Best Animal Instinct

The Fall Danelle Ballengee opened the truck’s door, and Taz jumped out, wagging his tail. Today they were going to

The Fall

Danelle Ballengee opened the truck’s door, and Taz jumped out, wagging his tail. Today they were going to run a trail into Utah’s rugged back country. While she stretched, he nuzzled her legs and watched her intently — a sign he wanted to get moving.

It was Taz’s eyes that did it. She’d found him in a shelter, a puppy so unruly she named him after the Tasmanian Devil in the Warner Bros. cartoon. He’d since grown into a 70-pound mutt who was her constant companion, bouncing at her heels on her training runs.

Danelle checked her watch. She and Taz could easily make a loop and return by lunch. She’d eaten a light breakfast and would be ready for a shower and a meal back at her place in Moab at the end of her ten-mile run.

After limbering up, she patted Taz’s brown coat and started jogging. It was winter — December 2006 — and they were alone.

Danelle pushed her five-foot-four, 120-pound frame and soon broke into a sweat. At 35, she remained a world-class endurance athlete who’d run in over 500 long-distance competitions through deserts and mountains around the world. Today’s training route was a mere two-hour workout in the fresh air, even if the air was turning colder.

Up ahead, Taz disappeared, but Danelle didn’t worry as she scrambled along a remote rocky spur and up a second trail to the top of a 60-foot ridge of deep-colored red rock. Near the summit, her foot hit a patch of black ice.

She scraped over solid stone as she slipped toward a precipice. Her hands grabbed for a hold and found none. She was falling. Then she slammed feet first onto a narrow rock ledge and collapsed.

Dead Weight

Stunned, she felt her legs, afraid she might be paralyzed. She could wiggle her toes, but when she tried to stand, pain shot through her. She heard her own screams echoing off the canyon walls. Her pelvis and several vertebrae were shattered. The lower half of her body was useless, dead weight.

Danelle looked at her watch. It was noon. She estimated she was six miles from her truck and trapped high on a hidden desert ledge in winter. Alone. And no one knew where she was. Then she heard Taz.

He ran down from the summit to where she lay, and huddled over her. Danelle stroked his thick coat. If she remained still, the pain subsided and she could try to think her way out of this trap. She’d follow Taz down the path to the canyon floor. Once there, she’d crawl to the truck.

She rolled onto her stomach and screamed so loudly Taz jumped. She caught her breath. The canyon floor was hundreds of feet below, down a rocky path some two city blocks long. “Go, Taz.” He went ahead of Danelle, who began clawing forward over rocks and patches of snow. Taz trotted down the trail, then back, wondering why Danelle wasn’t running along beside him. Willing herself through the pain, she concentrated on her task.

Five hours later, Danelle reached the canyon bottom, scraped and bruised, the fabric of her running outfit torn. She was 700 feet closer to her goal; the truck was still six miles away.

Danelle checked her watch — 5 p.m. Crawling in the dark could be dangerous. She flopped onto her back, exhausted. Then she noticed an ice-covered hole the size of a pillow. She punched through the ice, pulled herself backward, leaned into the hole and drank deeply.

She’d need water if she was going to crawl out tomorrow. Danelle dipped her empty water bottle into the pool, but it came out full of silt, so she used the lid to slowly scoop water from the surface. It took over 50 scoops to get enough. She finally stopped because spills were freezing her fingers. The temperature had plunged into the 20s.

Quiet as a Tomb

Her baggy black running pants, a blend of fleece and synthetic polypro, a couple of thin layers and a fleece top offered little protection. She reached out to Taz, and he curled into a ball next to her. Danelle put her arms around him, feeling his warmth, and held on.

As the hours wore on, she tried to distract herself from the pain and cold. Danelle stared into the clear night sky, talked to Taz and counted shooting stars with him.

It hurt incredibly to move, but if she didn’t, her core temperature would drop and she’d die of hypothermia. So she flexed her muscles, tapped her feet and lifted her head a few inches off the rock in a small sit-up. When she raced, pain was a constant companion. A good athlete kept moving despite it.

She continued her series of crunches, counting to distract herself. At 1,000, her abdomen ached. She touched her belly — it was swollen with blood from internal injuries. She paced herself: one crunch, rest five seconds, repeat. Throughout the night, she took sips of water, realizing that if she drank too much, she’d urinate and the liquid would freeze on her legs.

At Thursday’s first light, Danelle examined her surroundings. Narrow red rock walls and silence. Not a living thing in sight. In the distance, a small juniper tree, but otherwise only rock and canyon walls. This was terrain where few people ventured, even in summer. At this time of year, it was as quiet as a tomb.

In her pocket she discovered an energy gel in a plastic packet she used on endurance runs. She drank the syrup, rested and waited for the sun to warm her body. She tried to sit up, but her bones ground one against the other and she collapsed from the pain.

Someone in town, she hoped, would realize she was gone. Surely her next-door neighbor would notice her house lights had been left on all night. Even so, no one knew where she’d gone.

Danelle had a six-mile trek ahead of her still.

She turned over and dragged herself forward. She was barely moving now, less than an inch at a time. She pulled hard, scraping her fingers, knuckles and knees until they bled. She crawled from first light to 4 p.m. but became dehydrated and had to return to the water hole. The day had been wasted.

As darkness and the temperature fell, pain and hunger started to take their toll. Danelle had delusions that a blanket had fallen off her and kept searching for it. She was afraid of predators and called to Taz to stay close. When she heard his collar clink, she’d say, “Good dog.”

Something Went Very Wrong

Friday morning broke. The night had been brutal. Her fingers were numb, and she could no longer do sit-ups. Another night and she’d freeze. She decided to make a final attempt to crawl out. Taz paced nervously. He was hungry and tired too. Would he stay with her?

“Taz, I’m hurt,” she said. “Get help.” She held up a weak hand, and Taz walked forward and nuzzled her palm. After a moment, he loped away. But did he understand?

Danelle started crawling again. She watched the sun move across the sky. Three hours later, she inched back to the water hole and drank. The pain seemed unbearable. Suddenly Taz’s collar jingled in the distance. “Taz,” she called, “Taz.” The jingle faded. He’d left her.

John Marshall, in two layers of clothes and a heavy coat, shivered as he waited for his search-and-rescue squad to arrive at the trailhead. He stared out across 10,000 acres of brutal landscape. He had no idea where to look for Danelle Ballengee, but he had to come up with a plan.

On Thursday afternoon a neighbor realized she hadn’t seen Danelle for two days and called the runner’s parents. They contacted the police, who searched for Danelle’s Ford Ranger in all the likely spots with no luck.

This morning, though, an officer had made a final pass up a little-used road and found the truck. Marshall was called to assemble a search squad. Now he looked anxiously at his watch. In a few hours it would be dark and the team’s task would be impossible.

Marshall knew Danelle was an extreme runner. He’d helped out at an endurance run where he’d treated her for exhaustion.

“We’re not going to be looking for a tourist,” Marshall told his team. “This woman went out there to run the hardest trail she could find. She’s tough. If she’s still out in that country, something went very wrong.”

Marshall tried to think like an endurance runner, focusing the search on five potential trails. When the team arrived, he’d send out squads on all-terrain vehicles. It was a long shot.

Good Dog

As he turned away from the canyon, Marshall noticed movement in a creek bed about 150 feet below. He peered over the edge. There was a dog down there. He knew Danelle ran with her dog. This one was probably wild, but if it was hers, Danelle was in bad trouble. He’d heard that a dog will stay with its owner unless the owner is severely injured or dies; then it leaves.

This dog ran up a trail and stopped 30 feet away. Marshall whistled. He held out his hand, coaxing the dog to come closer so he could catch him. The dog wagged his tail, ran in circles, but refused to come near.

He bolted up the road, dashed around a corner and stopped at Danelle’s pickup. The dog sniffed the truck and ran back into the creek bed, then vanished.

At that point the search team, a crew of 12 volunteers and two ATVs, arrived.

Marshall split them into groups to explore different trails. He was about to send them out when he glanced down the road and saw the dog in the distance. Animal-control officers had arrived on the scene and were trying to tempt him with biscuits, food and water. But the dog would not let himself be caught. He turned and ran up into the canyon.

This was too much like Lassie to be real, Marshall thought. Yet the dog had spent the last 30 minutes making sure that every person in the area had seen him. Maybe it was Danelle’s dog.

“That dog is back,” Marshall told the team by radio. “Don’t try and catch him. Repeat, do not catch him. Let him go. See if you can follow him.”

Bego Gerhart, one of the rescue-team members, was exploring up ahead when the dog blew by him and then slowed and started to pick his way up a rock-filled trail. Finally the dog disappeared. Gerhart climbed off the ATV and went after him. Paw prints in the sand led to a path the searcher had never noticed. And then, shoe prints.

Danelle hadn’t heard Taz for a while. She closed her eyes to wait for the end — alone, cold and scared.

Then in the distance she heard the jingle of a dog’s collar. A moment later Taz was beside her. He’d been running hard; he was panting. He lapped water out of the little hole. She thought she heard a vehicle’s engine. But it went silent.
Back on the narrow trail, Gerhart had turned off the ATV’s motor. He listened to the desert, waited for it to speak to him. Then he heard a voice: “Help me.” He grabbed his radio.

“I have verbal contact with the subject,” he told Marshall. “Stand by.” He raced ahead on the ATV and spotted Danelle lying on the canyon floor, the dog next to her. Gerhart knelt beside her and called for a helicopter to fly her out.

As Danelle began to weep, Taz nuzzled her and licked her face. “Good dog,” she said. “Good dog.”

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest