When I read stories about people getting lost in the desert, I begin with two assumptions. The first is that the traveler did something wrong that resulted in him getting lost; the second is that he did something right if he lived to tell the tale. The second assumption is generous because lots of people who get lost in the desert are found only after arduous searches. Still, the adventurer gets credit for telling someone who would notice him missing, where he was going and when he intended to return. Leaving an itinerary with a responsible party is a preeminent rule of desert survival. Mine is often a scrawled note that I tuck under one of the windshield wipers of our neighbor’s Chevy pick-up right before we depart on a Nevada desert journey.
“Me and my adventurous ways have really got us in the mire this time.” –M. McGough, stranded for seven days in the Australian outback
I recently read with fascination Tom Mahood’s account of his investigative role in uncovering the fate of a German tourist family who vanished while traveling in Death Valley National Park. Mahood stumbled on the story on the internet, twelve years after the family disappeared. In 2008 he read that a Death Valley Ranger performing an aerial search for illegal drug operations, had spotted a passenger van on an abandoned desert road. “The van was clearly stuck in the wash, sunk up to its axles in the sand, with its two rear tires flattened and its left front tire also flat,” Mahood writes in a measuredly ambling voice. Despite his casual gait I felt my heart rate increase, having myself been confronted many times in the desert with flat tires, a mired vehicle and, once, a vehicle we had to abandon.
Hooked on the mystery, Mahood undertook a long and rugged trajectory. He learned that the German family who rented the van in July of 1996, didn’t make their flight back to Germany–and were listed by Interpol as missing. He learned that in the fall of 2008, the same year the van was discovered, a search of the Anvil Canyon area where it was found produced no clues as to the family’s whereabouts.
He joined the Riverside Mountain Rescue Group and began to study search-and-rescue skills. He conducted interviews, studied evidence, pored over reports. He speculated, reconstructed, theorized. He made rigorous trips into the region, renewed general interest in the travelers’ fates, and generated new interagency searches.
Besides its intrigue, Mahood’s story captivated me because I recognized in it my former self–not as a researcher, but as someone likely to be claimed by the desert. The German adventurers drove a rented van into a desert canyon where temperatures during the day rose to 100 degrees. Many years ago my husband and I drove a rented SUV into a desolate Nevada desert canyon during a week when daytime temperatures peaked around 100 degrees. The German adventurers punctured three tires on the van and got stuck. When a rock punctured our vehicle’s oil pan, we planned to start walking in the predawn, 40 miles of unpopulated, scarcely traveled road the way we had come. Now–with considerably more experience in desert wilderness travel–I recognize the potentially fatal flaws in our plan:
- No one knew where we were or when we were planning to return; no one would be looking for us in time to effect the outcome.
- We didn’t know it then but the route we had driven into the canyon was the most infrequently traveled of three, and therefore the one on which we were least likely to encounter help. Our map was not informative enough to help us deduce that.
- Our water supply consisted of two-dozen 16-ounce plastic bottles. We had small back-packs, making it impossible to carry enough water for a 40-mile hike in which we would have been exposed to the sun in treacherously hot weather.
Furthermore, we had only been to that canyon once before. We might have taken a wrong turn while attempting to retrace our route. It’s easy to get lost in the desert, just as our rescuers did after they agreed to transport us back (eventually they got reoriented.) They appeared in the canyon where we were stranded, a couple of hours after we broke down. They told us they had driven many, many hours to arrive at that remote spot, where they were planning to camp.
The outcome for the German adventurers lost in the Death Valley was not miraculous. Like us, they were stranded in a remote region. Like us, they told no one where they were going (they did note in a guest log along the way that they were heading over a pass, but it was not a log anyone checked.) Like us, they didn’t have enough water. Like us, they had a map that was not useful for ascertaining the most viable way out. Tom Mahood’s determined efforts to discover their fate, eventually resulted in the finding of human bones. DNA tests confirmed the remains were those of Egbert Rimkus, 34, of Germany. Rimkus’s son, Georg Weber, 11, his girlfriend Cornelia Meyer, 28, and Meyer’s son, Max, 4, are still missing and presumed dead.
Preparedness and Survival: 5 Things to Remember
Our breakdown in an isolated Nevada desert canyon was a turning point for my husband and me. Since then, we have worked to be more and more prepared each time we head out into the desert. We now understand that preparedness–as it relates to desert travel–is not a state one actually achieves. Rather, it is a state of mind, a dynamic state in which the traveler continually evaluates and adapts. Here are five things I’ve learned:
1: Survival is not a given.
After a crisis, the difference between what you brought with you and what you needed–but didn’t have–will appear as the difference between preparedness and recklessness. Non-negotiables are water, prescription medications, food, clothing, tools for starting fire and for vehicle repair, sleeping bags, navigational materials, and recovery gear for your vehicle (if nothing else, a shovel.) Prepare for the worst, even if you are “just going to…” and even if you plan to travel mainly by paved roads.
2: Desert maps are often inaccurate.
During our first few trips into the Nevada desert, I struggled to believe how inaccurate our map was. We bought another map and found it just as unreliable. Eventually I discovered that by using the maps in tandem, I was able to piece together routes. Typically I document mileage at every junction, and take notes along the way, describing anything and everything distinctive, which is often not much. I also make notes like, “at the third fork we bore left on the way>bear right on the way back.” That way, if we encounter several successive roads which are not on the map (which is common,) I’ve reduced the possibility of confusion.
3: Lost people walk in circles.
A study published by National Geographic in 2010 shows that, in the desert, people who were told by researchers to walk in a straight line, veered off, then began zig zagging. Rosemary Sheel, in her travel memoir, Lost in the Sahara, admitted she did just that after walking away from her caravan and getting lost. She also walked in circles before her guides tracked and found her. (That same study found that, in the forest, lost people told to walk in a straight line, instead walked in circles.)
In any wilderness, including the desert, many people who get stuck or break down, become lost after leaving their vehicles.
4: One good decision could save your life.
In 1998 Mathew McGough drove into the Australian outback, planning to camp for one night with his daughter. They became stranded after two tires were punctured (they had one spare.) McGough decided to drive the compromised car anyway and set out to the west, although he was uncertain which way to go: “…turned out it was the wrong way.” He later burned the car, hoping to attract attention…then fully realized the impact of having no car. What kept him and his daughter alive for a week in the outback in 100-degree temperatures, was his decision to wet them down daily using water from the radiator and bury them both in the ground. Eventually he stumbled on a little-used road and flagged down a rescue.
5: Search parties frequently overlook signals for help.
A common theme in survival stories is of search parties and other travelers not seeing a stranded party’s signals for help–including smoke and fire. It is advisable to carry flares, brightly colored blankets or tarps, and mirrors or other shiny objects and use them in addition to fire to signal. The duration of a ground search and the number and frequency of aerial searches can be affected by budget and evidence of reason to continue. Be sure the person with whom you leave your itinerary, is savvy enough to keep the search for you search alive.