Two young men — 2,000 miles apart and within a few days of each other — parted from friends late at night and walked into a maelstrom of cold, darkness and driving snow.
In the separate incidents, Alphonse "Michael" Barbiere in Colorado and Nicholas Garza in Vermont headed out alone on foot, each without a warm, winter jacket. Neither made it home, though both had only about a half-mile to go.
In at least one case and possibly the other, alcohol was a toxic ingredient that made a night of youthful socializing a perfect storm for disaster.
Today, local police say both men's bodies are likely buried in snow, the youths victims of punishing weather that has plagued much of the United States and dumped blizzard after blizzard on two small mountain towns.
Barbiere, a 23-year-old Wyckoff, N.J., resident who was on vacation with friends, has been missing since Feb. 8 after he left a Breckenridge, Colo., martini bar about 1:30 a.m. Police said the young Wall Street trader had consumed more than 20 drinks and was "highly intoxicated."
The Rocky Mountain ski resort town, which sits at an altitude of 9,600 feet, reported 65 m.p.h. winds and another fresh foot of snow the night Barbiere went missing.
"It's the scariest conditions I've seen in my 19 years here," police spokesman Kim Green told ABCNews.com. "[Barbiere] did leave in treacherous conditions, and he'd only been at that altitude for 24 hours. The alcohol and the weather conditions were a bad combination."
Scores of specialized rescue groups, including avalanche dogs, combed the half-mile of snow-covered streets between the bar and Barbiere's condo before all but the local search was called off on Saturday.
Across the country, at the foot of the Green Mountains in rural Vermont, police were scouring the snow-covered Middlebury College campus for Garza, a 19-year-old student from New Mexico who went missing on Feb. 6.
That night, a snowstorm added another 10 inches of snow to the foot already on the ground. Since then two more feet of powder has fallen, according to police.
The physical search for the freshman was temporarily called off Wednesday because the National Weather Service had called for another 14 inches of snow. Rescue teams and trained dogs had combed the small campus, including probing deep drifts of snow that had cascaded off roofs.
Middlebury police are also conducting a missing person investigation, but Chief Tom Hanley said, "There's not a shred of evidence [Garza] left campus."
Garza was last seen by friends about 11:30 p.m. after watching television in a dorm lounge — only a seven minute walk from his own room. Alcohol may have been involved "to some extent," said Hanley.
A friend grew suspicious the next day when he could not reach Garza. Police found Garza's coat, cell phone charger and iPod in his dorm room. Attempts to "ping" his cell phone and locate Garza were not successful.
Both the Breckenridge and Middlebury regions are winter paradises — temporary homes to thousands of college students, skiers and young vacationers, who often socialize with alcohol.
Poorly Dressed and 'Staggering'
Breckenridge police said they receive three to four calls a night to respond to alcohol-related incidents in local bars. "We see kids walk down the street, not properly dressed, staggering," said Green. "We get them a taxi cab."
The local ski areas provide shuttle buses to transport skiers from the slopes to the bars and home again, so drunken driving is less common than drunken walking.
This isn't the first time a partier has been swallowed up by a blizzard. Just a few years ago, after a night of heavy drinking, a 20-something man separated from his girlfriend and took a shortcut home.
"He got stuck in the snow and froze overnight," said Green. "Alcohol is a rising concern for us."
In 2006, Breckenridge police transported 67 people to detoxification facilities; in 2007 that number jumped to 117.
Snow, Mixed With Alcohol
Like other college campuses, Middlebury has its share of drinking. Hanley said his patrols routinely find drunken students by the side of the road and escort them to police custody.
"Alcohol is a real concern of ours," he said. "It's not unusual to find kids sitting and lying at the side of the road drinking."
Of course, college drinking is nothing new, nor is the urge to play in the snow. But young people can underestimate the force of mother nature, especially after a rowdy night of drinking.
Brian Davidson was a freshman at Holy Cross College in Worcester, Mass., when the record nor'easter of 1978 pummeled New England with 55 inches of snow over a three-day period.
After leaving a party on foot, Davidson and his friends decided it would be fun to leave the road and cut a few hundred yards across the field to their dorm. Soon they were struggling with a fierce wind and snow up to their chests.
"Our youthful exuberance got the best of us," said Davidson, now 48 and a high school educator. "We were literally stuck in a drift, and it was sort of like swimming in the ocean. You could see the shore, but we were running out of steam."
"Everyone stuck together and we looked for the building lights," said Davidson, who eventually made it back. "We rolled on top of the snow as much as we could."
Indeed, alcohol and wintry weather can be a deadly combination, according to Dr. Martin Schreiber, head of trauma at Oregon Health Services, who said visions of St. Bernard dogs carrying barrels of brandy to stranded skiers is a myth.
"Alcohol effectively decreases the ability of the body to maintain warmth," he said. "You actually get colder."
Alcohol Cuts Survival
Alcohol accelerates the dilation of blood vessels and heat loss. In order to survive the cold, the body needs to maintain its temperature. Anything that lowers body temperature cuts survival time.
"Generally, when people freeze to death, the effect is the body shuts down and goes to sleep," he said. "Initially, they kind of lose coordination and are likely to fall and be confused and are impossible to wake up in a coma."
Still, there are miracles, said Schreiber.
In some cases, hypothermia can save a life — skiers or skaters who have been found without a heartbeat and lowered body temperatures actually can be revived, he said.
Schreiber treated a skier who had fallen into a crevice on Mount Hood, suffered an overwhelming injury and was believed dead.
"She made a dramatic recovery and survived," he said. Still, that skier had been found after only three hours.
Michael Barbiere has now been missing for six days, and Garza has been missing for eight days.
Schreiber said his best advice to young people partying in the cold is, "Don't drink to intoxication." Or at least have a sober friend who can serve as a designated walker.
"Your buddies can make sure you get home safely," he said. "And dress warmly."
The parents of both boys — convinced they are still alive — may wish their sons had taken this advice.
Natalie Garza, who reported her son missing after not getting routine text, e-mail and phone messages from him in several days, is sure he is not a missing person.
"Nick was not going anywhere," she told the Addison County Independent. "If he would have left, I would have received a text. He just wouldn't have left without alerting us."
Barbiere's older brother Bob told The Denver Post that his family is offering $10,000 to anyone with information on his whereabouts.
But police in both states are betting the boys are right under their noses — hidden in the avalanche of snow that has blanketed their little towns.
"Mike's got to be in town," said Breckenridge's Green. "Given how informally he was dressed for these weather conditions and the alcohol in his system."
Added Middlebury's Chief Hanley, "I just hope [Garza] doesn't turn up in the spring."
Anyone with information on either of these missing youths should call Breckenridge, Colo., police at 970-453-2941 or Middlebury, VT., police at 802-388-3191.