Stranded for 3 days with a shattered pelvis, NZ hiker rescued from Joshua Tree National Park

JOSHUA TREE NATIONAL PARK, Calif. — Stranded for several days in Joshua Tree National Park after shattering her pelvis in a fall, a Kiwi woman was spotted and rescued by a helicopter crew Friday afternoon. Alive, but seriously injured, the victim was eventually airlifted to an area hospital for treatment and is expected to make a full recovery.

Claire Nelson, who describes herself as a “perpetual traveler,” was found after spending nearly 80 hours stranded at Joshua Tree National Park. Claire Nelson photo

The victim, 36-year-old, Claire Nelson, a freelance writer and “perpetual traveler” who grew up between Auckland and Wellington, New Zealand, before leaving in 2005 to travel abroad, spent nearly 80 hours stranded – without cell reception, adequate provisions, or much hope of being rescued – after she left the trail she had originally planned on traveling.

Nelson was eventually spotted by a Riverside County Sheriff’s aviation crew – four days after she was last heard from – after she made a makeshift signal using a shirt and hat tied to a stick and managed to get the helicopter crew’s attention.


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Named for the area’s iconic Joshua trees, which Nelson has described as “strange mythical beings,” Joshua Tree National Park is internationally known for its stark desert landscapes, rugged rock formations, and hiking trails that weave their way through the park’s massive 1,235 square miles. The popular hiking destination straddles the border between Riverside and San Bernardino Counties and includes parts of two vast California deserts – the lower Colorado and higher Mojave.

Claire Nelson, pictured at Joshua Tree’s Barker Dam, during an earlier hike. Claire Nelson photo

After realizing nobody had heard from Nelson since Tuesday even though she was expected to return from her hike Wednesday evening, the victim’s concerned friends reported Nelson missing around 10 a.m., Friday morning.

The missing person’s report set off a huge search effort that involved park rangers, Riverside County Sheriff’s and CHP officials, Joshua Tree Search and Rescue (JOSAR), and other volunteers, who responded to the scene with search crews, supplies, vehicles, and a Sheriff’s mobile command center.

After searchers found Nelson’s vehicle in the parking lot of the Lost Palms Oasis and Mastodon Peak trail-head, officials narrowed down the search area, focusing their efforts on the 7.2 mile trail and surrounding areas. Searchers then fanned out, deploying on foot, in recreational and 4-wheel-drive vehicles, and from the air.

After six hours of intensive searching the Sheriff’s aviation crew spotted Nelson, frantically but wearily waving her makeshift signal. She was discovered and rescued from a dried out river bed shortly before 3 p.m., according to Joshua Tree National Park Superintendent David Smith.

George Land, the park’s public information officer later explained Nelson was found because of the signal she made that eventually caught the attention of the helicopter’s crew.

After her rescue, officials learned the missing and injured hiker started her day as planned, following the Lost Oasis Trail before veering off the trail and heading in an unplanned direction. According to Nelson, she was traversing across rocky terrain when she slipped and fell into the dry river wash. Rescuers later estimated she fell 30 to 40 feet.

Nelson explained she tried to call 911 and friends, but had no cellphone reception. Although she later said she could not believe the life or death situation she had created for herself, she said she knew there was “no sense in panicking.”

Nelson poses with a Husky while dog sledding in Canada. Claire Nelson photo

Unable to move, stuck in the blazing desert sun, and eventually forced to drink her own urine in an effort to stave off dehydration, Nelson lay in agony over the next 80 hours, wondering when – or even if – she would be rescued.

As she began to suffer burns from the sun’s intense heat, the hiker – who had been wearing shorts when she tumbled off the high rocks – used her walking stick to apply sunscreen to her bare legs.

“It was hard because the heat is enough to kill you,” Nelson later explained of her ordeal.

More terrifying than the long, hot days for Nelson were the nights, when she could not see in the overnight pitch-black darkness and had no idea what could be lurking nearby, looking for an easy target.

During her lengthy ordeal, Nelson was also forced to deal with extreme temperature changes, with daytime temperatures reaching into the high-90’s and evening temperatures dropping into the mid-50’s.

“People don’t know how truly determined they can be until they’re forced into a situation like that,” the lucky survivor later acknowledged.

Knowing she had made plans to meet her friend on Thursday, Nelson pinned her rescue hopes on the meeting she knew she would not make it to. In spite of knowing she would eventually be missed and searched for, by the end of Thursday she said she felt despair taking over after no search crews showed up.

However, in spite of her fear and nearly hopeless situation, she said she was determined to see her family and friends again and spare them the pain of learning she had died alone and terrified in the park’s vast desert.

“My hope was fading fast,” she later explained, continuing that she began to believe the fateful hike could be “the end.”

A sheriff’s helicopter spent nearly six hours searching for Nelson before spotting the stranded hiker’s makeshift signal. John Strangis photo

Just as she felt she could last no longer and was losing hope of surviving her awful ordeal, Nelson said she first heard and then spotted the Sheriff’s helicopter in the distance.

Saying she knew it could be her “last chance” at being rescued, Nelson described thinking, “This is it … I have to make sure they notice me.”

Using a T-shirt and hat that she had tied to her walking stick, Nelson said she used what little energy she had left to wave her makeshift signal as high in the air as she could.

When the seriously injured woman saw the helicopter suddenly change course and circle back for a closer look, she said with relief that she finally knew she would be rescued and would not be found dead in the vast California desert.

Nelson was eventually airlifted to Desert Regional Medical Centre to receive treatment for her injuries and severe dehydration.

After hearing of her rescue, Nelson’s family and friends expressed disbelieve at her “insane situation” and that she had been rescued after being missing so long.

Speaking from her hospital bed the morning after her incredible ordeal and rescue, Nelson said what happened to her was a “cautionary tale” for other hiking enthusiasts and adventure seekers.

“People should never think they are smarter than Mother Nature.”

Although Nelson said doctors have told her that her lengthy rehabilitation will take time, the lucky survivor said felt “lucky” and “so happy” to still be alive.

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Natalie rocks. 🏜🌵❤️💪🏻

A post shared by Claire Nelson (@ladyeclaire) on

Officials used the opportunity to remind all those wishing to enjoy Riverside County’s extensive hiking trails to take along plenty of water and food for any possible unplanned overnight emergency; GPS, area maps, and compass; whistle, mirror, or other such signalling device; as well as a mobile charging port, to be able to maintain a charged cell phone.

Hikers should also stay with a companion or group when possible and notify friends and family with a specific hiking plan as well as expected time and location of return.


Contact the writer:

Trevor Montgomery, 46, recently moved to Shasta County from Riverside County and runs Riverside County News Source and Shasta County News Source. Additionally, he writes for several other news organizations, including Riverside County based newspapers, Valley News, The Valley Chronicle and Anza Valley Outlook, as well as Bonsall/Fallbrook Village News in San Diego County and The Mountain Echo in Shasta County.

Trevor spent 10 years in the U.S. Army as an Orthopedic Specialist before joining the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department in 1998. He was medically retired after losing his leg, breaking his back and suffering both spinal cord and brain injuries in an off-duty accident. (Click here to see segment of Discovery Channel documentary of Trevor’s accident.)

During his time with the sheriff’s department, Trevor worked at several different stations, including Robert Presley Detention Center, Southwest Station in Temecula, Hemet/Valle Vista Station, Ben Clark Public Safety Training Center and Lake Elsinore Station, along with other locations.

Trevor’s assignments included Corrections, Patrol, DUI Enforcement, Boat and Personal Water-Craft based Lake Patrol, Off-Road Vehicle Enforcement, Problem Oriented Policing Team and Personnel/Background Investigations. He finished his career while working as a Sex Crimes and Child Abuse Investigator and was a court-designated expert in child abuse and child sex-related crimes.

Trevor has been married for more than 27 years and was a foster parent to more than 60 children over 13 years. He is now an adoptive parent and has 13 children and 14 – soon to be 15 – grandchildren.


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