It just happened again in Death Valley National Park. This sad story tells of an 11 year old boy that was found dead with his surviving mom and dog. On Saturday August 1, 2009, the mother was on a cell phone stating she was changing a tire. After that, they apparently wandered further into the Owlshead Mountains near the southwest corner of the park. They were on a overnight camping trip in Death Valley and wound up in a very remote section of a very large, inhospitable part of the world. No one heard from the mother again until being found a few days later on Thursday, August 6. A ranger followed tracks down the remote road and found their Jeep Cherokee stuck to it's axles in sand. No matter the vehicle, there are places like this where you may drive over an underground animal den or cavern and it collapses so you sink and get hopelessly stuck.
Zabriskie's Point in Death Valley - Photo by Lorissa Longfellow
In the summer, Death Valley National Park temperatures routinely go over 120 degrees. The average is about 113 degrees. Even people who bring water and are somewhat prepared can die within hours.
What can we learn
Although a boy died, we can try to look objectively at the story. What are the positives and negatives and what can we learn from it so someone else survives down the line? They weren't reported missing until Wednesday and that is huge. They didn't leave a specific enough plan for someone to know when they were in trouble in such a dangerous place. They did bring a case of water (24 16-ounce bottles), some snacks and sandwiches with them. It wasn't enough for all of them but it's more prepared than many people are that go into dangerous National Parks thinking it's Disney World and that facilities are all over the place. Being rather naive in nature can get you rather dead. Living in the desert, I always carried two or three 5 gallon tanks of water ($4-$7 at Kmart) in my vehicle. In addition to drinking water, ice and a Coleman Extreme cooler, these extra tanks provided extra water in emergencies or for the vehicle.
Another positive is that they stayed with the vehicle which allowed the ranger to find them by following the tracks down the remote road. It is also much easier to spot a vehicle from the air than a lone person. The mother could have wandered off, trying to take a short cut over some hills and would have almost certainly gotten into more trouble. I have seen many people die in Arizona buy walking away from their vehicle. The car is found first. The body is found later. I recall a few cases in recent years where one person is found alive at the vehicle and the person who went for help is found dead.
My personal reflections on tragedy in Death Valley National Park
Myself on the Sand Dunes in Death Valley
I have wandered onto roads in Death Valley that in hindsight, I probably shouldn't have been on even with the truck that I had. A family member that was with me was or near crying much of the time until we got through a particular stretch. It is not a good thing when your truck is sliding backwards as you are driving forward on the edge of a drop off. But I also did it between November and March when the weather wasn't going to kill me within a couple days. I'd have to do something stupid to do myself in. It wouldn't be the extreme heat. It is one of my most favorite places in the world and everyone should go there at least once in a lifetime. There are no signs of Star Wars filming here long ago but it may as well be another world.
Summer is not the time for overnight camping in Death Valley. I wouldn't even drive through it if for some reason I had to go from California to Pahrump, Nevada. You have to go up and down thousands of feet to get across it. Go north or south and take the interstates in that case. You just have another unfortunate kind of risk on those. Death Valley roads can stress vehicles to their breaking point. People try to drive through the park, passing me, with their AC at full blast while towing a boat or trailer, and then try to speed their vehicle over the thousands of feet in elevation changes. It's too much, they wind up broken down on the side of the road and then I'm passing them. (Actually you see this scenario all over the southwest, it's just more dangerous here. You can't drive into Las Vegas in the summer without seeing at least a half dozen vehicles on the side of the highways.)
Lowest point in Death Valley: 280 feet below sea level at Badwater
Badwater in Death Valley National Park - Photo by Adam Longfellow
Highest point in Death Valley: 11,049 at Telescope Peak
View of Badwater from Dantes Peak, not Telescope Peak - Photo by Lorissa Longfellow
The survivor said she was following GPS directions. This is an example of GPS devices at their most dangerous. Some of them just have the highways and main roads but many of the devices have all kinds of roads on them, including 4×4 roads that are rarely driven. My own GPS units have told me to turn off cliffs and take roads that barely exist when you see them in person. I suspect she was taking a road that she shouldn't have followed to get where she was going.
Someone lost a life. Someone lost a son. Death Valley simmers on in silence. This is another reminder that more of us need once in a while before heading out. Enjoy the harsh beauty but respect the fragile life.