Z107.7 News reporter Hilary Sloane went to Joshua Tree National Park Sunday for a short hike, and what should have been a morning of exercise turned into an all-day major rescue attempt and a grueling 10 hours without food and water. Here is her account of the day…
It was cool early Sunday morning when I decided to hike in Joshua Tree National Park. At 7:00, I grabbed my camera, a bottle of water, walking sticks, and sunglasses. I had walked this path once before, and it seemed easy. I was two miles up from the west (Joshua Tree) entrance on a clearly defined but unmaintained and unmarked path. After a short and uneventful hike, I turned around.
The difficulty came when I went back to my car. Several paths that were obscured in one direction were visible on the way back. I tried one, discovered it was wrong, turned around, and tried another one. That one seemed correct for a while, but it took too long to get back. I knew I had made a mistake.
I tried to follow the GPS, but it was unreliable, sometimes indicating my car was a mile and a half away and then two and a half miles away. The more I walked, the longer the route became.
I believe I was on Big Foot trail when I discovered park signage indicating routes to Panorama Trail, Mary Trail, and then Samuelson West. I walked and walked, it was getting late in the morning, the heat was rising, and I was getting concerned about finding my way out. Until then, I just thought I had to follow a trail, and all would be fine.
I finally came to a sign indicating Quail Springs Historic Trail and walking in, and out of the wash, I followed that route until it came to a marker that suggested I could go up or back. Quail Springs Wash was just beyond that juncture and showed no signs of leading me out. I headed up and called 911.
It was now 11:00, and the battery on my phone was close to running out. I was patched from 911 to Highway Patrol to the Joshua Tree Ranger Station. I spoke to Ranger Brian Starkey, who was comforting and concerned. We talked a couple of times, and he assured me that rescue teams were out, had found my car, and were attempting to locate me.
I described my path to the best of my knowledge, gave the GPS coordinates my phone gave me, and then hung up to wait and find shade. By 1 p.m., I had no water left, and the battery on my cell phone died. I could not find a place that I felt comfortable taking refuge in. The rocks were perfect places for snakes, and I knew it was snake season.
From my rocky mountain vantage point, I thought I could see the west entrance, and the large adobe house just beyond it. I planned to make my way back to the road. I left the place I had indicated to the ranger, not sure of my decision, but sure it was too hot to stay in the sun. I had no hat and no suntan lotion.
The more I walked, the more the path faded away. What looked like a road ahead was only an illusion, one after another. I kept walking. My mouth was dry; my lips were chapped. Every ounce of moisture was draining from my body quickly. I knew I could live for several weeks without food but only three to four days without water. It was the first time I became conscious of the thought of dying.
I was in an area surrounded by unfamiliar mountains. I saw the helicopter and heard them calling me. They told me to come out of the shade so they could see me. I swung my walking sticks, but they flew right overhead and never saw me. I did not have a mirror or anything else to get their attention. It was now around 3:00, according to the position of the sun. The helicopter made one more sweep, turned, and vanished from sight.
I was beginning to get stomach cramps that shook my body. I was surprised that my legs felt fine, and I was not frightened, but I knew If they didn’t find me soon, I would become dehydrated.
I sat down under a Joshua Tree and started to calm my breathing. It was difficult because of my parched, cracked month, but I continued to focus. I got up later and walked a little more still, not knowing where to go. As the day progressed into evening, I would walk, find a Joshua tree, sit down, fall asleep, get up, and walk again.
The stars were brilliant, and the sky was surprisingly bright. I looked for the moon but never located it. I was getting weaker and eager to preserve any strength I had left.
At what I later learned was 9:00, I bolted up from a restless sleep. I don’t know what woke me, but I saw lights in the distance. I thought I was seeing cars moving slowly. I watched them a bit startled and then grabbed my bag and ran toward them. I yelled hello several times until I finally heard a voice say, “What’s that?” I kept calling and walking quickly. When the firefighters came into view, it was startling. They walked out of the darkness, and their headlamps illuminated five smiling faces. Captain Earl Wilson, with a smile I will never forget, gently introduced himself, explained that they were Black Rock firefighters, and were one of several rescue groups looking for me. And then, Captain Wilson said, “I’m so glad to meet you.” I almost cried. It seemed to be the most profound statement I have ever heard.
Vince Brown, one of the firefighters, explained he had dropped his walkie-talkie and they were looking for it when I appeared. They could hear me because it was quiet.
I drank bottle after bottle of water, drinking as slowly as instructed as we walked another mile out of the park to their vehicle on Overhill Road.
I suppose it was adrenalin that kept me going that night and the next day. My body revolted a day later with confusion and a constant sense of dehydration. I still wake from restless dreams and reach for water. My doctor said that it could take up to three weeks to heal from dehydration and possible heat stroke.
There is a lot to be learned from this experience. Go with someone if you can or let someone know where you are going. Have a carefully marked out course. Bring more water than you think you need and a bar for food. Have a hat, a mirror, or orange fabric to flash if in trouble. Be prepared and never underestimate the size or complexity of this park. If you do get in trouble, don’t be afraid to reach out for help. Purchasing a tracker can be helpful and have someone on alert if you don’t come home at a specific time.
In reflection, I had a network of rangers, friends, and volunteers who were ready to help. The Park Rangers advised my friends not to go into the park themselves. It is better to have trained personal and not end up with multiple searches and rescues.
I am incredibly grateful to Joshua Tree National Park. Everyone is trained and focused on the visitor’s safety and well-being. When the Rangers, firefighters, and emergency units are extended to their limits, well-trained volunteers and canine rescue team step-up. They would have sent in a heat-sensing drone and additional groups if they had not found me that night. I can never repay my gratitude.
Thank you, Superintendent David Smith.