GPS – And When To Use It With Caution
Travelers have been losing their way in Death Valley, often fatally, since 1849, when pioneers began using it as a shortcut to California’s gold fields.
Recently however growing numbers have been led astray by their GPS devices, whose databases for remote areas such as Death Valley may include maps that haven’t been updated for decades.
Three women Donna Cooper, 62, her daughter Gina, 17, and a house guest visiting from Hong Kong, 19-year-old Jenny Leung, set out on Thursday July 21, 2010 at around 11:00 a.m. from Pahrump, Nevada, to take a tour of Scotty’s Castle in Death Valley and be home in time for dinner.
* Pahrump is 60 miles west of Las Vegas Nevada, and 60 miles east of Death Valley.
Relying On Their GPS
There are very few road-signs in Death Valley and once you’re lost, you’re very lost, so Donna had no choice but to follow her GPS which is what she did.
She continued to drive for twelve hours until the gas gauge read empty and finally pulled over.
It was 10 p.m. and the odometer indicated that they’d covered more than 200 miles since leaving Scotty’s Castle.
Huge boulders loomed beside the car and the black sky blazed with stars.
"Looks like we’ll be camping",
"Are there wild animals here?”,
asked Jenny, her voice quavering.
"Mountain lions. Bears",
"Roll up the windows!".
The girls did as they were told and Donna passed around the last of the food, and they took a swallow apiece of their nearly depleted water.
At 6 a.m. Friday morning, the rising sun revealed that they were parked high above the valley, in a sparse grove of pines.
Beside the road was a drop of several hundred feet!
Donna tried starting the car, but the engine wouldn’t turn over.
Gina hiked up the winding road for two miles, past a cluster of long-abandoned campsites, to where the trees thinned out.
She gazed out over the landscape and there was nothing but desert.
Back at the car, Donna was peeling cacti with her jackknife.
She’d read somewhere that one variety contained drinkable liquid but when she and Jenny extracted the sticky pulp, they realized this one wasn’t it.
Next, they gathered pine needles to chew since Donna knew they contained moisture and some nutrients.
The two were digging for cactus roots when Gina returned.
"We’ve got to go back to that place where we stopped yesterday!".
"How are we going to do that, the car won’t start".
"Let’s try it again",
The Car Runs On Empty
Donna said a silent prayer, then turned the key and the engine roared into life, startling them all, and they took off down the mountainside.
Donna stomped on the accelerator at each dip in the road, so that they’d have enough momentum to make it up the next rise.
She knew that if the car stalled, that it might be their end!
Five, ten, twenty and finally thirty miles and they were on the flats now and turning left onto the road by the salt lake.
A locked gate finally came into view, and the women burst into excited screams.
Here at least was a place to shelter.
They left the car and ducked under the wire fence, the ground burning through their sneaker soles as they walked up the long driveway.
As they emerged from the trees, they saw three trailers clustered around a free-standing wooden porch.
They called out, but no one answered and the trailers were all locked.
Water And Food At Last!
But behind the largest one, Donna found something incredible, a garden hose attached to a spigot and it worked!
The water was hot, but the trio gulped it greedily.
Gina later fetched the tool kit from the car and unscrewed the hinges on the big trailer but couldn’t get the door open.
So using a crowbar, she pried a padlock off one of the smaller trailers and once inside, they found a few cans of chili and beans, some packets of instant Ramen, cranberry oatmeal, and half a box of spaghetti.
There were also eight half-cases of beer!
Donna figured that the food would last only a couple of days, but thought that the beer might sustain them for two weeks; assuming they survived the heat.
Meanwhile Back In Nevada
No one, including Cooper’s husband, who was in Florida at the time, became alarmed until Gina Cooper didn’t show up for work at 4 p.m. on Friday afternoon.
Gina was a responsible young woman, so not calling her employer was very out-of-the-ordinary and very worrying.
Rodger Cooper called and asked their caretaker to file a missing persons report with Nye County Sheriff’s Office and Deputy Mark Cannon was dispatched to take the information.
After consulting with Cooper’s husband in Florida by phone, the deputy returned to the sheriff’s office and filed a nationwide, "be on the lookout", for the three missing women.
By now the women had been missing for at least hours twenty eight and the family was frantic.
Gina Cooper was an athlete for Death Valley Academy but her mother had been suffering from sudden bouts of heat exhaustion.
Getting A Full Blown Rescue Underway Was Slow In Coming
When no word came from NCSO (The Nolan County Sheriff’s Office) by 6:30 a.m. Saturday morning, the caretaker called asking if something could be done to get air support involved in a search for the women.
An NCSO dispatcher, only identified as ‘Lori’, answered the call and said,
"We can’t tell California what to do to get involved".
The temperatures in Death Valley would soon reach 128°F.
Asked what could be done by an individual, Lori gave a list of phone numbers including Death Valley National Park Ranger Station, Inyo County Sheriff’s Office and the California Highway Patrol.
The calls were made but none of the agencies had any of the details other than the "be on the lookout” released by NCSO the evening before.
No general alarm had been raised even though the women had been missing for almost fifty hours by then.
California Finally Moves Into Action
At noon on Saturday, tense family members and friends learned California officials were finally in action.
Two aircraft from Victorville had been dispatched to start searching Death Valley and it was hoped that a helicopter from one of the Air Force bases in California would soon join the search.
Three teams of Special Forces were now on the ground searching the back country, including those trained to withstand the harsh environment and lend help to those who might succumb to it.
Rescued At At Last.
It wasn’t until 5 p.m. Saturday when the call came from California Highway Patrol that the women had been found.
A CHP helicopter had spotted the car on a deserted stretch of dirt road when it was making it’s last pass before nightfall.
Although Cooper was, according to Steele, just 128 miles from Scotty’s Castle, she had traveled over 400 miles on the unmarked system of trails in Death Valley.
Donna said the GPS kept telling her to go one mile and turn either right or left and said that she never saw one road sign.
A Quarter Of A Million Visitors
Each summer in Death Valley, a quarter-million tourists pry themselves from their air-conditioned cars and venture into the 120-degree heat to snap pictures of the glittering salt flats.
They come from all over the world and almost all are relying on their GPS.
Two summers ago, a mother and son on a camping trip had GPS in their car and got stuck on an abandoned mining road for five days.
"She barely survived. The boy did not survive",
Says he says Death Valley Ranger Charlie Callagan.
Callagan has been working with GPS companies to update the road maps in the area after proving to himself that many of their maps were long past their sell-by-date.
Testing His Theory
To test his GPS theory, he went on-line and checked if the road where the little boy died was on any of the maps used by the major GPS companies, like Google Earth, Navteq or TomTom.
The GPS maps were all wrong!
And that’s when he got in touch with Matt Rinaldi who helps maintain road data for TomTom.
Together, they combed through the company’s maps and changed or deleted more than 150 roads in Death Valley.
Now Callagan is working to update GPS maps for Navteq and Google Earth, too.
The Shifting Sands
But Callagan points out that at the root of these mishaps in the desert, is something much older than GPS technology.
In 1849, Death Valley got its name when a wagon train from the east tried to find a shorter route to California, and got lost.
"Somebody had a map, but somebody else said",
"This is a faster way to get to the gold fields!".