Hard on the heels of the two people found dead in a minivan stranded in the desert near Lake Mead comes news closer to home of two French tourists dead at White Sands Nat’l Monument. Their little boy survived, apparently because his dad gave him more than his share of the remaining water.
I’m a great believer in taking risks in the wilderness. Defying the odds not only promotes a healthy burst of adrenalin in the moment, but makes you savor life all the more (if you survive the experience). But I do feel bad for people who lose even before they realize they’ve been gambling with their lives. NPS Rangers, especially those who’ve spent time at the big-draw tourist attractions like Yellowstone, Bryce Canyon and Death Valley, have a hair-raising fund of stories about feckless urbanites who wander away from pavement in shorts and flip-flops, blissfully unaware that they’re literally treading the edge of disaster with every step.
Without disrespect to the deceased, it’s worthwhile to review the mistakes these French visitors made that contributed to their demise. First, despite prominently displayed warnings (in a number of languages) they walked off into the dunes at mid-day in August. Air temperature was 101˚F, and ground temp 20 degrees hotter. High in a cloudless sky the sun is pitiless, the glare from the dunes blinding even behind sunglasses and a billed cap, and there is no shade, not even a lonely bush to crawl under.
The tourists may have been misled by the name “Alkali Flats Trail,” where in fact there is no “trail” in the civilized European sense of the word and precious few “flats.” Only occasional poles mark the route over the ever-shifting dunes, and walking through the soft sand is painfully slow and quickly exhausting.
Second, the French family carried just two 20-oz. plastic water bottles. That’s 2 ½ pints, or a little more than a quart shared among two adults and a child. A gallon is four quarts. Remember Groucho: “a gal a day is enough for me”? A gallon of water is barely survivable in the Arena Blanca. If I were rash enough to hike there in August I would carry two gallons for myself alone. That’s 16 ½ lbs., but I know I would be glad to have it before I was through.
Finally, they split up. When the woman began feeling ill (the first symptoms of heat stroke) the man and boy left her to make her own way back to the vehicle while they continued on (impaired judgment is another symptom of heat stroke). She never made it back to their car, and the man collapsed about a mile farther along the trail. The little boy survived to be rescued by the rangers, partly because of his father’s selfless decision to give the boy more than his share of the remaining water, but mostly because the boy’s smaller body evaporated less moisture (skinny little people have a better chance in the desert than big, fat people; it’s a question of skin surface area).