Rescue in the Desert


the story of a dog who wouldn’t give up

by Sarah Tyler

Danelle Ballengee is no ordinary person. With accolades like six U.S. Athlete of the Year titles in four different endurance sports, being an Olympic trials qualifier in the marathon event in 1996, and most recently, her induction into the Colorado Running Hall of Fame in 2012, she’s a far cry from a weekend warrior. It would stand to reason that an exceptional athlete would have an exceptional dog.

And almost ten years ago, she was counting on that truth. On December 14, 2006, she was seriously questioning her dog’s love and dedication. The day before, she’d left her house intending to go for a trail run in Moab, where she resided for part of her training year. Taz, her faithful companion, was along for the ride.

As usual, Ballengee was in impeccable shape, having raced in the Primal Quest Utah expedition adventure race only months earlier. Add in her extensive background in adventure racing, triathlons, marathons, ironman competitions and the like, and an afternoon trek became an easy way to enjoy her passions. Wanting to keep things fresh, she chose a trail she hadn’t been on in roughly a year, the Amasa Back.

Using her past knowledge of the area and jeep trails, Ballengee made her own way through the desert with Taz, taking paths not marked on maps. Around an hour into her run, she made her way up a rather steep slope, with rock ledges and drop-offs. As her foot made contact with a seemingly innocent rock surface, she slipped, due to what she believes to be black ice or as rescuers would later hypothesize, frozen lichen. It sent her falling, hitting two large rock ledges before a 40-foot free fall, landing on her feet. The momentum was more than her body could handle and upon impact, her pelvis shattered, with breaks in four places, cracks throughout, and a spot where her bone splintered into numerous pieces.

Taz wouldn't give up on Danielle.

Taz wouldn’t give up on Danielle.

She tried desperately to crawl to safety, but after five long hours she had only made it a quarter of a mile. Suffering from extensive injuries, internal bleeding, swelling and exhaustion, Ballengee settled next to a puddle that would help to keep her alive. The first night, she and Taz cuddled for warmth. He laid his head on her stomach while she watched the stars, trying to make it through the night.

The next day, the pressure was on. To gain some strength, she drank small amounts of water from the puddle using the cap from her empty water bottle. Then she ate an energy gel (she rationed these as best she could as it was her only source of food) and made attempts to move. It was useless; her body was in no shape to move. So, she screamed for help for ten hours.

This was when the first bit of doubt crept into Ballengee’s mind about  her survival. As she screamed, he slipped away, leaving her alone and in pain. He returned eventually, but he wouldn’t sleep with her that second night. Maybe he could tell she was in too much pain, but she needed his warmth in the cold desert night .

The next day came, and Taz left again. He would return, and then leave again many times throughout the day for around a half an hour each time. At one point, he had really worked up a thirst and started to drink the puddle next to Ballengee.   This was her only source of water and as she watched him lap it up, she realized things were going downhill fast.

While Ballengee was fighting for her life, a search and rescue team had been formed and was out looking for her. On one of Taz’s solitary expeditions to find help, he discovered the search party. Though the team kept trying to grab him, even attempting to lure him in with food and water, Taz evaded their grasps. He kept moving through the people and eventually began to wander off towards the city. When Taz noticed that the rescuers had followed him a short distance, he turned towards the desert and began to lead them back to Ballengee.

At one point, Taz started running too fast for the team to follow on foot, so rescuer Bego Gerhart hopped into his truck and sped after Taz down a jeep path. At this point, there were also tell-tale footprints and tracks on the ground that he could follow. Moments later, he came across Ballengee on her back, crying, with Taz beside her, his head on her chest. She’d been in the Moab desert for fifty-two hours, in excruciating pain, fighting for her life after an injury that would have left most people dead within a day.

After Ballengee was choppered to safety, Taz was taken home by the officer in charge of the search and rescue team, John Marshall, for the night. Taz was around four years old at the time and was most definitely a good dog. After the event, he received an award for his valor from the national Society for the Ethical Treatment of Pets.

Taz is living a happy retired life these days.

Taz is living a happy retired life these days.

Today, almost ten years later, things are quite improved. Bellengee is married and a mother of two lovely boys, Will and Noah. She owns Milt’s Stop and Eat Restaurant in Moab, and is the Race Director for Moab Trail Marathon. Taz, now fourteen years old, has lived his days as a hero, and an ever grateful Ballengee has spent each day showing him her appreciation in return. He has truly been a faithful friend and a very good dog.