96 hours of 'terror' in California desert: Toronto hiker vows to stay alive after breaking pelvis

A Toronto woman spent four days and three nights stranded in a California desert after her solo hiking trip turned into a survival mission when she slipped and broke her pelvis.

Claire Nelson, 35, spent 4 days and 3 nights in Joshua Tree National Park before being rescued

Claire Nelson, 35, spent four days and three nights trying to survive the harsh desert environment after she fell and broke her pelvis and sacrum on a solo hiking trip in Joshua Tree National Park. (Claire Nelson/GoFundMe)

A Toronto woman spent four days and three nights stranded in a California desert after her solo hiking trip turned into a survival mission when she slipped and broke her pelvis.   

"I decided I just needed to stay alive long enough to be found," said Claire Nelson. 

The 35-year-old ventured along Lost Palms Oasis trail, a popular 12-kilometre day hike in Joshua Tree National Park, a desert located 80 kilometres east of Palm Springs, Calif., on May 22.

But she hadn't told anyone, besides a guide at the information centre, about her route.

The landscape of Joshua Tree National Park, located around 80 kilometres east of Palm Springs, Calif., is characterized by rugged rock formations. (Sam Mircovich/Reuters)

Some three kilometres into the marked trail that traverses through a dried-up riverbed carved out by a plethora of rugged rock formations, Nelson, an avid hiker who was cat sitting for a friend at the time, mistakenly diverged off the main path and scrambled up a hill instead.

A rock that 'slid like ice'

"I got to the top and I looked out and all I could see was just sort of desolate, dry, rocky desert. There was no obvious trail. It wasn't flat, it was all very up-and-down and rocky, and I couldn't figure out where the trail was," Nelson recalled.

"I thought, there's one little gap in the rocks and maybe that's the trail, so I stood up and sort of tested my footing on a rock and as soon as I put my foot on it, even though I wasn't putting all my weight on it, it slid like ice."

Claire Nelson heard a crack when she fell some 4.5 metres off a large boulder and fractured her pelvis and sacrum in several places. She spent the next four days lying on the ground, pictured, trying to stay alive. (Claire Nelson/Instagram)

She fell some 4.5 metres to the ground. 

"I remember screaming out literally, 'No, no, no' as I flew over the edge of it," she told CBC Toronto. 

Couldn't move from the spot

She landed on her left side and remembers hearing a crack as her legs crumbled into the rocky ground below. 

Nelson fractured her pelvis and sacrum in several places and sprained her foot.

"I felt this immense pain shoot through my body," she said. 

I decided I just needed to stay alive long enough to be found.- Claire Nelson

Nelson couldn't move from the spot. She had wedged herself between a stack of boulders.

"That was when I freaked out," she said, adding that she tried to dial 911, but her cellphone couldn't pickup a signal in the remote desert location.

"It was just the absolute terror of being immobile in a situation like that and having no one to call."

In the beginning, she screamed for help, thinking someone would find her because she was only a short distance away from the heavily trafficked trail.

But that wasn't the case. She had wandered two kilometres off the path

Nelson, who is originally from New Zealand, snapped this photograph of herself surrounded by cacti shortly before she set out on her hike at 9 a.m. on May 22. (Claire Nelson/Instagram)

Nelson explains she ran out of water within the first 24 hours, despite efforts to ration the three litres she had stowed in her backpack, and had to drink her own urine — a common survival tactic used to help keep the body hydrated by replenishing its lost water and nutrients. 

"Everything just kind of narrows down to this one point of the situation. You're not thinking big picture, you're just thinking, 'I'm here, what are the threats around me? What can I do to avoid those threats?' You just have to remain optimistic."

She spent the next two days staring at the rocky landscape, applying sunscreen to her legs and fashioning a makeshift shelter out of a T-shirt or a hat, propping it up with the hiking stick a friend had loaned her to shield her face from the sun.

"For me that was the worst part, that was the torturous part, because the sun was so hot you just couldn't move and any time a little part of my skin was exposed to the sun it would burn and I hated it," she explained

Thought about friends and family

Thinking about her family and friends kept her alive as she lay helpless on the desert floor, Nelson says.

"I'm finally in a really happy place in my life and I just thought it would be such a bummer to suddenly end it now," she said. "I didn't want my family to be told that they had found a body in the desert."

The sun was so hot you just couldn't move.- Claire Nelson

Nelson was rescued by Riverside County Sheriff's Department on the afternoon of May 25 after her friends noticed she hadn't posted on Instagram for awhile and called a neighbour who found her car parked at the trailhead. 

By then she was slipping in and out of consciousness. "That was the moment when I could feel my resolve weakening," Nelson said.

Then she heard the words, "'We're looking for a missing hiker' come out of the sky" before the rescuers spotted the makeshift scarecrow she was waving ferociously to catch their attention. 

"They said, 'We see you, we're coming to get help.' I just collapsed and I couldn't cry because I was so dehydrated. I was in shock because I didn't expect anyone was going to find me." 

Nelson, who had traveller's insurance, launched a GoFundMe campaign to help cover the remaining costs of her U.S. medical bills. (Claire Nelson/Instagram)

She was airlifted to Desert Regional Medical Centre, a hospital in Palm Springs, Calif., where she had surgery to repair the damage to her pelvis. 

Nelson had traveller's insurance, but it didn't cover all her medical costs. She launched a GoFundMe page to help cover her U.S. medical bills and rehabilitation costs. As of Friday, she had raised more than $32,000 of her $50,000 goal. 

She has started physiotherapy and is slated to return to Toronto on Tuesday. 

"I will hike again, I will hike alone again, but I will take better precautions," said Nelson. 


Amara McLaughlin

Senior producer, CBC News

Amara McLaughlin is the senior producer of social media for CBC News in Toronto.