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Rescue of Injured Woman from Isolated Canyon at Death Valley National Park

Canyon at Death Valley.

A visitor's photo of the rugged Darwin Canyon area at Death Valley. Photo by mlhradio via Flickr.


A 58-year-old woman sustained serious injuries earlier this week in an isolated canyon at Death Valley National Park. Two rangers on patrol in the area heard calls for help and set a rescue into motion.

On the afternoon of April 13, 2009, Rangers Steven Powell and Rachel Brady were on patrol in Darwin Canyon at Death Valley National Park. Around 3:30 p.m. they heard a man shouting for help and learned that his wife had been injured in a fall above Lower Darwin Falls.

They found that the victim was suffering an angulated compound fracture to her right ankle and a probable tibia fracture to her left leg. She also had no circulation sensation or motor function (CSM) in her right foot.

The fractures alone were bad enough, but the lack of circulation sensation or motor function were indications of a very serious condition, and the location of the accident presented some definite challenges.

At the falls, Darwin Canyon is 600 feet deep and 75 feet wide and has no radio communications, so rangers were unable to summon additional help from that location. Brady made a mile-and-a-half hike to get to a point where he could make radio contact while Powell remained with the woman and provided emergency care. Powell was able to reestablish CSM’s in the woman’s right foot.

Ranger Mike Nattrass assumed incident command and arranged for a California Highway Patrol (CHP) helicopter with a hoist to fly to the site. A CHP helicopter with a crew of three arrived around 6:30 p.m., navigated into the 75-foot-wide section of the canyon, and lowered a flight paramedic to assist rangers in preparing the woman for the hoist. She was lifted out just before nightfall and flown to Southern Inyo Hospital for further treatment and evaluation.

Park staff have commended the actions of the CHP crew, who displayed extraordinary flying skills in less than favorable conditions. Had evacuation not been available by helicopter, the woman would have faced a difficult and lengthy trip by trail.


What a lucky individual. The article fails to mention if she filed a notice with the Rangers alerting them that she would be hiking alone or where she might be hiking. She may have left word with friends but again the article does not mention this. Please call the ranger station and let them know where you are hiking alone and when you will be back. The new SPOT is nice, but like so many places it most likely would not have worked nor would a PLB in that canyon.
Fortunately she was found by the Rangers and with some excellant flying skills by CHP she did not have to be packed out.

Both this person and the person with the ill-advised leap at the Buffalo National River sound like candidates for the Darwin Awards. Despite the fact that this occured in a place called Darwin Canyon, I will give this person the benefit of the doubt without additional information. The person at the Buffalo National River, however, should be charged for the cost of the rescue effort, rather than have our taxpayers pay for his stupidity.

She's darned lucky she still has her right lower leg. Ranger Powell almost certainly saved it by manipulating the ankle to open up the kinked artery. That is also a sign of some pretty advanced first aid training. Thanks for posting this warm fuzzy story with a happy ending. Moral of the story: If hiking alone in Death Valley (or anywhere for that matter), make sure you have told someone where you're going and when to expect you back or risk becoming buzzard bait.

John, you wrote "cost of the rescue", maybe you can clarify something for me. If the taxpayers paid for a piece of equipment and employees are paid no matter what they do each day what is the expense for a rescue? Is it extra fuel being used? The equipment and employees are already paid for. If it's volunteers there is no compensation.

Another point that I'm not clear on is that departments and agencies are set up at great expense to protect, serve and rescue the taxpaying public, isn't that what they tell us the taxes are for? Isn't that what they're supposed to do?

Please correct me if I'm missing something. Anyone.

volpe, I could not agree more. All rescues are pre-payed by are taxes, it's one of the few things I am glad to pay taxes for. GREAT POINT!!

DAP and Volpe, I'm not so sure I'd agree with your point that all rescues are pre-paid. For instance, during 2007, the National Park Service reported 3,593 SAR incidents. The cost of those missions? $4,735,424.12. In theory, that money would not have been spent were it not for the SARs.

Volpe and DAP -

My perspective for 3 decades of work in parks is that you're partly correct. I fully agree that emergency operations are an appropriate and valuable park function.

Yes, salaries, equipment and other operational costs for parks are paid for the most part by tax dollars. However, some SAR operations, such as the one John P mentioned at the Buffalo River, occur in the middle of the night, when virtually all of the people involved have to be called back to work. In almost any large rescue operation, even the daytime, there aren't enough employees on duty at any given time to handle the incident - resulting in more overtime. Those overtime costs represent an extra cost to the park (and the taxpayers) as a result of the incident. In some cases, parks incur additional SAR expenses, such as contracted helicopter time.

So.... are those costs "prepaid" by taxpayers? From one perspective, yes, but the costs described above are often paid by diverting money from other, urgently needed, park operations. Most parks with any significant SAR workload budget for a certain amount of overtime and similar costs--but at the expense of other activities.

Kurt, as mentioned in an earlier thread on the same topic: As long as the NPS has the manpower to calculate SAR costs of measly 4.7 Million Dollar down to 12 cents, the money is better spend on the safety of visitors than on the beancounters in their offices. Frankly, 4.7 Million is such a tiny fraction of the total NPS budget that I can't think of a better way to spend it. How much would it cost to calculate the amount for an individual SAR operation, write a bill, collect the money and account for it or enforcing it, going to court, spending time and money on lawyers and so on?

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