White Sands National Monument in southern New Mexico is home to the world's largest gypsum dune fields, and all those beautiful white dunes might look like an appealing place to wiggle your toes in the sand. As one recent visitor discovered, however, a hike in the dunes can take a nasty turn if you decide to forego one of the most basic items of gear.
Only a handful of gypsum dune fields are known to exist, and the one at White Sands National Monument is easily the largest on the planet. These dunes cover about 275 square miles, and about 40 percent (115 square miles) are protected within the park. That's still plenty of room to get lost, and although the dunes may be beautiful, it's important to keep in mind that the beauty cloaks a harsh desert environment.
The park website includes some important safety advice for visitors, noting, "It is easy to become disoriented when hiking in the dunes. Do not hike alone. When hiking off-trail, take a map and compass and orient yourself to surrounding landmarks. Take plenty of water—one gallon per person is recommended."
Not everyone heeds good advice, of course, and on Monday, April 30, Otero County dispatch received a 911 call from a 25-year-old hiker who was lost in the dunes.
A Different Kind of Hike
The caller told the 911 dispatcher he’d left his vehicle around 10 a.m. and hiked about 14 miles cross-country when he realized he was lost... and he was out of water. That's a pretty ambitious hike in this terrain, but for this tourist there was one really significant difference: he was barefoot.
Well, no shoes, no water, and apparently no map and compass, but at least he had a cell phone. Too many inexperienced tourists get into trouble because they assume they can always call 911 on their cell phone if they need help, only to find that cell service is not available everywhere. In this case the hiker was fortunate, and his call for help was successfully received.
There was one, however, one other glitch in our hiker's reliance on modern technology. He provided coordinates from his smart phone’s GPS application, and rangers and personnel from Alamo West SAR responded to the corresponding location. Unfortunately, when rescuers arrived, there was no sign of the lost hiker.
"We Can Hear You Now," But....
The man was again contacted by cell phone, and a ranger's detailed knowledge of his park proved to be the saving factor. Using the hiker’s description of the unique vegetation and distant structures he could see from his location, David Bustos, the park’s chief of resources, was able to hone in on the location and find the hiker’s footprints. The missing man was located about eight miles from his car in the parabolic dunes along the monument’s remote northern boundary.
After being treated in the field for blisters, the hiker was transported by UTV (Utility Terrain Vehicle) back to the command post, where he was assessed and released.
The search was managed under a unified command with NPS and Alamo West SAR. The park, which has limited staff, expressed its appreciation for the support received for this and other emergencies through their partnerships with Alamo West, American Medical Response, Holloman Air Force Base and White Sands Missile Range.
A common piece of advice for visitors to places like national parks is to "Take only pictures; leave only footprints." We trust if this tourist decides to indulge in future hikes, he won't take that suggestion quite so literally.