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DV Tragedy - death from exposure

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San Francisco
Destination Expert
for Death Valley Junction, Death Valley National Park
posts: 10,868
reviews: 42
DV Tragedy - death from exposure

This is not meant to scare people, but to advise proper caution.

An 11-year-old boy has died after he and his mom were stranded on a DV trip. These folks were from Las Vegas, where they were accustomed to hot dry weather but probably spent most of their summer days in a/c facilities.

www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi…

I can think of several things that might have saved this family. I'll come back later and elaborate, but just wanted to get this on the forum.

This does not mean you should cancel your DV plans. As many of us have consistently said, people go there in the hottest weather and do fine, survive, even have a good time. Read the threads about hot weather survival and then make an informed choice.

Los Angeles
Destination Expert
for Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park
posts: 10,260
reviews: 87
1. Re: DV Tragedy - death from exposure

This is very sad.

Note that they did have 2 dozen bottles of water (bottles were only 16 ounces though - about half a liter). We rarely discuss the specifics, on this forum, of how much water is needed - but this amount was *quickly* consumed.

It does sound like they went off-offroad, though, as in across the desert (already heat-compromised in her thinking?) as opposed to going to one of the 9 designated campgrounds.

I too can think of several strategies that would have changed this situation - but when asked how much water I would carry into the desert, my answer is: as much as will fit in the car with everything else. We use gallon sized containers.

24 16 oz bottles is about enough for 2 people for 6-8 hours.

If a person does get stranded, stay in the shade of the car until dusk, save your food (saves on metabolizing if there's a water shortage), be sure to have a headlamp or flashlight, take your water in your backpack (a full sized one works nicely) and try to retrace your steps back to the main road. The ten survival basics should be with every person on every wilderness trip:

chasesmith.co.uk/buying-guides/survival/esse…

Many would add a mirror or reflective device, as well.

So many people plan not to get off the main roads, but lose their focus and do it anyway.

To me "extra" water means more than we could conceivably use in the time we plan to be away, plus some. Replenish your water supplies at every gas stop.

Redlands, California
posts: 3,272
reviews: 30
2. Re: DV Tragedy - death from exposure

That is very sad but as I commented on another thread, either very stupid or very unlucky. What on earth was she doing several miles off a DIRT road?

I hope this doesn't frighten anyone away--and if you stay on the main roads, you wouldn't sit there for 5 days without help.

Again, very sad, but utterly avoidable.

Los Angeles
Destination Expert
for Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park
posts: 10,260
reviews: 87
3. Re: DV Tragedy - death from exposure

People think it's fun to go off road. They buy jeeps or other 4WD vehicles (especially in Vegas or places like Bakersfield) in order to do just that.

They also take ATV's out there and try to go to untraveled places to use them. A Jeep doesn't seem quite as frivolous as some of the pseudo-SUV things people take out there, or the Hummers (really heavy cars on sand...not such a good idea).

TripAdvisor participants are mostly travelers - and practical, law-abiding people. However, not everyone is. Younger people tend to be more keen on this kind of thing (I have two cousins who were both seriously injured in this kind of folly, I don't think they ever really recovered from their injuries).

It's not just the desert though - every year someone drives their SUV onto a beach somewhere here in SoCal, with bad consequences, including the occasional fatality.

I've been noticing how many music videos feature people driving around out in the desert (it's usually on some playa where a vehicle can be supported - or near Barstow on some utility road, but the editing shows vistas of deserts interspersed with frolicking about in the sand).

People get the wrong ideas from a lot of places - and they just don't think it through. As I keep saying, I think heat may play a role in the poor thinking (I think it did with my cousins).

San Francisco
Destination Expert
for Death Valley Junction, Death Valley National Park
posts: 10,868
reviews: 42
4. Re: DV Tragedy - death from exposure

This is a terrible tragedy. I’m heartbroken at what happened to this boy and his mom, and that it happened in one of my most beloved places. Until after the autopsy, we can’t really know why Carlos perished, but the usual suspects would be heat stroke or dehydration.

Heatstroke happens when the body gets so overheated that the brain stops functioning. That means all the functions managed by the autonomic nervous system (reflexes, digestion, circulation, glandular activity, temperature control, etc.) quit, and of course we can’t survive too long after that happens. With dehydration, it isn’t just a matter of being thirsty; the inner workings of the body need water. It cools us through radiation (like the radiator in your car) and perspiration, and too little fluid in the body inhibits blood circulation.

Clearly, they made an honest effort to be prepared, with a little food and water. And once they got stuck, the mom did her best. She was able to change the flat tire, and she had the sense to get up high to try to get a cell phone signal—something that doesn’t exist in most of DV but can be found around the outskirts. Being a nurse, she’s used to keeping her wits about her when things are going crazy, and she probably did better than a lot of other folks would have in this situation.

We don’t know how long they planned to stay, but 24 16-ounce bottles of water is not much. A gallon is 128 ounces, so they had 3 gallons of water, or 1½ gallon each. That’s just about the recommended minimum per person per day for the desert in summer. If anything out of the ordinary happens (like they got stuck and they had a flat tire, etc.) any water you have is going to seem like not enough and you’ll thank God for every extra drop you brought along. Since he passed away the day before they were found, I’m thinking another 1-2 gallons might have made the difference for this kid.

Food is a lesser issue; most of us can live like camels off our own fat for days. Emergency food rations for the desert should, if possible, contain some mineral content like sodium, potassium, etc. to maintain body electrolytes, which are needed to keep the nervous system operating and which are lost in perspiring. They should also not be dense, hard to digest foods because those utilize more water to digest.

Near the north edge of China Lake naval base, 20 miles east of Trona, is pretty vague; hard to tell where they actually were. Depends on what main road they turned off from. In fact, this vague description could apply to the area on the way to Barker Ranch. Whatever…off the beaten track + no map = bad. Even those of us who spend a lot of time there and aren’t backcountry novices have a map. It doesn’t have to be the latest 7.5-minute USGS topo, but it needs to be better than the bare-bones Park Service map (and I think it’s bare-bones for a reason, part of which may be to discourage many inexperienced desert travelers from venturing beyond their abilities). The AAA Death Valley National Park Guide Map is fine for most travelers. The National Geographic Society Trails Illustrated series works for 99% of visitors. A GPS is not a substitute for a map and good sense. As a park volunteer, making trips out in the boonies even with a radio and map (didn’t have GPS then), I would write down mileages, landmarks, junctions, and changes of direction; I didn’t want to trust my memory with something that could be a matter of life or death.

I was once in a situation like hers, stuck in the backcountry miles from anywhere. I ruled out starting a signal fire, because I knew I was not on any major flight path. But if she realized how close she was to the naval base and possible air traffic (and not far away are also Edwards AFB and Fort Irwin army training center), a signal fire might have been wise. And if you are truly stranded in a place where common sense tells you no one is coming (which I was when I had this happen), that is when the rule about staying with your vehicle might not apply. You have to consider the individual situation. But in some cases it may be better to take all your water, wait for evening when it’s cooler, and either back-trail (because any possible searchers will be following your tracks) or head for a specific, known, feasible destination (which is what I did when this happened to me).

This story is an excellent cautionary note. Not that folks should avoid Death Valley, and I’m not going to be alarmist and say “Death Valley kills, so stay away.” That is like saying, “Salt causes high blood pressure and high blood pressure kills, so don’t eat any salt.” But common sense and adequate preparation, and not panicking when something unexpected happens, can turn Death Valley into a wonderful and memorable experience any time of the year.

Just a note about where the mom was hospitalized: Las Vegas is where the nearest trauma and definitive care centers are. Seriously ill or injured people from DV are commonly airlifted there. Ridgecrest has a community hospital but not the comprehensive medical care available in Las Vegas.

San Francisco
Destination Expert
for Death Valley Junction, Death Valley National Park
posts: 10,868
reviews: 42
5. Re: DV Tragedy - death from exposure

Here is a local story from the Las Vegas Review Journal, with some of the same things we have been speculating about.

http://www.lvrj.com/news/52756377.html

San Francisco
Destination Expert
for Death Valley Junction, Death Valley National Park
posts: 10,868
reviews: 42
6. Re: DV Tragedy - death from exposure

Now that I think about it, and review what I know of the area and study the maps, I think she didn't go to the Panamint side at all. It isn't possible to get from where she was to the Panamint, because China Lake naval base is right between the two and there is no public access to the base.

The news media description of "20 miles east of Trona" was deceptive; they meant the nearest town geographically, not the nearest town reachable by road. That description would lead us to think she turned off onto a side road around Searles Lake or Trona Pinnacles, but I think she was never near there.

I think she did go in from the east, from Las Vegas--my guess is from Shoshone, Hwy 127 and either Ibex Pass or Harry Wade Rd. She may have had the idea that she could get up into the park and maybe even go through to the Panamint side. Perhaps she told her family or friends that, which may be what led the rangers to initially check the campsites in the Panamint range (possible Wildrose, Mahogany Flat, Thorndike, and even Emigrant).

The roads at the south end near the park boundary are dirt, sand, and mud. The Amargosa River flows largely underground there, except in flood season. Some roads actually traverse the riverbed, and when it is up, the crossing can be extremely hazardous.

That is a very, very remote area. There used to be a few mining operations--talc and other odds and ends, and there are mining ruins around. But now, even in temperate weather, not many people go there.

7. Re: DV Tragedy - death from exposure

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