Survival Stories: Hot, Thirsty, and Lost in Death Valley

Three women took a drive to Death Valley for a day of exploring. Three days and 300 miles later, they were out of gas—and hope.

Survival Stories: Hot, Thirsty, and Lost in Death ValleyPhotograph by Tom Spitz
Death Valley, the 3,000-square-mile sprawl of sand dunes and arid mountains along California’s southeastern border, is the hottest, driest place in North America. Temperatures soar into the triple digits from June through September. Annual rainfall averages 2.5 inches; most months, there’s none at all. Though nearly a million tourists visit each year, few venture into the valley during the summer, when the sun is at its most brutal.

Like most of her neighbors in Pahrump, Nevada—a dusty town of 36,000, just 60 miles from the entrance to Death Valley National Park—Donna Cooper had driven through the valley many times. But one Thursday morning in July 2010, the 62-year-old retiree decided to explore a corner of the park she’d never visited: Scotty’s Castle, a Spanish-style mansion built in the 1920s. Her daughter Gina, 17, and Donna’s friend and houseguest from Hong Kong, Jenny Leung, 19, joined her.

The trio arrived at the mansion around 1 p.m. and spent two hours touring the place. As they left the parking lot on the way home, they saw a sign for the Racetrack—a dry lake bed, where shifting boulders have left skid marks in the cracked mud. “I’ve always wanted to check that out,” Donna said.

The other two women went along with the idea. Gina, who was driving, pointed their Hyundai west on Route 267, then turned south on a dirt road. The temperature outside the tiny car was over 125 degrees. After about an hour, they reached an intersection, but the sign indicating the way to the Racetrack was unclear. Gina turned left. After ten more miles, she realized she’d made a wrong turn. She tried to reverse course, but they were soon climbing into the high country.

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16 thoughts on “Survival Stories: Hot, Thirsty, and Lost in Death Valley

  1. Don’t blindly depend on GPS, and bring maps too; GPS can be, and occasionally is, wrong or outdated. And when driving in the desert, always bring a lot more water than you think you will need. You never know when a car will break down. Even if you’re on a paved road, it can take some time before you get help.

  2. stupid stupid stupid!! I just did Death Valley during this last heat wave. I had 40 bottles of water, not counting the 2 one gallon jugs, food for a week, enough survival gear to outfit several people, entered the park with a full tank of gas. I also had a fan operated by batteries and enough spares for a week worth of flowing air.
    When she hit those forks in the road, there is such things a pen & paper or your digital camera to mark your way home. I have NO sympathy for these women or anyone else who is so stupid to enter a place such as DC totally unprepared.
    Sign me: 62 year old stroke survivor woman who travels alone each summer.

  3. That was pretty sad but the sun probably get to thier head and were just lost and dehydrated and did not know where they were going.

  4. It is amazing to me, as I read the comments above, how people love the sound of their own “authority”, when they haven’t got a clue about EVERYTHING that has happened in between. People simply based on a brief article like this and think they “know it all”.  I am just glad the women made it out of the desert alive and they’ve raised awareness of using GPS device. There’s no doubt the women made the smartest decision in a survival situation. It’s useless to argue HOW they get lost, this is not what it’s all about. We should however learn something if you were left alone in a survival situation, what should you do when you are not a survivalist?

    Well, from this story, I learned that:

    1)  Never LEAVE your vehicle, if you have one. It is the only shelter you have, before yo can find a better one.

    2) Be logical even when you are scared, you never know what you are capable to do to save your life! These 3 women used their brains, instead of just freaking out, losing hope and rely on others to rescue you. These women made plans to stay in the porch for 2 weeks, instead of just believing that someone will find them in the days few days, because it doesn’t always happen that way. 

    3) Do everything you can to life up your spirit. In their case, they took showers to make them feel positive, so they had the energy to plan for surviving, instead of feeling crappy and waiting to die.

    It doesn’t do you much if you judge them in the purpose of “showing off” how much “smarter” you are. This was an accident, an accident is an accident, everyone made mistake. The most important thing is, after they have shared their story, what did you learn from it?

    Not to mention about netiquette on a public site like this… but that’s another story.

  5. Not for nothing do they call it “Death Valley”. Don’t be careless with your life!

  6. It’s been done and blaming has no room for this one. All of them have their slice of learnings from what happened. each and everyone has his/ her own survival stories.

  7. 4 bottles of water. An old Hona and two young kids. Not telling anyone where you’re going? Sounds like an episode of I sohuldn’t be alive! Also I would have liked to have known did the Mom come back later to replace the suplies they used and fix the damage?

  8. Very disappointing article.  This woman was very irresponsible on having taken less provisions than needed and then putting their lives in the hands of an electronic device.  GPS units are a tool to be used with common sense, not in place of it.

    1.  Electronic devise is better than nothing, when you are lost don’t know which direction to go GPS devise as guide was a good choice for the situation.

    2. Taken less provision than needed? Like what? A satellite phone? Who can afford that? Even a map is useless when you don’t know where you are. Irresponsible? Your ignorant comment is really irresponsible. Generally nobody will pack up full survival gear to go to a short trip to Scotty’s castle. You probably wouldn’t have said the same stupid things if you were in their situation. People are so ignorant to say “Oh… why didn’t they bring extra gas and matches (so the car can explode under 128 degree heat); why didn’t they bring extra water (told ya they have drank most of them at the end of the trip” If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all, don’t say it online either just because nobody knows who you are.

      1. Unfortunately he is correct. They refused maps and were not prepared for off highway travel in the desert, something they should have known about, as they were desert locals.

  9. Very disappointing article.  This woman was very irresponsible on having taken less provisions than needed and then putting their lives in the hands of an electronic device.  GPS units are a tool to be used with common sense, not in place of it.

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