Estimated read time: 6-7 minutes
SIMPSON SPRINGS, Tooele County — A Provo man is recovering and feeling grateful after hiking more than 30 miles after becoming stranded overnight in the mountains in a snowstorm, leaving his family worried and searching for him on Christmas Eve.
The family said they're also feeling grateful, especially for the team of volunteer searchers that came together to find Ethan Hunt before he spent a second night stranded outside in the cold.
Hunt loves to go for hikes. His family considers him experienced in the outdoors. He carries a survival kit in his car with supplies to stay safe in an emergency, and usually leaves a detailed itinerary of where he's going in case something happens.
On Thursday, Ethan headed out for a short hike, to a place he's been many times in the West Desert. Everyone was busy with various Christmas week plans, and no one was home when he left.
He drove up to an area in the mountains in Tooele County, south of Dugway, near Simpson Springs.
The hike went well, but Ethan recounted how, as he set off toward home, he decided to take an alternate route he hadn't driven before over Erickson Pass.
His four-wheel-drive car slid a little bit in a patchy spot, and Hunt ended up stuck in a snowbank. He tried to dig himself out and got stuck in an even deeper part of the drift.
"I realized I'm not going to get out with what I have with me," he said.
With no cell service, and knowing that no one knew where he was, Ethan decided he'd need to hike out and try to get help. However, a snowstorm was moving in, and he knew it wouldn't be a good idea to set out in those conditions.
"I spent the night out in the car," Ethan explained. "It was a little eerie because it started to snow pretty hard."
At around 2:30 a.m., when the snow let up, Hunt loaded his backpack with supplies, including extra clothes, socks, military field rations, known as MRE or meals ready to eat, water bottles, and a water filter that would allow him to source water from the ground.
He used the wrapper of an MRE to write a note in case anyone searched for him and found his car.
"I left a note at my car just saying where I was headed, that I had extra food, water, and clothes, that I wasn't freezing to death or anything," Hunt explained.
Back at his parents' house in Highland, the worry set in when Ethan didn't come back that night.
"We were starting to think, 'This isn't normal. I wonder where he went. I wonder if he went further or had car trouble," his mother, Mandy Hunt, said.
They called the Lone Peak Police Department that night, but were told that because Ethan is an adult, the family would have to wait 24 hours to report him missing and ping his cellphone.
Around 10 a.m. on Christmas Eve, when Ethan would have taken off for this hike, they made that report.
A cellphone ping came back to a tower near Dugway.
With a general location finally confirmed, volunteers were quick to jump in and help the Hunt family with the search.
Ethan's father, Shawn Hunt, enlisted the Tooele County Sheriff's Office, Juab County Search and Rescue, Utah County Sheriff's Office Search and Rescue, Bureau of Land Management, family and friends, who all gave up what they were doing with their families to join.
Hunter Crandall, Ethan's cousin and Shawn's nephew, happened to know someone with a helicopter who is also a search and rescue volunteer. They hopped in a helicopter within a half hour. Crandall said they were radioing back and forth with a Utah County Sheriff's Office SAR plane for the air search.
"We were flying grid patterns, we were flying the benches of the mountains, we were checking the canyons, we were just a good two hours of no luck," Crandall said.
Finally, the plane spotted a vehicle near Erickson Pass. Crandall said the helicopter pilot, Brian Trapnell, flew in closer for a look.
"We came up over this ridge, and lo and behold, there's Ethan's car in the middle of the trail," he said.
They found Ethan's note, which read: "Car stuck in snow. Departed eastward have food, water and extra clothes. –Ethan Hunt."
They could see footprints leading down the road into the valley.
They loaded back into the helicopter and followed the prints. Crandall said they landed every time the road reached an intersection, so they could track which way Ethan had turned and fly in that direction.
Night began to fall, again.
The helicopter was running out of gas. Around 7:30 p.m., as they turned around to head back to Spanish Fork, Crandall spotted something flashing.
"At the last second, I just happened to look back down to the trail, and I could see a red light flashing, like SOS, like 1, 2, 3 and then it would go off, and it would flash," Crandall said.
It turned out to be Ethan's headlamp.
Hunt said he'd been periodically flashing his headlamp in hopes that someone would see it as he hiked. By this point, he'd been walking for 17 hours and made it more than 33 miles from his car.
Crandall and Trapnell had the Utah County SAR plane figure out the coordinates and send it to Juab County deputies, who quickly drove out to that spot.
Hunt said he could see headlights flashing at him.
Deputies got out and Ethan knew he was going to make it home for Christmas Eve.
"The mud was absolutely thick. There was some parts where I was slugging through ankle-deep mud, and with that, my shoes and socks were getting wet, and that was causing even more blisters," Ethan recounted. "And so, I was pretty dang tired by the time they found me, so it felt good."
Those Juab County deputies drove Ethan to reunite with his family in Nephi. He was sore and tired from having hiked for so long and so far, but in good spirits. He had been able to eat his MREs as he walked, and said he was filling his water bottles from puddles on the ground and using the filters to drink.
With this being the one time the family said Ethan didn't let someone know where he was headed, they talked about how they will make sure he always leaves his hike plans with them before he goes out.
Mandy described how the family was grateful for everyone who came together on Christmas Eve to find her son and bring him home.
"Everybody was just very, very happy to see him," she said, adding, "Best Christmas present ever, to have him back and safe."