Survival of the Fittest

In Colorado's stunning—but dangerous—landscape, it only takes one twisted ankle or freak snowstorm to turn your casual day hike into a life-threatening situation. These adventurers escaped scary scenarios. Outdoors experts explain how and why.

July 2016

—Illustration by Owen Freeman

Sending out an SOS

Trail runner Danelle Ballengee survived two frigid nights on a remote trail with a broken pelvis. Wilderness expert Ford Church analyzes* what the athlete did right—and what she could have done better. —Patrick Doyle

* Check the footnotes for expert analysis from Ford Church, the founder and executive director of Cottonwood Institute, a Denver nonprofit that teaches environmental education and survival skills to students.

In December 2006, accomplished endurance runner Danelle Ballengee was about an hour into a run on a remote trail in Moab, Utah, scrambling up a steep section of red slickrock, when she thought: I wonder if it’s icy?

With her next steps, the Dillon resident hit a patch of ice and lost her footing. As Ballengee slid downhill, she clawed at the rock, trying—and failing—to grab anything. And then there was nothing, just air around her as she careened off the side of a cliff. “All I could think was, Oh my god, I’ve got to land this thing,” the 45-year-old says. Twenty feet later, she did—hard, on a rocky shelf.

Ballengee, a three-time Adventure Racer of the Year and four-time Pikes Peak Marathon champion, reached down and touched her legs. Both had feeling, so she knew she wasn’t paralyzed. But when she tried to stand, she couldn’t. Her pelvis was shattered.

The seriousness of her situation registered: She was four miles from the parking lot, and nobody knew she was out running, let alone where1. Ballengee took stock. She had no cell phone with her. She had a bottle of water and a pack of energy gels but was only wearing jogging pants, a long-sleeve silk shirt, a fleece, and a fleece hat2. Although it was a sunny 40-degree day, she knew nighttime temps would drop below freezing.

Trail runner Danelle Ballengee with her dog, Taz, who helped rescuers find her. Photo by David Clifford. 

Her dog, Taz, who had been running in front of her when she fell, had backtracked and found her, so she knew there was a way back to the trail. Using an adrenaline surge, Ballengee spent the next five hours dragging herself along the ground. She made it a quarter-mile3. It was getting dark. Concerned about hypothermia, she spent the night doing mini-crunches. Taz cuddled next to her4.

When the sun rose, Ballengee was in so much pain she was unable to move. She tried to stay hydrated but knew if she drank too much she’d have to pee, which would freeze in her clothes. She tried signaling planes with her watch to no avail5.

Ballengee survived the next below-freezing night by once again doing mini-crunches. But she was growing weaker; she could feel blood pooling in her midsection. The next morning, she turned to Taz and with Lassie-inspired optimism said, “Go get help.” The Australian shepherd mix looked at her, unsure, and then took off. Her lone companion gone, Ballengee began to unravel. She was sure she was going to die and started to cry6.

A few hours later, Taz returned and licked the tears off her face. The roar of an ATV was not far behind him. The dog had returned to the trailhead and alerted a group from the Grand County Search and Rescue team. They had received a call from Ballengee’s parents after her neighbor had begun to worry and contacted them.

A helicopter whisked Ballengee to St. Mary’s Hospital in Grand Junction. She spent almost a month in the hospital recovering, followed by another three months in a wheelchair. Today, the runner lives in Moab and still competes in adventure races—and Taz is still there to greet her when she gets home. 

1. Big mistake. If you’re going out alone, you should tell someone where you’re going and when you expect to be back. Also: Leave a note on the dash of your car detailing where you’re planning to go. Search and rescue will try to track down your car before sending crews out on the trails.

2. When you’re venturing into a remote area, ask yourself this: “If I had to spend the night out tonight, could I survive?” It can’t hurt to bring an emergency blanket, a way to signal people—a mirror or a whistle—and tools for starting a fire.

3. The question of trying to self-rescue or waiting for help is a tough one. When you can self-rescue, you should, because you don’t know when someone is going to come find you. The severity of this injury changes things, though; self-rescue may not always be possible.  

4. The biggest threat to Ballengee’s life was hypothermia. Warmth and shelter are the first priorities. After that, you can think about staying hydrated. She was smart about staying warm by doing crunches. It was a real bonus that the dog was a heat source for her.

5. Trying to signal planes with her watch was a good idea, but that’s extremely difficult to do. Short of a flare gun, a whistle or a mirror works best as a signaling device.

6. Negative thoughts can lead you into a downward mental spiral. Get your frustrations out by yelling and screaming, and then get to work surviving. You have to stay positive.

Three Things That Might Save Your Life

John Lindner, director of the Colorado Mountain Club’s Wilderness Survival School, tells us what to always pack (besides food, water, and layers, of course). —Karah Kemmerly


Emergency blanket

Even in the summer, temps can dip into the 30s in the high country at night. Whether you wrap yourself in it or rig it as a shelter, a high-quality waterproof blanket can help you stave off hypothermia. Missouri resident Kathleen Kinderfather employed hers to survive five days on Mount of the Holy Cross in 1997. She curled up in the blanket at night and ingeniously used it to catch rainwater during the day.

Fire starter

Pack at least one reliable fire starter—such as stormproof matches or a lighter—that you’ve practiced using in bad weather. Fire helps keep you warm and dry and also provides a comforting light source that can elevate your spirits. Boy Scout Justin McAlexander demonstrated this in 2012: He started a fire with matches he brought on a snowmobiling trip when he and two other boys were trapped by a blizzard in Routt National Forest.

Signaling device

A whistle, mirror, or a large, brightly colored object can help rescuers find you—and potentially save your life. It certainly saved Steven Brodsky, a Centennial man who spent two days on Mt. Bierstadt after a blizzard in 2005. Thanks to his orange and silver space blanket, two rescuers saw him.