Sad End to This Cautionary Tale, As Folks Start to Head Back Out Into the Wilds, Pls Be Careful


New member
I think the choice a reasonable person makes is based to a large degree on the belief that SAR will actually happen in a somewhat timely manner. If you believe that a reliable friend at home has your back ( which is what happened in this case ) and will send out the cavalry to look for you then the best course of action is just chill the fk out and wait. Make the best of the situation. The end of Gold Valley road ( google earth) has a stand of trees, a promising sign that you may find a water source in the desert. Clearly having a reliable EPIRB system and / or satellite phone is the best option as you can start rescue immediately by your own actions. If you had not told anyone or had no emergency beacon device then based on the remoteness of Gold Valley road you would best try to get a self rescue going sooner than later. Given that they had driven in and with just basic directional knowledge, enough water, some food and traveling when it's cooler then self rescue would be very do-able imho. The third option of hiking down to Mormon point is not completely un do-able but would require a higher degree of survival skills. Having knowledge of the area is key, if you grew up in that area and knew every inch of the terrain then clearly you would have a major advantage over someone who is learning the area for the first time. Initially hiking up to the ridge line either North or South of the canyon would make the hike down a whole lot easier and safer than attempting the canyon route. Based on what I've read really the only way to successfully hike the canyon is having equipment and repelling skills to overcome certain sections.


Good points. When I went to Namibia, I rented a car at the airport to last me until the 4WD I was going to travel in was ready and they made me watch a video on driving on rough roads. Most of the tourists in Namibia were from Germany so they probably hadn't driven on many desert roads. If you are going to a place like Death Valley it totally makes sense for people to watch a safety video.

Those of us who are planning extensive time in the backcountry probably all have these things already - after we've spent in the neighborhood of $100k on gear it would just be silly to "cheap out" on emergency communications. As you point out though, the issue is more around how do we help educate\protect the more casual adventurers who may get in over their heads? There can probably be many ways to reduce this kind of risk but the reality is that any solution would need to start with properly funding the Park Service and Forest Service so that our public lands can be managed for the safe use of the public (which will include lots of novice travelers).

This winter we ran El Camino del Diablo Road, the whole length from Ajo to Yuma - Cabeza Prieta NWR and Barry M. Goldwater Range. A (free) permit is required prior to entering these areas. Watch a 15 minute safety video, take a quiz and hey!, you've got a permit. You then have to "check in" and specify the length of your trip online before you actually enter the area. I really liked this model because not only does it force you to spend at least a few minutes thinking about safety and the risks you will encounter, it also lets administrative personnel know that you are in the area (in this particular case it's mostly so they don't drop bombs on you, being a live bombing range and all...)

I don't think it would be unreasonable to require the same type of process for access to any backcountry areas in the National Parks. If you want to go off the paved roadways, you need to get a permit. When you come back out, check out with the Park Service (this can be done online, over the phone, etc.) Having to follow a formal process makes clear to you that there are risks involved in what you are doing and would let the Rangers know where you are and when you expect to be back. Permitting shouldn't be a way to generate revenue but just a way to keep track of who is where and when they're expected back. This entire debate around "should they have stayed with the vehicle or not?" would be pretty easily settled if Park Rangers knew where they were and when to expect them back. They know you're out there and will come looking.

Again, this would require significant increases to Park and Forest Service budgets but could go a long way toward making for safer experiences for all.
I get out to the desert once a year. When I started doing this I considered getting an In Reach, but knowing myself, I was concerned I would overlook renewing the subscription. I also heard that there have been times when they are not reliable. Consequently, I got a satellite beacon. I always keep it on my person when I'm out.

I'm good at knowing where I am. I study the area I am visiting ahead of time and carry multiple types of maps along with Gaia on my iPad. I constantly reconcile all of these sources against each other as I go. I can't imagine I would ever strike out cross country in a situation like that.


Certainly maps on an ipad are better than nothing i guess. All it takes is one slip, trip or fall to destroy an ipad or maybe a good rainstorm. Considering they were not near their vehicle im thinking the ipad isnt really the right tool for the job considering it relies 100% on a battery and your ability not to break it.


I have not much to say other than people from other parts of the world literally have no idea of the distances and number of truly isolated area's in North America, in reference to the Germans. Even many North American's from large urban centers often have no idea how fast cell coverage vanishes.

That coupled with largely poor map reading skills can lead to these unfortunate outcomes.

I ran into a young couple whose jeep had broken down on a hot summer day mid week, on the Koopi pass in BC. That pass travels up the east side of Harrison Lake to Boston Bar. They had no supplies, flip flops and light day time clothing and no map vehicle gps. So literally no idea how far anything was.
They were about 50km (30 miles) out of Boston bar and about 60Km or 40 miles from Harrison Hot springs there a logging camp at about 25 miles toward Harrison.

They had left no info with anyone and would have had along hard walk a gravel FSR, they might have run into someone else but pretty doubtful.

They whined about a lack of cell service in the back end of nowhere, assumptions are what gets us into trouble.
Certainly maps on an ipad are better than nothing i guess. All it takes is one slip, trip or fall to destroy an ipad or maybe a good rainstorm. Considering they were not near their vehicle im thinking the ipad isnt really the right tool for the job considering it relies 100% on a battery and your ability not to break it.
Absolutely. The GPS is just the icing on the cake. It's never my primary map, or even secondary. For that I use real maps.


Active member
For me gps maps are the primary source, and even secondary, for a car based travel with two devices having the maps and being able to charge (from engine or solar)
Paper maps are the backup.

Printed maps can be awesome for visiting a specific area, but when making long trips it gets less usable. Because the scale of the map will always be a compromise, switching because country view and a specific area.

Going hiking in a certain area, I would probably prefer paper maps.
But on overland trips for half a year or more it gets annoying.
sooner eat grubs than risk injury hunting big game in survival situations
While crossing the North Slope coastal plain after crossing the Brooks Range south to north July 1973, we (a 110 lb friend and I) were getting a bit hungry after running out of freeze dried food. We were eating 40 M&Ms a day each plus blueberries off the tundra. I was carrying a Remington 700 30-06 for bear protection.
We saw a ptarmigan and I carefully shot it through the neck at ~30 yards. It really “hit the spot”. Later or next day we saw a yearling caribou. I elected to leave it alone as >95% would have been wasted.
One needs to apply judgment about true emergency vs just being a bit hungry or otherwise discomforted.


Found this thread today, and was hoping for some updated info on this tragedy beyond what was reported by the media in the the first few days. I have nothing new to add to the lessons learned discussions here, but can add some first hand experience/perspectives from my multiple trips to Gold Valley, including Willow Springs.

I've been down in Gold Valley 3-4 times on my dual sport motorcycle, just because it looked like an interesting place to check out on the map. It was a very fun area of two-track roads to ride, which is why I kept returning. In late March, just a few weeks before this happened, I took my wife there in my 4x4 van, along with a friend in a Toyota 4runner.

Having now done it on a motorcycle and a 4x4 van, I can tell you Gold Valley is pretty remote. It is an in-and-out trip so there is no thru traffic passing by on their way to someplace else. I've never seen another vehicle while in there but I can tell by the tracks that there are occasional visitors. Not too rugged for a SUV with decent tires and clearance, but their Subaru was out of its element.

Gold Valley has a trail description in the Death Valley SUV Trails book by Roger Mitchell (2006). I mention this because it calls out Willow Springs as having a must-do half mile hike down the canyon to pools of water pushed to the surface by the bedrock and being the best place in the park to see Desert Bighorn Sheep. I wonder if this was the attraction for them to visit Gold Valley in the first place.

We were hoping to find a worthwhile camp spot in Gold Valley and headed towards Willow Springs since I knew there was a large flat area at the end of the road. We did camp in that area and did the "must-do hike" the next morning. That half mile hike has very little elevation drop and alternates between impenetrable thickets of willows that would fill the canyon from side to side and open areas of rubble and some bedrock. There were faint trails to bypass the willows thickets on the hillsides. Travel was relatively easy but there was no payoff. We didn't find any pools of water at the surface. Yes, there may have been some water in the midst of the willows but we didn't look that hard. At about the half mile mark the canyon walls got markedly steeper and I now had to scramble up a hundred feet and traverse a bit to see beyond that thicket. I could see that the canyon was beginning to drop and there were even steeper slopes and cliffs ahead before the canyon turned west out of my view. To continue on (I didn't) would have required traversing very steep slopes of sometimes loose and often sharp rocks with more and more exposure. Climbing down to the canyon bottom again didn't seem like it would gain you easier passage because further willow thickets would require you to reclimb to regain the altitude you just gave up.

Although hiking 22-25 miles on the known dirt roads back to pavement sounds daunting, it was only 12 miles max out to Greenwater Valley Rd (aka Death Valley Wash Rd) which is a wide, well graded and easy dirt road which does have some traffic each day (speaking from having driven on GWV Rd at least a dozen times). Hiking 12 miles out on Gold Valley Rd would have taken less energy, both physical and mental, and could have been done at night if heat were an issue.


P.S. I've been carrying a SPOT, but now an InReach, on my adventures for at least 10 years.


One of my brothers died from exposure last year when he was in Utah searching for that Forrest Fenn treasure. But they were out on snowmobiles and got lost. Our Dad never really showed any outwardly visible pain or emotion at the time. It was somewhat odd, thats not to imply he wasnt hurting inside or that he didnt shed a tear in private.
Last edited:


Active member
I've not (yet) gotten into real trouble in the dirt, but have found myself in trouble on the water a few times. This story and this thread reminded me of one particular time.

My now-wife and I had about 1000 miles of sailing experience,pre-GPS, hand marking charts using a combination of celestial navigation/sun sights and dead reckoning. We'd been in ************ squalls and other surprising nastiness. But one particular day, sailing through New York harbor there was a really devastating squall that popped up and tore us to pieces. Tight quarters, lots of bigger boat traffic and a preposterous wind made making any kind of way difficult.

At one point I looked over to see my very experience sailing future-wife with practically one leg over the side, ready to jump into the tempest and swim for it.

Now the boat was beaten up, but still very much a boat. There is nothing in the rational mind that would make one think they should leave a floating craft for swirling stormy high-traffic waters. But there she was, ready to go. I practically had to lash her to the deck until we got to safety.

I guess my point is that all the quarterbacking in the world can't get us into their heads, and also- know the plan, practice, be prepared as much as you can, but know you might make cascading mistakes based on increasing stressors. We should assume that this played a role here too.

As for us now- InReach with me for all solo trips, one for my son. Paper maps, compasses on trips. Handheld GMRS available for hikes away from basecamp.


Active member
Sad story, hopefully we can learn from it. It’s interesting to hear all the SAR people say they should have stayed with the vehicle. I know that is common knowledge if one is lost, rather than wandering around blindly, but they didn’t seem to be. It also assumes that somebody if going to be looking for them soon. If they weren’t expected to be home or in cell range for another 3-4 days, nobody would start until then. They should have had enough food and water if there wasn’t a resupply point. I don’t know that I wouldn’t have done the same thing though. It appears their real mistake might have been trying to climb the more treacherous terrain, and I imagine panic would have set in that they were “almost there.”

It is also a sobering reminder not to have your only hope in the unknown. I’ve been in a situation where we were following a contour line around a mountain in and out of a few ridges. We came to a massive canyon that prevented us from getting to where we wanted. The guy who was most experienced looking at the topo map said that one small corner was cut off. We also dropped our camp one day while hunting to not take it to the top of the mountain, as there was no water up high. Coming back down, he couldn’t find water where he expected it to be and we spent over an hour in the dark bushwhacking looking for him. The same guy was also tempted to take a potential short cut when we missed our turn on a trail and had to backtrack. I told him I wasn’t going to chance it and just turned around, following the guaranteed route. I don’t let him make decisions like that anymore.

This should be enough of a prompting for everyone reading this to pick up a PLB or Inreach. I bought a PLB after two boys from FL disappeared on the water 5 years ago and were never found. If they didn’t die from capsizing their boat at speed or something similar, a $300 device would have saved them.

I later bought an Inreach due to wanting the two way communication after a friends wife has a seizure and required emergency brain surgery. We regularly elk hunt where we’re without cell signal for 5-7 days, it would be terrible to come out and earn something like that or a critical car accident had happened to your family. I now carry it when I take my 3 year old son off roading on mild terrain for half day trips. We are out of cell range and if I had a heart attack or something similar and was able to hit the SOS button, at least he would be found quickly even if I didn’t survive.

It has nothing to do with being “scared”, I don’t wear a motorcycle helmet because I’m scared, or carry a pistol because I’m scared. I do it to help deal with unexpected situations.


Overlanding Road Tripper
A tragic event for the couple, and plenty of good information from the people here. I do some remote solo exploring in my Jeep, with my wife, and one clear takeaway is to invest in an InReach or similar device. I do not rely on cell service. We are frequently out of range.


New member
If they were bent on hiking to the road, why didn't they take Sheep Canyon?

No mountaineering equipment required for Sheep Canyon, and, if I recall correctly, the maps show it actually reaching the road, in contrast to Willow, which ends in a terminal loop.