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Sunday drive turns perilous for Denair couple
Smiths stranded in Sierra snow bank overnight
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A Denair couple is back at home on their dairy after a harrowing trip that saw them stranded in the isolated back country of the Sierra National Forest.

Roger and Patricia Smith, both 69, enjoy taking drives in their Jeep, exploring the back roads that open up an abounding number of sites that are rarely glimpsed from the highway. But Sunday’s journey did not turn into the pleasant drive expected when the pair found themselves stuck in a snow bank miles from any help and little chance of a rescue.

“It was quite a scary experience,” Roger Smith said.

The couple headed off Sunday to explore the area around Bass Lake. After an enjoyable day they set off for home, using their GPS to direct them to a road that would eventually lead them to a cutoff, allowing them to see more of the area.

When they started out the snow on the ground had been fairly light, but as they traveled along it started to build up. The couple’s confidence in their route started to waiver as the snow deepened. Then the Jeep hit a snow bank and all motion came to a stop.

“It got high-centered and we were stuck,” Smith said.

The situation went from a nuisance to one of real peril when the jack Smith had broke and their cell phone was unable to pick up a signal.

"We were stuck in no-wheres-ville," Smith said.

Smith tried to get a signal on his phone by walking a bit further up the hill, but it was to no avail and by this time night was approaching.

“My wife is always telling me to keep some supplies in the car, so we had water and a blanket and we still had half a tank of gas in the Jeep,” Smith said.

The couple hunkered down in their Jeep for what would be a fitful night and pondered what they would do once the sun rose the next day.

As a dairyman Smith is up and at work each day at 6 a.m. and he knew his absence would raise some alarms. But that was of little comfort since no one knew where they had gone.

The Smith’s absence came to light around 6 a.m. Monday when their daughter Debbie Zylstra arrived at the dairy and was unable to locate her parents or reach them by phone.

“Right then I knew something was wrong,” Zylstra said. “I have an app on my phone called Life 360 that allows me to ping and locate my dad’s phone. It showed me where they were 16 hours earlier.”

Zylstra contacted the Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Department and reported her parents missing. The sheriff’s department contacted law enforcement in Madera County and started coordinating a search effort for the couple.

Unbeknownst to anyone the ping received by Zylstra showed the last location of the Smiths before they lost cell phone reception. The rescue party would be searching in an area far from where the Smiths were stranded.

By the time dawn broke on Monday, Smith had come to the conclusion he would have to make the trek to Bass Lake to have any hope of rescue.

“I didn’t know how long we were going to sit out there,” Smith said. “I didn’t know when or if ever anyone was coming to get us.”

It was not an easy decision to make for the dairyman with a bad knee and replacement ankle. The snow was just as deep, they had not eaten since noon Sunday and his destination was at least 20 miles or more away.

“There wasn’t much of a choice to it,” Smith said.

For the next four hours Smith drudged along putting one foot in front of the other. He estimates he had gone close to the halfway mark when he heard the rumble of an oncoming pickup truck.

“I could hardly believe it,” Smith said. “There is nothing around up there, yet here comes this truck. I took my hat off my head and started waving it profusely. I was going to step in front of it if I had to.”

The two men in the truck, who Smith calls his angels, stopped and gave him a ride to Bass Lake, where he was able to arrange for help for his wife and make a very welcomed phone call home.

“I was shocked and surprised when I heard my dad on the phone,” Zylstra said. “We were both very emotional.”

“It’s really hard to put into words what it was like out there,” Smith said.

Settled back safe at home Smith said the harrowing experience hasn’t dampened his and his wife’s wanderlust.

“We’ll still go out and go for drives,” Smith said. “We’ll just get better at it and keep the back of the Jeep full of supplies from now on.”