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When most people think of Death Valley, they think of heat—blistering, record-setting, egg-frying, triple-digit heat. But over eight days this month, a very different hazard sent SAR teams scrambling to rescue three stricken hikers: cold and snow.
The first two rescues took place on February 1, when park officials received a call for help around 10:30 a.m. from two hikers on 11,043-foot Telescope Peak, the park’s high point. In a press release, park officials said the pair had lost their footing and slipped from the trail “when crossing a steep, icy drainage.” While the hikers were a mere 2 miles from the trailhead, they had already walked much further; park spokesperson Abby Wines told SFGATE that snow had forced the hikers to park low and walk “a couple miles” up the road to the trailhead. Though the pair was relatively well-equipped—Wines said they had crampons, trekking poles, and a climbing rope, though they hadn’t brought ice axes—they weren’t able to climb out of the drainage. Due to the complicated terrain, the park service contacted California Highway Patrol, which retrieved the pair with a helicopter.
“When that rescuer went down, they stayed clipped in themselves because it was so steep and icy,” Wines told SFGATE.
The second rescue occurred on February 8, when a New Jersey man became separated from his hiking group near the snowy summit of another mountain in the park, 9,064-foot Wildrose Peak. In a press release, the park said the man had decided to stay back “due to head and body aches,” and agreed with the group that he would wait for them to return from the summit and descend together.
However, while waiting, the man became cold, and decided to descend himself. He soon lost the trail and ended up descending a drainage before hiking back up to Wildrose’s ridge and going back down again. The forecast for the area called for overnight lows below freezing; in its release, the park said that the lost hiker did not have warm layers or food.
“The other hiking club members assumed he had hiked out ahead of them,” park officials wrote. “When they arrived at the trailhead and discovered he was not there, they did a quick search. The group then drove to Stovepipe Wells Resort and reported the missing hiker. About the same time, the park received a 911 call from the missing hiker himself.”
Park officials began the process of requesting a helicopter, but a pair of rangers dispatched as a hasty search team located the missing hiker and guided him out first. While the out-and-back trail to the peak is 8.4 miles round-trip, data from the man’s fitness watch showed that he had walked more than 18 miles.
While Death Valley’s lower elevations like Furnace Creek have seen temperatures soar to north of 130°F in recent summers, the park’s mountains, like Telescope Peak and its surrounding summits in the Panamint Range, regularly see snow and lows in the teens in the winter. Hikers hoping to tackle them should be prepared for winter hiking conditions as early as October and as late as May. The valley floor itself sees snow much more rarely: In a 2011 report, the National Weather Service said observers had only recorded snow on six occasions. All of them yielded only traces with the exception of January 29, 1922, when ½-inch of snow fell on the park’s Greenland Ranch.
The three snowy rescues weren’t the only SAR operations in Death Valley this month: Hours before the call from Wildrose Peak, a woman in her thirties broke her leg and ruptured her ACL while hiking in the park’s Mosaic Canyon. Nine employees from the National Park Service carried the victim out to a waiting helicopter ambulance with help from two interns from American Conservation Experience.