Earlier this week, the news headlines gave us another grim reminder that Death Valley National Park is a beautiful place to visit, but it can also be a dangerous place to visit. Even for those who are experienced.
“DEATH VALLEY NATIONAL PARK, Calif. — An Arizona tourist died and his wife was rescued Friday after their vehicle got two flat tires and they went missing in Death Valley National Park in California.”
Normally when we see this, it is followed by a story of unsuspecting tourists out for a joyful day trip. Unprepared and unaware of what Death Valley is. But in this case, or at least from what is being stated, this couple were “experienced campers” and they came prepared as much as what can be expected from people used to being outdoors. However, Death Valley is not your normal outback experience.
“Alexander Lofgren, 32, and Emily Henkel, 27, were found on a steep ledge near Willow Creek in the desert park, but Lofgren was dead, according to a statement from the Inyo Creek Sheriff’s Office. Henkel was flown to Lemoore Naval Air Station for treatment, and there was no immediate word on her condition.”
The couple was from Tucson, Arizona, so we can suspect they knew what it was like to camp in the dry desert. Reading the various news reports, we get an idea that they were ready for the unexpected. They carried extra supplies, they left a note that was dated and gave would-be searchers an indication of their intended direction of travel. Best of all, they Had Plenty of Water!!
(Link to a news article)
What may have doomed them is the “experienced” part. They were stranded in the middle of nowhere without any cellphone signal and like most tourists, they were not equipped with a satellite phone. (who is?)
Sadly, I am liking that the new media is keeping them listed as tourists and experienced campers. Not labeling them as hikers or expert desert dwellers. They knew the basics of desert camping and preparing for the unexpected. That’s more prepared than a majority of people who visit Death Valley. As well as they knew how to help anyone who may need to know where they were going if they were to be reported lost or went missing.
Their car was stranded 23 miles off of a paved road. They were at the end of a long, dusty, lonely dirt road. Dirt is not the exact word for the road, but it’s the best way to explain it for the average reader. And they had two flat tires.
This is the part that the Internet Trolls are jumping on. “But they could drive on the rims. I’ve done it,” or worse, “They could have saved themselves by just driving out on the flat tires.” Maybe you can do that in suburbia, you can. This is Death Valley. Most of the roads here are mere trails. The surface of the dirt roads is often shifting sand or busted-up caliche rock.
However, they had a plan to do a shortcut that could get them to civilization faster. A 4-mile route over some rugged terrain to Mormon road. A stone’s throw from the popular Badwater Basin where people are always there and the Park Rangers visit regularly.
This is where I think their “experience” did them wrong. Under the stress of the situation as well as the heat, knowing that a 23-mile walk in the Death Valley sun could be deadly even if you had plenty of water (they did)… The short, but dangerous 4-mile hike over some rocky mountains would be the best option in their mind. After all, they were experienced.
Death Valley Delusions
On my tours as well as on my solo travels through Death Valley, I can not count the number of times I had come across people who were in somewhat similar circumstances. Even at the popular overlooks surrounded by hundreds of people. The heat got them.
They thought a day trip out of Las Vegas to this wonderous place called Death Valley may make for some exciting and interesting stories for when they return to their homeland. The problem is that they are unprepared for the heat and desolation. What most people don’t know is what dry heat can do to your body as well as your mind. You start to make some bad decisions based on heat-induced logic. Now, in this case, add stress to the thought process.
Even from what I know of Death Valley, being in their situation, I may have made the exact same decision. Based on personal experience, which one looks better? A four-mile hike over some old volcanic rocks to the popular highway or a 23-mile walk out to a paved highway that doesn’t see much traffic? For the average tourist, not ever hiking in the desert, the 23-mile route works for them. But you have experience in the desert,. So you think “How bad can a 4-mile hike over some volcanic rock be? The 4-mile hike is the best bet….” and off you go.
Just how extreme could this be? Well, when they were finally discovered, even the search and rescue teams had a difficult time getting to them. These people are really some of the best in the business and they say the terrain the couple was found in, was extreme. Ouch!
There have been times when I have had people we found at an overlook, heat exhausted. I put them in my tour vehicle, get them shade and water. Make contact with the Visitor Center where the Park Rangers take over. They usually protest on all the fuss. “It’s not that bad”. Then when they are cooled off and the brain starts to work normally again, they realize what just happened and how serious it was and how serious it could have been and they are very thankful for the help.
As others have said online, I can only imagine how that woman felt, with her husband dead on a cliff beside her. As she sat there, watching the would-be rescuers, try to do their job. What is going through her mind? The regrets and second-guessing she was thinking and what she will be thinking as she recovers from this ordeal. To know they were only 2 miles from Bad Water Road and from help.
Death Valley Tour Tips
I love Death Valley and I encourage others who want to experience a place unlike anything else on earth, to go see it.
But if you do. Be smart.
- Carry Extra Bottles of Water. You may need them or you may need to rescue others who may need them.
- Have sweat towels or if not available, carry a towel that can be used to shade or remove sweat from the body.
- As a tourist, stay on the main roads. Go where others are going.
- If going alone, leave markers. And I don’t mean leaving rocks piled on top of each other. I mean cellphone pings.
- Going alone or with others, tell people not going with you, where you plan to go and when to expect a return
- Dress for the desert. Hat, body parts covered, sunblock, sunglasses.
- Go early as possible. Less heat in the morning hours.
Finally, Our Sincere condolences to all those involved…and a big “Thank You” to the Search and Rescue people!