Two survive week in Yukon after snowmobile stranding

Canadian Rangers found men while conducting military exercises

Posted: Wednesday, January 14, 2004

ANCHORAGE - An Anchorage man and his cousin nearly froze to death after being stranded for a week in the wilds of Yukon Territory with almost no food and little for protection but snowsuits while temperatures dropped below minus 40.

"It was like being naked in a freezer for eight days," said Branden Girves, 19, who was rescued Saturday along with his cousin, 35-year-old Joey Girves, from a trail about 40 miles north of Dawson City.

The two had gotten stuck Jan. 3 after setting out on a snowmobile trip from Tok to Dawson, according to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. They were found seven days later by Canadian Rangers who happened to stumble upon the men while conducting military exercises.

Both men were dehydrated and had been hallucinating, said Constable Pete Mitchell, who interviewed both men Sunday at a Dawson hospital after they were flown there by helicopter. Branden Girves, who was recovering Monday at Alaska Regional Hospital in Anchorage, also suffered frostbite on his feet.

"They are very lucky to be alive," Mitchell said.

Temperatures in the area hit minus 45 during the week the two were stranded, Mitchell said. While the men were wearing heavy clothing, including long underwear and snowsuits, they had little else for warmth.

They spent much of their time huddled around a small fire, sometimes getting too close, Mitchell said. Besides frostbite, Branden Girves suffered minor burns on his hands and feet. His mother, Margaret Girves, said doctors have told her son he will need skin grafts.

Joey Girves was relatively uninjured but lost about 30 pounds, Mitchell said.

Both men had to be flown out by helicopter because they were too weak to ride snowmobiles, Mitchell said.

Their misadventure started shortly after they left Tok on Jan. 2. Joey Girves said the two loaded a toboggan with heavy gear, including a chain saw and cooking stoves.

Within hours of setting out, they started having trouble with the heavier of their snowmobiles. They decided to leave it behind along with the toboggan and continue on the second to Dawson. The plan was to get parts in Dawson, then return and fix the broken machine, the elder Girves told the Whitehorse Star.

But the second machine repeatedly got bogged down in the deep snow and soon the two were nearly out of fuel, Mitchell said.

By the morning of Jan. 3, the men decided to camp, clearing a space in the snow and building a small fire. They had two sleeping pads, a tent and a pan they used for melting water, Mitchell said.

The tent was useless because they couldn't get it close enough to the fire without burning it, so they cut it up and wrapped it around themselves to stay warm, Mitchell said.

Their food supply consisted of Polish sausage and a box of snack bars, which were gone in the first 24 hours, Joey Girves said.

The men spent much of their time talking about fire and how best to keep warm, but their conversation waned in the last few days as they alternated curling up with each other and stoking the fire, Joey Girves said.

"The last day was real bleak," he said.

About noon Saturday, the Canadian Rangers found the men. A couple of advance scouts on snowmobiles spotted the remains of the Girveses' first camp along with two snowmobile helmets, Mitchell said. The men had dug a snow pit about 100 yards from their first camp after exhausting the nearby supply of firewood, the constable said.

The rangers fired a gun into the air three times, then waited 15 minutes and fired again, Mitchell said.

Branden Girves heard the shots, but his cousin dismissed them. He told him it was a tree breaking in the wind, Mitchell said.

But then the two saw the rangers on their snowmobiles.

"They were very grateful to the rangers," Mitchell said.

"It was all coincidence" to be found, Branden Girves said.

Mitchell said the two made mistakes, including not telling people exactly where they were going.

"It's people's worst nightmare, but it has a good ending," he said.

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