Dogs are a man’s best friend. Or in some
cases, a woman’s best friend. Endurance runner Danelle Ballengee certainly thinks
so. One chilly winter afternoon Danelle found out just how loyal, smart and amazing her
dog was. While hiking in the Moab, Utah desert with her dog Tasman–Taz for short, Danelle
suffered a horrible accident. This is the amazing story of how Danelle’s goofy, hyper,
squirrel chasing mutt helped to save her life. Wednesday December 13, 2006 was chilly with
temperatures in the mid 40’s (7 ish Celsius). Just before noon, thirty five year old Danelle
and three year old Taz headed out for a hike. Danelle was dressed comfortably for a short
run in baggy running pants and a fleece hat. She had a few layers on her torso for warmth–silk
long underwear, a water resistant shirt and a thin fleece jacket. She also had on gloves. While locking her phone and wallet in her
truck near the trailhead, Danelle almost forgot her fanny pack which contained a bottle of
water, two raspberry flavored energy gels, two Ibuprofen pills and a plastic shower cap
from her last race. Adventure racers will often put on a shower cap over their hats
to prevent heat loss. Despite the cold, it was sunny as Danelle
and Taz started their run. The 90 minute, 8 mile (12.8 km) trek through the sandy red
desert with its stunning rock formations was one of her favorites. Her route began on the
popular Amasa Back Trail and then veered off of it after a few miles, on to a more obscure
jeep trail used mainly by locals known as the Mine Sweeper. From there, Danelle would
scramble up the side of a hidden canyon and head towards Hurrah Pass, eventually looping
back to a road that led to her truck. As always, Taz happily ran beside Danelle, occasionally
darting off to investigate small creatures. An hour into her run with 5 miles (8 km) completed,
tragedy struck. While navigating a steep slope, Danelle stepped on a patch of frozen lichen
and her feet slipped out from under her. She skidded down an icy rock face on her butt,
rapidly picking up speed. Out of control, she bounced off of one ridge and then another
before free falling some 40 feet in a luge position. She slammed into a four-foot square
ledge landing on her feet. Below the ledge was another sheer drop, Danelle surely would
have died if she had missed hitting the protrusion. The pain was excruciating. Danelle lay there
a moment, stunned, the wind knocked out of her. Worried that she was paralyzed, she felt
her legs. Thankfully she could feel her hands touching her legs. But when Danelle tried
to stand up, she couldn’t. She didn’t know what was wrong, but her
lower torso simply wouldn’t support her weight. Later, Danelle would learn that on
impact, her pelvis had shattered, with cracks throughout and breaks in four places. Three
of her vertebrae were fractured and her sacrum was split down the middle.
Danelle knew she had to get out of the canyon. She hadn’t told anyone where she was going,
and she needed to reach an area where it was likely for her to be discovered. Also, Taz
had managed to find his way to Danelle, so she knew there had to be a way out.
At this point, endorphins and adrenaline were coursing through Danelle’s body, helping
with the pain. However, her left leg wouldn’t move. Through sheer strength of will, Danelle
scooted forward on her right knee, balanced, then reached back with her hands and dragged
her left leg forward. Slowly, carefully maneuvering, Danelle reached
the bottom of the canyon. She looked in her fanny pack and found the ibuprofen. She swallowed
the pills and kept crawling. She battled through sand, brush and some snow.
Eventually Danelle reached a flat rock near a sinkhole filled with water. Exhausted and
in great pain, she decided to rest here for a bit. It was around 5 pm and it had taken
her nearly 5 hours to crawl a quarter of a mile (.402 km)
Since it was growing dark, Danelle decided to stay by the sinkhole for the night. She
drank the remaining half of her water bottle and tucked her hands between her legs because
they were so cold. In the meantime, a swollen lump the size of her fist had formed on her
abdomen, her massive injuries were bleeding internally.
Danelle decided that being thirsty was worse than maybe getting parasites from the sinkhole.
She wanted to fill her water bottle, but it hurt too much to turn over. So she reached
backward over her right shoulder and filled the water bottle without looking.
However, she only allowed herself to drink a few sips of water. Danelle knew that if
she drank more than her body absolutely needed, she would pee the excess water out. Since
she couldn’t move, she’d wet herself. The urine would eventually freeze on her clothes
and skin, driving down her core temperature and making it more likely that she’d freeze
to death. Danelle ate sparingly of an energy gel, rationing the rest for later.
As the night wore on, the temperature dropped into the 20s, (-5 ish Celcius). Danelle worried
about hypothermia. She didn’t want to fall asleep, she was afraid that she would never
wake up. To keep her core warm, she did mini crunches, raising her head and neck. Periodically
she rubbed her hands and tapped her feet on the rocks.
Taz snuggled next to her and his body heat helped. She couldn’t turn over to cuddle
with him though, it hurt too much. Exhausted and freezing, Danelle stared up at the night
sky; there was no moon, the stars were abundant and amazing.
The next morning, Danelle was cheered up by watching Taz playing with a stick. She ate
a bit of energy gel. She tried to refill her water bottle, but the water in the sinkhole
had frozen overnight. She reached over her shoulder and broke through the ice with the
cap of her bottle. Danelle spent 10 hours on the second day screaming
for help. A few times she thought she heard someone, but nobody appeared. Taz spent the
day running off and returning, each trek longer than the last.
Danelle appreciated the warmth of the daylight as the sun made its way across the sky. Every
now and then she would allow herself a little water or a bit of energy gel. However as afternoon
became evening shadows once again grew in the canyon.
Daneille saw the shower cap from her fanny pack a few feet away. She realized it would
help her keep warm at night. It took her an hour to crawl two feet to reach it.
Meanwhile, a neighbor of Danelle’s noticed something quite odd, all the lights had been
on at Danelle’s house for a few days. Peering through the window, she could see Danelle’s
laptop on a table and the doors were unlocked. Worried, she called Danelle’s parents. As
it so happened Danelle’s parents were also concerned, they hadn’t been able to reach
her. They called the police for a welfare check.
The police visited Danelle’s house, but found no signs of foul play. It just looked
like Danelle left without locking up. The second night in the canyon was worse.
Danelle’s frostbite was growing, as was the bulge of internal hemorrhaging in her
midsection. The pain was unbearable. Taz wouldn’t snuggle with her, she wondered if her screaming
for help all day had frightened him. Danelle thought about her life, her friends
and family, wishing that she had told them more often how much she loved them. For a
while Danelle kept up her crunches and tapping to keep warm, but eventually stopped, overwhelmed
with despair. She couldn’t see the stars. The dark sky
was full of long, white stripes. She knew her body was shutting down, and that she was
probably hallucinating. Suddenly a voice began urging Danelle to keep tapping, so she did.
On Friday morning, Danelle dragged herself off the rock. Her pants came off, because
she couldn’t lift her butt off the ground. She found herself worse off than before, stuck
in a shallow depression. She spent 2 hours crawling back onto the rock.
Taz kept disappearing for longer and longer periods of time. He would suddenly reappear
to lick her face before disappearing again. Later, Danelle would realize that Taz was
running the 5 miles (8 km) to the trailhead looking for help, before coming back to check
on her. He did this even though he hadn’t eaten in three days.
Meanwhile, on a hunch, the detective assigned to Danelle’s case decided to check out parking
lots for local trails. He eventually discovered Danelle’s truck tucked away in a little
known parking area near the Amasa Back trail. At 1:04pm, he alerted Grand County Search
and Rescue that Danelle could be lost in the desert.
A rescue team quickly assembled at the trailhead and was organizing equipment and going over
a plan when Taz showed up. He barked and ran in circles, but wouldn’t allow anyone to
catch him. The rescuers realized that he was Danelle’s dog and thought that they should
follow him. Initially, Taz led the rescuers away from
the trailhead, back toward town. They thought that was odd, but followed. Once Taz realized
that the rescuers were following him, he turned around. ‘Almost like he knew that he had
attracted enough attention,’ one rescuer said. The dog darted through the search party
and took off towards the canyons. Unfortunately, the rescuers couldn’t keep up, but realizing
that Taz would soon pass some other searchers who were riding ATVs further up the trail,
they hastily radioed them to follow the dog. Taz soon dashed past the ATV of Bego Gerhart,
an Eagle scout and frequent rescue volunteer. Taz stopped to look at Bego, who followed
him. Taz ran further up the trail and stopped to look at Bego again before disappearing.
Thankfully Bego knew how to track. He found fresh dog prints, dog prints that were a few
days old and footprints that looked like they could have been made by Danelle. Bego hurried
back to his AVT and drove through the canyon following the tracks.
Danelle had finally crawled back onto the rock and was laying there when Taz returned
again. This time he ran to the sinkhole puddle behind Danelle and started drinking. He drank
and drank, he was really thirsty. Danelle started worrying about her water supply and
yelled at him. Suddenly, realizing the absurdity of the situation,
Danelle wasn’t angry anymore. A kind of peace spread through her; she was prepared
to die. Not long afterwards, Danelle heard the sound
of Bego’s ATV. At 3:38 pm, he found Danelle alive, lying on her back. Next to her was
Taz, his snout on her chest. Danelle wept, saying that she was glad to
see Bego. He was amazed that considering her injuries, Danelle was still lucid. He quickly
wrapped her in a sleeping bag, shoved her hands into heavy gloves, and radioed the team
that he had found her. 45 minutes later another rescuer arrived on
the scene and soon after that, the chopper arrived. Danelle was found at about 4,800
feet, in a rugged, slim canyon just in time. Due to the weather and the rapidly fading
light, the chopper had a very narrow of time before it would be impossible for a rescue
via airlift. Danelle was choppered to the hospital. Taz
was taken home for the night by the officer in charge of the rescue, he didn’t think
it was fair that Taz should go to the humane shelter after his heroic effort.
Danelle may have been finally rescued, but her ordeal was far from over. Five foot, five
inches (1.67 meter) tall Danelle weighed 120 pounds (54.4 kg) before the accident. In the
hospital, they discovered that she had dropped 20 pounds (9 kgs) during her ordeal and lost
⅓ of her blood volume. Doctors told her that most people would die in the first 24
hours sustaining similar injuries with that much blood loss. Danelle was lucky to be alive,
the only reason she was only able to survive for 56 hours before rescue was because of
her mental strength and amazing level of fitness. Danelle underwent a risky six hour surgery.
Doctors reconstructed her pelvis with a titanium plate and a number of pins and screws. She
also suffered from frostbite and had a number of scrapes and cuts.
Word began to get out about Danelle’s incredible survival. However, she wasn’t really interested
in talking to the media. Then the popular morning news program, the Today Show made
her an offer she couldn’t refuse; they wanted to interview her with Taz. Danelle, who hadn’t
seen Taz since she was airlifted out of the canyon several days before quickly agreed.
Dabelle was wheeled down to the hospital lobby and Taz was allowed in.. Danelle and Taz were
delighted to be reunited. After the Today Show finished shooting, Taz went home with
Danelle’s sister. But he escaped, made his way back to the hospital and tried to sneak
in. Accolades, cards and letters poured in for
Taz and some for Danelle too. One fan even sent Taz a Christmas present–in a box filled
with dry ice were five pounds (2.26 kg) of hormone-free aged rib steaks and a red-and-white
Christmas stocking with a stuffed Santa inside. Also, Taz received a couple of awards, including
an award for his valor from the national Society for the Ethical Treatment of Pets and the
RSPCA national hero dog award. Danelle stayed in the hospital for 15 days.
Then she was in a wheelchair for several weeks and underwent months of physical therapy.
Moving slower but with plenty of determination, soon Danelle and Taz were back to hiking on
the trails around Moab. Some 5 months after the accident, Danelle entered her first race.
She walked more than she ran, but that was only the beginning.
Reflecting on her ordeal, Danelle isn’t sure what to make of the voice that urged
her to keep tapping during that second night. She isn’t particularly religious. She said
“As far as I’m concerned, I’m going to be the best person I can…I’m okay without
an answer.” Today Danelle still competes in endurance
events. She also coaches athletes and oversees races. After a long and happy life, Taz passed
away in the spring of 2019. He is sorely missed by his friend Danelle.
Do you think you could survive a fall in the desert like Danelle did? Let us know in the
comments! Also, be sure to check out our other video I Was Trapped Underwater For 3 Days!
Thanks for watching, and, as always, don’t forget to like, share, and subscribe. See
you next time!