BOUNTIFUL — A Utah man, following directions on his smartphone in Montana, took a shortcut last December that nearly cost him his life.
Bill Bymaster, of Bountiful, logs many miles on the road for work. But, last December, driving a rental car, he turned down a gravel road west of Kalispell, Montana, to save 45 minutes and spent the next 40 hours fighting for his life.
"My phone told me to take a turn that common sense would not have told you to take," he said.
He was on his way to Hayden, Montana, and took that turn because he was eager to save time. Eighteen miles down that gravel road, it started to snow, making the surface slippery, especially in a rental car.
"I saw a sign that said 'You are on an unmaintained logging road,'" Bymaster said. "I couldn't get up the hill I had just come down, and I couldn't get up the hill in front of me, and I eventually got the car stuck."
It was 2 o'clock. He was in the middle of a national forest in northwestern Montana, and the sun would be setting in a couple of hours.
Bymaster walked a mile in a windbreaker, jeans, a cap and tennis shoes. When the road ended, he headed back to the car for the night. He had emergency provisions and winter clothes in his own SUV, but not the rental car.
Fortunately, he bought a sandwich earlier in the day at a favorite barbecue place. He had that for dinner the first night.
"I was never so happy to eat that sandwich," he said. "It was cold. But, boy was it good."
The only other food he had with him was a couple of granola bars, two bottles of water and a couple of candy canes for Christmas, only two weeks away. Bymaster had picked up that snack bag on the way out of his hotel that morning.
"It wasn't looking good because there wasn't going to be anybody, unless somebody happened to be snowmobiling. There were no tracks around."
Bymaster said he didn't panic. He slept in the car in subzero temperatures that first night, turning the engine on and off to keep himself warm. It wasn't comfortable, but he survived.
The next morning it was sunny, but still bitter cold.
"I woke up and figured I could die in the car, or die trying to get out of there," he said.
So he ate a granola bar, grabbed a water bottle and started walking. After about a mile, as he stepped over a fallen tree, he slipped.
"I got my leg stuck, and ended up breaking my leg," he said.
But he got up and kept going, praying every step of the way.
"The alternative was not really attractive," he said.
The bone pierced the skin of his lower leg above the ankle. However, it was so cold that he couldn't feel the pain as he trudged along the road wearing only thin layers of clothes and a pair of socks for gloves.
Bymaster walked and limped for 4 miles and collapsed.
"It was about sundown, and I had run out of energy and I couldn't go on anymore. So, I laid down and made peace with the world."
He made a video for his wife, shivering so much he couldn't hold the phone steady. He wanted to let her know what had happened while he still had battery on his phone. He also wanted to send one last message before he died.
"I love you very much," he said to his wife, Uji, in the video.
She and other family members had grown panicky at home after more than 24 hours with no contact.
"Unless somebody comes by," Bymaster said in the video, "things aren't looking good because I can't even stand up."
Bymaster was freezing to death. He'd grown up in northern Montana and felt like he could handle the cold better than most. But more than 14 hours after getting stuck, his body was starting to shut down.
"I shook violently for a couple of hours," he said. "Then, mercifully, I fell asleep. I laid down and figured that was it. I was probably dead for 10 or 12 hours."
At 4:45 am, nearly 40 hours after he got stuck, he was abruptly awakened.
"There were two headlights about from me to you away," he said, citing a distance of about 10 feet. "I couldn't believe it."
Two hunting guides tracking a mountain lion before the beginning of the hunt the following week saw Bymaster's car and knew there was trouble. They followed his footprints in the snow, which were joined by the tracks of a mountain lion, that led right to his body in the middle of the snowy road.
"They followed tracks right to my body," he said.
The hunters pulled him into their truck and raced for the closest town with an ambulance. Once Bymaster was on board the ambulance, getting emergency care, he finally called his wife, Uji, back home in Bountiful.
"Uji, I'm not dead yet," Uji Bymaster recalled her husband saying in that urgent call. "I'm OK, I'm OK, I'm in an ambulance."
She contacted her husband's sister in Montana, and several other relatives, and they quickly converged on the hospital where Bymaster had undergone emergency surgery on his broken leg. He spent several days in the hospital, and recently completed rehabilitation on his broken leg.
One of the Montana hunting guides who found him, Sean Winegar, went back a week later and took down a big mountain lion when the hunting season opened.
"They are so territorial, he figures it was probably the same one," said Bymaster. The big cat had left his mark on Bymaster, helping the guides find him.
"Evidently, that cat had urinated on me at some point during that night," he said.
When Bymaster was in the ambulance, medics had cut his clothes off of him to treat his injuries. They bagged those clothes, and sent them along to the hospital. When the bag was opened four days later, Bymaster said, everyone nearby could smell the cat urine, and see the stain on his pants.
"Evidently, that cat marked me for his territory," he said, with a chuckle.
Last week, Bymaster's friends and family celebrated his life in Montana, and went back to that very spot. They found the water bottle he had discarded, and located the tree he had stumbled over when he broke his leg.
Bymaster said hadn't planned on sharing his story publicly. But as the months went by, and he started to feel more like himself, he decided he'd tell his tale so others might avoid the same troubles. He hopes to always be better prepared in the future.
"Every Boy Scout in Utah would not be very proud of me," he said.