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?

In 1999, Yosemite park rangers, pilots, firefighters, and volunteers conducted 164 search and rescue missions, recovered twelve bodies, and saved forty-seven lives. The total cost (in personnel and aircraft hours) of providing this service to over nearly 4 million American taxpayers who had a chance of being injured while visiting Yosemite that year was $526,719. This seems quite reasonable when you consider that Congress recently gave the NPS $2.5 million to convert a railroad station into a fancy visitor center in Thurmond, West Virginia---a town with a population of eight.

I have come to the conclusion that the financial costs of Search and Rescue services provided by the NPS is the least of the American taxpayer's worries. In the scheme of things, it is a drop in the bucket, and a worthy drop at that.

Decreasing the human cost, injuries and lives lost of both victims and rescuers, prior to and during rescue operations should be our primary concern.

1. NPS rescue operations should be adequately funded and staffed.

2. Chief rangers should ensure that proactive, aggressive, and clever efforts to prevent injuries and loss of life through public education are taken and funded.

3. Only in cases involving criminal recklessness should the government seek to make victims pay for the cost of their rescue

".....but the costs described above are often paid by diverting money from other, urgently needed, park operations."

Such as what? Bigger, more expensive visitor centers? New office buildings for the staff? More F250 trucks? Ever more "resource managers" that do nothing but file reports?

I agree with the NPS mission, and many of the personnel are excellent, but the Park Service is GREAT at wasting money for front-country foo foo, regional office overhead, and aesthetic asphalt turn-outs. They'll spend millions on frontcountry development, then whine about how they have no money for operations.

Patrols, searches, and rescues are one of the few necessary functions that the NPS does. So spare us the tax whining and 'we're so busy' tales of woe.

And yes, this woman was hugely lucky.

There are more pressing needs than larger visitor centers, though there are more than enough visitor centers with dated exhibits that certainly could use freshening up.

But there also is trail maintenance that needs to be done, both archaeological, cultural, and paleontological resource work that's been put off, vast amounts of archival work that awaits, invasive species to be eradicated, facility maintenance and upkeep, stabilization of historic structures, campground restoration work, biological assessments, improved outhouses, the list goes on and on.

Re: Anonymous' comment about NPS spending.

There's probably unlimited opportunity for debate about spending priorities for NPS dollars, and everyone interested in parks will have their own take on that subject.

Re: the comment that "this woman was hugely lucky." As the story and several comments indicate, the outcome of this incident hinged on the fact that two "rangers on patrol" happened to discover the woman in time to initiate excellent emergency medical care and a timely rescue. We'll never know what may have happened if those rangers hadn't been in the area.

In terms of how SAR and other emergency services costs are related to "patrols, searches and rescues," one of the functions that suffers from NPS budget limitations is the kind of "routine patrol" that made a positive difference in this case, and dollars spent on incidents such as the one at Buffalo River are often diverted from funding for badly needed seasonal staff and even permanent positions.

It's unrealistic to expect ranger patrols to cover even a fraction of most parks on a regular basis, but there's sure room for improvement in staffing for that function to allow better coverage than currently exists in many parks.

A chief ranger and district ranger get their slice of a park's annual budget, and it doesn't take too many significant incidents (or a lot of smaller ones) to eat up enough dollars to require leaving a field ranger position unfilled. That doesn't mean it's realistic to bill most victims for the the cost of emergency services, but I felt it was important to clarify earlier comments that suggested all costs for SAR incidents are already built into a park's budget.

There will always be debate about priority-setting and budget allocation by NPS management, and there's also plenty of support for other valid activities as well - including resource management and interpretation.

So .... given the fact that there will never be as many rangers on the ground as many of us would like, I'll also second the comments about visitors doing what they can to minimize their risks. That includes careful evaluation of the wisdom of solo trips into the backcountry, and the importance of making sure a responsible individual who is not part of your trip knows your plans in enough detail to sound the alarm if you don't return on schedule.

In this incident at Death Valley, the woman was not hiking solo.

We hope visitors will do their part to minimize their risks...but, in order for them to do that, the rangers must do a vigilant, aggressive, and dynamic job at providing the public the information and advice they need to prevent accidents. Ideally, rangers are the experts on how to travel safely within the park.

I think Anonymous makes a valid point from his perspective. For example, the NPS should adequately fund rescue operations and public safety education programs before they take on global warming.


Just a couple bits of clarification about the rescue. First, the injured woman was not hiking alone. How do I know.... I am her husband & we were hiking together. The hike to Darwin Falls takes about 45 minutes one-way, I've done it many times. There is no maintained trail & no sign-in box at the trailhead. Definately lucky for us the two NPS rangers were starting the trek at the same time. Less then ten years ago this area was just BLM land, then annexed into Death Valley when it gained National Park status (it used to be a Monument). We are experienced hikers that had an accident. My wife slipped off a slick rock area & fell about 20 verticle feet. Once again, lucky for us she had no serious injuries above her knees so a bad situation could have been much worse. She was not able to move & I backtracked through the canyon until I spotted the Rangers below me & called for help. The two Ranger did work above the call of duty & we are forever greatful. I should also mention the other true heroes were the CHP helicopter crew. Basically working with just GPS coordinates because radio communication was non-existant, the pilot was able to hover above us with absolutely no margin for error. Rotor blades were extremely close to the canyons narrow walls. What the pilot successfully accomplished would probably not even be attempted by most. This was our first ever (& hopefully last) request for public aid. As far as the comments about the cost of tax dollars being spent for rescues such as ours, all I can say is if you were in my shoes at the time, I'm sure you would be glad that someone heard your cry for help.
P.S. -- My wife has had two operations so far with a third coming up. She will not be able to put any weight on either leg for 3 to 6 months but hopefully will make a full recovery, thanks to the supreme efforts of the NPS & CHP.

It's Always Good TO HAVE THE FACTS WHEN WRITING AN ARTICLE!!!! First lets clarify the issue that has many people complaining about. The hiker was hiking with her husband!!! They had earlier seen the rangers so initiall he yelled for help. Eventually - he went looking for the rangers and was able to locate them to come help his wife. According to the victim and her husband - the rangers and the CHP were terrific and they are very grateful for the successful rescue!!!! She has had two surgeries and expected to have another this week... so when she is able she may have time to clarify for everyone!!! Again thanks to the rescue team YOU ARE THE BEST!!!!

Thanks for the clarification!

Although there were some comments above about solo hiking, that was not an issue in this case - and this was clearly one of those accidents that can happen when hiking in rough terrain. I'll edit my comments above to make that clear.

The intent of the original article was to highlight the excellent work of the rangers and the CHP helicopter crew, so I apologize if subsequent comments took the discussion in the wrong direction.

The best news is that a full recovery may be possible for the person involved!

I had not checked this page for a couple of days and was somewhat surprised by the discussion thread that resulted from my comment about use of taxpayer dollars. After all is said and done, I'll stand by my original comment. I said I would give the person injured at Darwin Canyon the benefit of the doubt without additional information. And based upon the comments and first-hand accounts, I do indeed think that the use of taxpayer dollars here was appropriate. I still will further maintain that the situation at Buffalo National River sounds completely different in that it was not only "ill-advised" as the article indicates but it sounded really rather idiotic. Dare I say, "criminally negligent" as suggested by haunted hiker? And in the Buffalo National River case, I maintain yes, we should bill the person rescued for the costs of the rescue.