Valley is the lowest, hottest, driest area in North America, where in the
summer, temperatures commonly run above 120° Fahrenheit.
It was named by an unlucky group of miners who crossed the valley
in 1849, on their way to California. They barely survived. "Good-bye,
Death Valley," one of the miners said as they staggered out
of the desert, and the name lives on today.
Despite the foreboding name -- and the heat -- more than 1.3
million people visit every year. And each year, there are about
ten heat-related fatalities.
of the dangers visitors must contend with in the unforgiving
climate of Death Valley is heatstroke. It occurs when the body
is unable to control its temperature, and the sweating mechanism
When the mercury rises, the body tries to keep its internal temperature stable. It has two main mechanisms to facilitate this. The heart pumps more blood, vessels expand to accommodate the increased flow, and excess heat is released into the environment as the blood circulates close to the surface of the skin. The body can also activate its sweat glands, and as sweat is produced and evaporates from the skin, it cools the body.
Sometimes, in extremely hot and humid conditions, people sweat so much they become dehydrated. If this happens, sweating may cease, while the body's internal temperature continues to rise. It can quickly rise to 105° Fahrenheit
or higher within 10-15 minutes, and do damage to the internal
organs. Warning signs of impending heatstroke may include: extremely high
body temperature, red, hot, and dry skin with no sweating, rapid
and strong pulse, throbbing headache, dizziness, and nausea.
If the heatstroke victim is not cooled down, he or she may become confused and delirious, or loose consciousness. Treatment involves getting the person out of the sun and into a cool spot, covering him or her with damp sheets, or spraying the individual with water. The victim can also be immersed in a tub of cold
water, if possible, and immediate medical assistance should
be obtained. Medical care is important because heatstroke kills neary 80% of victims who aren't treated appropriately.
is the principal cause of fatalities in Death Valley. The hot
dry air just sucks the moisture out of the human body. You can
lose over one gallon of water just sitting in the shade on a
summer day in Death Valley. While hiking in the sun, you can
lose twice as much!
"The first sensations of thirst begin with the loss of a little
over a quart of water," writes naturalist Richard Lingenfelter,
describing the progressive stages of dehydration in his book
DEATH VALLEY AND AMARGOS. "By the time you have lost a gallon
you begin to feel tired and apathetic. Most of the water lost
comes from your blood, and as it thickens, your circulation
becomes poor, your heart strains, your muscles fatigue, and
your head aches. With further loss of water you become dizzy
and begin to stumble; your breathing is labored and your speech
is indistinct. By the time you have lost two gallons of water
your tongue is swollen, you can hardly keep your balance, your
muscles spasm, and you are becoming delirious. You are likely
to discard your hat, clothes, and shoes, which only hastens
your dehydration and suffering. With a loss of more than three gallons
of water you will collapse, your tongue and skin shriveled and
numb, your eyes sunken, your vision dim, and your hearing almost
gone. Bloody cracks will appear in your skin and you'll soon
Visitors are warned to take special precautions against the
heat, says Ed Derobertis, who has worked as a Park Ranger at
Death Valley for the last ten years. You should drink lots of fluids the evening before visiting the
desert, and dress appropriately: a shirt, sunglasses, and a broad-brimmed
hat are necessities. Lots of sunscreen and loose, light clothing
are also recommended.
"I don't think that people really understand just how hot it
can really be," says Derobertis. "I think people get the false
feeling that because this is a National Park, it's safe to come
out here. Sometimes, it's not so safe. Last year, one day, it
was 129° Fahrenheit. That's so hot that it hurts to get out of your
car, and if you do get out of the car you have [to] stay in the shade
-- otherwise it's just unbearable."
According to Derobertis, "During the summer, it can be more than 120° in the shade, but that doesn't suggest how hot the ground
can become. The rocks and sand absorb the heat and the ground
temperature out on those trails can get to be 160°. The
trails might be short, but if you are out during the middle
of the day, it can really weigh heavily on your body."
To help prevent dehydration, Derobertis advises visitors to "drink [a] minimum of [one] gallon of water a day, and twice that is even better." You should also carry plenty of drinking water in your car and while hiking. Individuals who experience dizziness, nausea, or headaches should get out of the sun immediately and drink lots of water.
-- By Micah Fink