Heat Claims the Life of Boy Stranded for Five Days in Isolated Area of Death Valley National Park

Death Valley scene.

Death Valley includes some of the harshest terrain in the U.S. NPS photo

[This story has been updated with additional information made available since it was initially posted.]

It was intended to be a one-night camping trip to Death Valley National Park for a mother and her 11-year-old son, but they were stranded for five days after their vehicle became stuck in an isolated section of the desert. The mother was eventually rescued, but her son failed to survive the intense heat.

Authorities are still piecing together the details, but the tragic incident apparently hinged at least in part of the use of a GPS unit for navigation in a remote area with few landmarks.

Alicia Sanchez, 28, and her son Carlos, age 11, left Las Vegas on Saturday, August 1, for an overnight camping trip to Death Valley National Park. It's not clear why they ended up in one of the most remote sections of the vast desert park.

Sanchez apparently had no maps, but reportedly relied on a GPS unit in her vehicle for directions in the desert. After their vehicle became stuck in the sand, a hike to a peak in an attempt to get a cell phone signal was unsuccessful. The pair then remained with their vehicle, along with their pet dog; they tried to survive on the supplies they brought from home, including bottled water and snacks.

No one else was even aware the pair was in the extremely remote area until family members from other parts of the country contacted authorities late Wednesday afternoon. According to a park report,

The family reported Sanchez planned to come to the park with her 11-year-old son to camp and visit Scotty’s Castle, and that she’d sent a text message on August 1st saying that she was in the desert and changing a flat tire.

There were no further details about her plans or last known location.

Ranger Matt Martin checked the high elevation campgrounds in the Panamint Mountains (Wildrose, Mahogany Flats, and Thorndike) and district ranger Aaron Shandor checked the Furnace Creek campground and the surrounding developed area – neither with any success.

Rangers then began planning for a full-scale search beginning at first light on Thursday, August 6th, including the use of a VX-31 SAR helicopter from China Lake Naval Air Station. The VX-31, with rangers providing ground support, began searching the south end of the park at 6 a.m., as did other rangers and members of the Civil Air Patrol.

At 10 a.m., ranger Amber Nattrass came upon a wheel rim with a flat tire and a water bottle on a dirt road leading into the Owlshead Mountains at the southwest corner of the park. Only one set of tire tracks were seen. Nattrass followed this set of tire tracks and discovered that the vehicle had left the established roadway and been driven into designated wilderness.

Nattrass continued to follow the tracks and found Sanchez’s vehicle just after 11 a.m. She found the woman conscious but suffering from exposure and severe dehydration; her son had not survived. Nattrass, a park medic, began treating Sanchez after requesting a medevac. VX-31 with paramedics on board responded, and they began assisting Nattrass with medical care.

A medevac helicopter from Mercy Air in Pahrump, Nevada, arrived and transported Sanchez to Sunrise Hospital in Las Vegas.

“It’s in about as remote and isolated an area as you can find,” Death Valley National Park Chief Ranger Brent Pennington told the Associated Press. “How she got to that point, I don’t know.”

Summer high temperatures at Death Valley commonly run above 120 degrees Fahrenheit, and were reportedly near 111 degrees in the area of the incident on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Comments

Well, we can call this a tragedy, and it certainly is. We can call this woman woefully ignorant of the consequences of her actions, and she certainly is. Rather than wasting time belaboring those facts, I will question how we fix this. How do we educate a public about the perils of wandering ill-prepared into nature? Riding an inflatable swimming pool raft down the snake river. Back-roading in Death Valley in the summer without maps or adequate provisions. Strolling up to a bison for a photo op. Pick your incident, the root cause is the same: abject ignorance of the natural world.

I don't have an answer. I just feel that the energy spent tapping the sympathy well over incidents like this would be better spent preventing the next one. But then I walk through a cloud of cigarette smoke in front of every public building and figure educating people about safety and consequences is a lost cause.

Kirby -

Worthy questions, and ones that concern park personnel everywhere. It's clear there are no easy answers.

I run these stories on the Traveler in hopes someone will read about such incidents and learn from the experience on a future trip of their own. I realize most of our readers are experienced in outdoor safety, but some are not.

Another story posted today mentions a group of boaters that survived an accident at Lake Mead because they were wearing life jackets. Sometimes, people do act prudently.

My sincere condolences to the mother on her terrible loss. If everyone will recall, Traveler ran the following story on June 9, 2008:
http://www.nationalparkstraveler.com/2008/06/gps-unit-leads-couple-trouble-near-glen-canyon-national-recreation-area.
At that time, I commented that I almost had the same situation happen to me, except I did look over my route to make sure I was not going to get into trouble.

One of the ways this can be fixed is for the GPS manufacturers and programmers to stop letting their programs use primitive roads as a viable option. As an example, in order to go from Escalante to Big Water, both my GPS and Microsoft's Streets and Trips wanted to send us down the Missing Canyon Road (Smoky Mountain Rd), BLM road 300. On the BLM map, this road is marked as a ATV road. I did research the road, as well as look at it on Google Maps, and saw that it was not a road we wanted to go down. And this was just one of serveral examples.

The routing programmers need to classify these kinds of roads as primitive/4wd roads and not use them in routing unless the user has specifically requested primitve roads as an option.

I did contact Garmin, my GPS company, about the problem, but so far, nothing has happened. GPS's are wonderful devices; My wife and I have traveled all over the US with one, but I never follow it blindly, especially in rugged areas.

Media reports have it that the 28-year old mother is a nurse. It's kind of perplexing to think that an experienced health care professional would be unable to recognize the lethal risks she was taking with the three lives in that car. Now this poor woman will be haunted every day for the rest of her life.

tragic, indeed. But, i do have lots of questions. As should the authorities.
A gps is satelite, correct? why didn't she start to walk out using that very high tech device? One child, 11, dies before the dog? um, who got the water first the dog?
It just seems a little unusual, to me. I've been out there and yes it is XTREME! and yes, education is the key! But, in 5 days i think i would have ben able to save my son!!!!

This story makes me sad, but at the same time I need to comment on this "abject ignorance of the natural world." We search for all sorts of ways to prevent people from hurting themselves and others, when the ultimate problem boils down to a single word: "ignorance." That is a perpetual part of the human existence; it's just a matter of how many humans fall into that category in any particular era.

We live in a society and a time when common sense and intelligence is not as highly prized as it used to be, and there is a corresponding casualty rate. This includes many of the stories that I read here and surely covers other situations like drinking and driving, taking drugs, playing with guns, ridiculous risks in the name of fun, what have you. Rules, laws, procedures, precautions, well, those things are for nerds. Media has taught "me" that "I" know everything, that bad stuff happens to other people, that I'm a loser if I don't have the ultimate experiences with the least amount of effort.

Hmmm. I would have said to her, "You don't drive into the desert without notifying somebody where you are going and without taking along what's necessary to survive should something bad happen." Perhaps she would have responded, "Ah, don't be such a nerd. What's gonna happen?"

Unfortunate incidents like this will always happen, no matter how great our GPS devices become, should those even be remembered to be taken along for the ride.

Educating people is NEVER a lost cause!

Earlier this year, my traveling companions and I had an experience reminiscent of the stranding that led to this youngster's tragic death. While driving north out of Trona late in the afternoon we spotted a family car (not an SUV) stuck on a dirt "road" not far off the main highway. A mother had taken her son out for some driving practice, and the youngster had managed to high-center the darn thing in the ruts. There was no way they were going to get that car moving again without help. We stopped and rendered assistance, finally leaving the youngster with the car and driving the mom back to Trona so she could call for a tow (there's no such thing as cell phone service in that bleak area). Everything turned out fine. In fact, the car was back on the main highway by the time we passed it again headed for Death Valley. Six months later, and not more than ten miles away, a mother and her son would have a similar stranding with a very different outcome.

Bogator -

Thanks for the very informative cautions about relying soley on GPS navigation in remote areas.

Anonymous asks

"why didn't she start to walk out using that very high tech device?" and notes, in 5 days i think i would have ben able to save my son!!!!

I understand the intent of that statement, and realize the above story didn't provide a lot of details about how far this location was off the main road. However, a little more information confirms she made the best decision she could under the circumstances by staying with the vehicle.

According to a story in today'sLas Vegas Review-Journal, the woman in this incident had driven down a "30-mile stretch of deserted dirt road."

Given the brutal heat that's common in the area during the summer, it seems impossible that the woman could have survived that walk without a LOT of water, if she had gone for help.

The Review-Journal story notes,

"Sanchez did at least one thing exactly right according to the advice given out by the Park Service; when her Jeep Grand Cherokee got stuck in a collapsed animal burrow, she and her son stayed put."

"If she had wandered off, we might have found the vehicle but not her," at least not in time to save her, Baldino said.

That story cites a starkly similar case from July 1996, when four German tourists vanished after taking an abandoned dirt road into a remote valley in the southern part of the park and then vanished.

Their rented minivan was found, with three flat tires, only about 20 miles from the spot where the latest incident occurred. No trace has ever been found of the four: a man, a woman and two young boys.

I don't claim to be an expert in desert survival, but I worked for several years at Lake Mead, most of that in a area that has heat almost as extreme as that in Death Valley, and we did get some good training from those well-versed in hot weather emergencies. When the air temperature (measured in the shade!) is well above 100 and the relative humidity is extremely low, a person's chances of survival on an extended hike are slim to none, unless he has a lot of suitable liquids to drink—and even that's no guarantee until those conditions.

Sadly, among the keys in this case was the fact that no one knew enough about this woman's plans to report her missing in a timely manner. If that had happened, it's quite possible both of them would have been found in time.

The news story mentioned above includes the park's standard advice for summer visitors to Death Valley: stick to the most heavily traveled roads, where they are likely to get help quickly in the event of trouble.

I've seen articles warning of all these dangers and more when exploring wilderness areas all the time. The bottom line is people don't listen, they don't read or they don't think it applies to them. I also believe there are signs posted around these areas explaining the dangers. People make the choice to ignore them. Even tragedies like this are forgotten too soon.

When I heard this story I wondered why they didn't eat the dog. True it was a little dog but it would have provided something that may have helped the child. I'm an animal lover but if it was between my child and a dog...

Ranger Holly
http://web.me.com/hollyberry

I think one of the symptoms of dehydration/heat stroke includes delirium, so it's possible that there was a loss of sensible thought. She also could have panicked, especially seeing her child in distress. I don't think eating the dog would really have helped, since they probably needed more water than they had and a cooked dog doesn't yield that much water. I might have not given the dog water over giving my son the water, but that's neither here nor there.

Plus she was hispanic, and if English was her second language, there may have been some difficulties there, since I've noticed that a lot of warnings are English only.

Staying with the vehicle has generally been the better strategy when lost. It's a bigger target to find, and it's always easier to find a still target than a moving target.

I agree that proper planning could have prevented the tragedy. People are too reliant on technology, and assume that nature is tamer than it really is. We see people walk up to alligators all the time, and warn them that those critters certainly could outrun them at that close distance. GPSs are a tool, but are not infalliable. It's like relying on outdated maps. We've had enough troubles with bad routings in urban areas, no way would I trust my GPS in a rural area.

Most unfortunate and tragic incident to say the least. Perhaps a little education by watching some of these outdoor survival shows could possibly enhance ones knowledge on the practicality and basic application of outdoor survival skills. I keep thinking too many Americans are watching silly sitcom shows and getting fat like a couch potato, instead should be watching something more worthwhile like a good documentary film on outdoor camping skills and etiquette. A good book or two on such matters could possibly save ones life. Being outdoors is a total learning experience but don't the learn the hard way and be foolish enough not to know where your water resources are and basic needs.

When I visited DV a few years ago, there was a survival story from a few years back from the local paper posted prominently at the Furnace Creek Visitors Center. Family of 5, car broke down in the back country. They waited 1 day and when no one came by, they knew they would soon run out of water. They waited until dusk, dad put his youngest on his shoulders, and they took off walking back the way they came. They eventually made it out to a road where someone came by and found them. If this mother and son could have managed 3 mi/hr, they could have covered 30 miles in 10 hours. I know you're tought to stay put when lost, and that's sage advice over 95% of the time. But when you're looking at blistering heat and a dwindling water supply, that rule does not always apply. Compound that with the fact that you told no one specifically where you were going and when you would be back. As for the dog, it was a dachsund. A small dog with little fur could likely survive on minimal water resting under the vehicle.

I live in Telluride, Co, and my Garmin wants me to go over high backcountry 4x4 mountain passes all the time when I put in a destination. I am sure other people who don't live here get sent down these all the time. It seems like Garmin will be sued over these one day before they make the corrections.

I'm still very confused by this story. They were heading to Scotty's Castle, which is in the north east area of the park, but instead ended up in the south west corner....a difference of 3-4 hours! I hope that more information comes through because this just baffles me how anyone could have ended up that lost. The area they were in isn't even on the way from Las Vegas to Scotty's Castle. It's pretty much a straight shot up the highway to the Castle. I'm just very, very confused...

Ranger Holly
http://web.me.com/hollyberry

I want to comment on R Stefancik's post "If this mother and son could have managed 3 mi/hr, they could have covered 30 miles in 10 hours."
You have my admiration, Stefancik, you must be in pretty good shape if you think so little of covering that kind of ground. That's a LONG way for the average person, a longer way for an 11 year old. Obviously these were not folks who made a habit of those kinds of hikes or they'd have had more water, food, and maps. Plus it's still pretty hot in Death Valley at night in the summer, and without a lot of water...they'd never have made it. The right choice given the circumstances was to stick with the car. Hopefully other folks will see this story and take their own precautions before they travel into that kind of area.

I did address verifying for the Census earlier this year. We had to use handheld GPS units. At one point, as I was trying to spot a particular house, I noticed that the GPS told me I was at least a football field to the west, in the middle of a set of railroad tracks, down which a freight train was thundering. If the GPS had been right, I'd be roadkill right now!
We increasingly think technology -- GPS, cell phones, "I saw it on the Internet so it must be true" -- is 100 percent trustworthy. It ain't!

In almost all cases, its not the GPS that's wrong, its the maps or images loaded onto it. "Roads" can come from databases that include undeveloped rights of way; even rectifying (aligning and scaling) aerial ortho photographs is non-trivial in places like the Everglades and playas in Death Valley. [Those large white crosses you see painted on some urban streets and rural rural roads are marks to ease rectification of aerial photographs.] I've never had a GPS give me coordinates off by more than 15 meters or so (closer to 2-3m now with WAAS and the demise of selective availability), although one does have to make sure you have the coordinate system (NAD27 v NAD83) set the way you think.