Toyota Tacoma on Monday night in Nome to see how far a road winding to the north would take him.

More than 40 miles out of town, at about 9:30 that night, he found out. As Pink Floyd’s “Echoes” played on the stereo and temperature dipped well below zero in the darkness, Vial’s pickup plunged into a snowdrift.

“I made an attempt at digging myself out and realized how badly I was stuck,” Vial told The Anchorage Daily News. He was wearing tennis shoes, jeans and a $30 jacket from Sears. “I would have been frostbit before I ever got the thing out of there.”

Vial found himself alone near Salmon Lake, on road that doubles as a snowmachine trail in the winter and stretches inland from the Bering Sea city. Far beyond the reach of his cellphone, Vial slipped into a fleece sleeping bag liner and wrapped a bath towel around his feet. He occasionally started the truck to run the heater and listen to the radio.

Was anybody talking about him? Did they know he was missing?

By the third day, Vial said, the truck was nearly out of gas.

Normally Vial carries a sleeping bag, extra gasoline and other survival gear in the 2000 Toyota, he said. But on this trip he had few supplies, no food and no water. Even his dogs, a pair of labs that usually accompany him on drives, stayed home.

Vial kept busy trying to think of ways to stay warm. His wife and daughter were out of town, searchers said. No one would know he was gone until he failed to show up for work at 3:30 p.m. Tuesday.

No one could reach Vial on the phone. Co-workers patrolling the town that night found no sign of his pickup.

Handeland called police on Wednesday when Vial missed work for a second day.

The Nome Volunteer Fire Department was alerted and Vial’s co-workers and volunteer rescuers drove surrounding roads in search of the Toyota.

One searcher drove 41 miles along Kougarok Road — just a few miles from where Vial sat shivering and stranded in his pickup -- but saw no tracks. The searcher turned back as daylight disappeared and the road conditions worsened, Handeland said.

Troopers joined the search. Rescuers looked for Vial on the ground and from the air, in planes and from a helicopter.

“When we get called on situations like this, it’s a needle in a haystack,” said Jim West Jr., a Nome fire department captain and search and rescue coordinator.

For Vial, the cold was worse than the hunger, he said. Still he scoured the pickup in vain for food.

His only provisions: Snow, and a few cans of Coors Light that had frozen solid in the cab.

Vial ate the beers like cans of beans. “I cut the lids off and dug it out with a knife,” he said.

The overnight low temperature in Nome dropped from about 12 below Monday night — not counting windchill — to 17 below on Wednesday morning, said National Weather Service meteorologist Charles Aldrich.

Battling for warmth, Vial wrapped a bath towel around his feet and placed another over his knees and thighs. He shook his ankles and knees to keep moving. He stuffed rags in his clothes and unraveled tissue paper, jamming it down around his feet.

The wind rumbled like airplane engines, Vial said. He thought about his daughter, and about what would happen if no one found him in time.

“I tried to sleep when I could,” Vial said, “but I knew that I might not wake up.”

When he did close his eyes, Vial said, strange and vivid images appeared. “Saw my daughter. Saw my job. Saw some things that didn’t look like people.”

He would picture himself driving around Nome, saying hello to friends, only to snap awake and find himself back in the truck, freezing.

At one point Vial decided he would only fire up the pickup’s engine once a day. “(The gas tank) was on ‘E’ and the gas light was coming on,” he said.

Vial never heard the rescuers arrive. It was early Thursday afternoon, three days after he first became stranded in the snow, when they pulled up behind his pick-up. A co-worker and another volunteer opened the door to the truck, he said.

They gave him a Snickers bar — it seemed too dry to eat, he said — and an orange soda.

Vial described the more than 60-hour ordeal in a short phone interview Friday from Nome. His daughter was home from Anchorage. He planned to visit a doctor Friday afternoon, then return to work.

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