Danger lurks for visitors in Death Valley National Park

Drop $4 on an extra case of bottled water. Tell a family member where you’re going and when you expect to be back.

Such tasks seem almost trivial before you hit the road, but under the glare of the Mojave sun, these precautions might just save a life.

Death Valley National Park spokesman Terry Baldino said visitors find all kinds of ways to get themselves in trouble in the Western Hemisphere’s hottest spot, from overextending themselves on trails and roads to ignoring warning signs from the park service and their own bodies.

Often, though, the worst mistakes — the deadly kind — are the ones people make before they ever leave the house.

Baldino said the recent death of Carlos Sanchez serves as a stark reminder of that.

The 11-year-old boy died Wednesday, four days after he and his mother, Alicia Sanchez, became stranded in their vehicle in the park’s remote southwestern corner.

The two set out from Las Vegas with their dog on Aug. 1. Rescuers found the woman, dehydrated and distraught, on Thursday morning.

She remained at Sunrise Hospital and Medical Center Saturday afternoon, listed in good condition.

Baldino said had she chosen a less remote place to go, told someone her intended timetable and destination, and packed emergency supplies, the tragedy might have been avoided.

Sanchez brought just enough water for the overnight camping trip they had planned, but not enough to last them more than about two days, Baldino said.

The woman also failed to tell anyone exactly where they planned to camp or for how long. Then she compounded that mistake by choosing to continue driving down a 30-mile stretch of deserted dirt road after using her only spare tire to replace a flat.

The boy was already dead by the time the two were finally reported missing on Wednesday evening by family members in Ohio, who could only offer vague descriptions of widely scattered locations where the pair might have been headed.

The information didn’t narrow things down much, Baldino said.

"We thought, ‘Well, there’s 3 million acres we have to cover.’ We really had not a clue where to start."

Perhaps the biggest mistake Sanchez made was "she tried to get out onto the backcountry roads on her own," Baldino said.

In the summer, some of those roads can go days or even weeks without a single vehicle on them, he said.

That’s why the National Park Service urges visitors to stick to the most heavily traveled roads, where they are likely to get help quickly in the event of trouble.

No one should venture out on a backcountry road without multiple spare tires and "tons of water," Baldino said.

"People don’t really realize how quickly they are dehydrating," he said.

The rangers who patrol the park’s backcountry equip their vehicles with a minimum of two spare tires, a satellite phone and enough water to last two or three days, Baldino said.

Death Valley’s high temperature for the year so far was 128 degrees on July 18. In the teeth of summer, it’s not unusual to have a string of 120-degree days lasting a week or more.

The park’s official weather readings are taken below sea level in one of the hottest parts of the valley, about 120 miles west of Las Vegas.

Sanchez and her son were stranded about 3,000 feet above sea level, where temperatures would have been 10 degrees cooler but far from safe, Baldino said. "It was still in the hundreds and still very dry."

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.

People have vanished into the furnace of the Mojave, never to be seen again.

One of the most puzzling cases came in July 1996, during a streak of 120-degree days in Death Valley that stretched on for more than a month.

Four German tourists — a man, a woman and two young boys — followed an abandoned dirt road into a remote valley in the southern part of the park and then vanished.

The only traces they left behind were their rented minivan, a receipt from the Furnace Creek Visitor Center, and an entry in a visitor’s log book at an abandoned mining camp.

Thirteen years later, Egbert Rimkus, 34, his girlfriend Cornelia Meyer, 28, his son Georg Weber, 10, and Meyer’s son Max, 4, are still listed as missing.

The spot where their van was found with three of its four tires flat is about 20 miles northwest of where Sanchez and her son were stranded.

"People underestimate the heat," said Joel Southall. "People are too confident in their cars. They think they are safe in there."

Southall should know. He has spent the past two summers in Death Valley, where he works as director of environmental health and safety for the company that runs several hotels and convenience stores in the park.

A big part of his job is to oversee safety training for the company’s roughly 250 summertime employees, including landscapers, engineers and golf course workers whose jobs require them to spend their days outside.

The key is to take it slowly and carefully.

Southall said they try to gradually introduce new employees to the summer heat, rather than just turn them out for an eight-hour day under the punishing sun.

Sometimes it’s hard to see the signs of heat illness in yourself, so employees are trained to watch co-workers and park visitors for symptoms of distress.

Southall said a common mistake visitors make is drinking plenty of water when they get to the park but not enough before they arrive, "so they’re dehydrated before the get here."

And don’t count on your cell phone to save you either. "They don’t work in a lot of the park," Southall said.

Autopsy results are pending, but Carlos Sanchez is thought to be the third person to die from heat-related causes in Death Valley this year.

Despite its name, however, the park is statistically no deadlier than other national parks in the region or across the country.

Baldino said the park averages about one heat-related death and one other death each year.

By comparison, 24 people died last year at Lake Mead National Recreation Area, which is also managed by the National Park Service. Drowning accounted for nine of the deaths.

So far this year, 16 fatalities have been reported within the 1.5 million-acre recreation area east of Las Vegas, which draws a significantly higher number of visitors annually than Death Valley.

Lake Mead receives about 8 million visitors a year, ten times the number that typically pass through Death Valley.

More than 870,000 people toured Death Valley in 2008. August was the busiest month last year, with almost 115,000 visitors.

Baldino said many foreign tourists prefer to come during the summer because they want to experience the Western Hemisphere’s hottest and lowest point at its most extreme. But many of them are also "pass-through travelers," who stick to the park’s main roads and don’t stay more than a day or two, he said.

"We’re not saying don’t come to Death Valley in the summer," Baldino said. "But when you come in the summer come prepared, and you will do fine."

Contact reporter Henry Brean at hbrean @reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0350.

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