Claire Nelson almost died while hiking at Joshua Tree. Stranded for days, she had a life-changing epiphany

Claire Nelson thinks it was her hiking experience, not inexperience, that very nearly got her killed at Joshua Tree National Park.

The New Zealand journalist had hiked there before, and this walk was only designated “moderately hard”, so she was feeling confident about it.

She didn’t worry about sharing her itinerary with anyone, and didn’t leave any notes telling people where they might find her if she didn’t come home.

But a few hours into the hike, Claire lost her footing and fell about eight meters into a small clearing, not much bigger than she is.

“I’d landed in amongst these large boulders and I couldn’t move,” she tells RN’s Life Matters.

“I couldn’t sit up, I couldn’t stand up. [It was] indescribably painful. “

Joshua Tree, in southern California, is characterized by rugged rock formations and stark desert landscapes.(Getty: Mimi Ditchie Photography)

She’d shattered her pelvis in the fall. She had no phone service, only enough water for about a day and very little food – a bagel, a hard-boiled egg, a chocolate bar.

She was facing sweltering Californian desert heat, not to mention patrolling coyotes and rattlesnakes in seasonal peak numbers.

“I felt more vulnerable than I could have ever imagined being in my life,” Claire says.

A crying woman is seen rubbing or wiping her eye with a hand while she lays on the ground.  Next to her is a drink bottle.
A still from a mobile phone recording Claire made while trapped in the desert.(Supplied)

In the four days and three nights that followed, fearing she’d die alone there, Claire experienced delirium and adrenaline rushes, terror and determination.

And between it all came a realization: she’d been isolating herself from people well before Joshua Tree forced that upon her. This was just another kind of alone.

If she made it out alive, she wanted things to change.

‘I don’t know if I’ll wake up again’

Almost from the start of desert ordeal, she began recording videos on her phone.

“I wanted to record a message to my family so that if they ever did find me dead, they would know what had happened,” she says.

The videos make for harrowing listening.

Space to play or pause, M to mute, left and right arrows to seek, up and down arrows for volume.

Play Audio.  Duration: 13 minutes 3 seconds

Hear Claire Nelson’s recordings in her Life Matters interview.
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In one, Claire describes trying to move and hearing the “click, click, click, crunch, crunch, crunch” of her broken bones.

“Oh, the noise that came out of me, I swear to God,” she recounts in the video.

“I nearly passed out. But I don’t want to pass out in the sun, or ever. I don’t know if I’ll wake up again.”

She’s ashamed to admit it, but this hike wasn’t the first time she’d headed off without telling people her plans.

“I know better, I know the rules: always tell someone where you’re going,” says Claire, who has written about her experience in Things I Learned from Falling.

“I think what happens is that after a while you do something enough and you get so comfortable doing it that you actually stop thinking about the risks, which means that you stop preparing for them.

“People would describe me as independent. I’m very stubbornly determined to just rely on myself, which I think is actually, in hindsight, a very dangerous kind of mindset to get locked into.”

A woman in sunglasses, hat, singlet and boots stands smiling, surrounded by large boulders, with blue sky above.
Claire happily hiking at Joshua Tree, days before her fall.(Supplied)

Claire says in a way, that fierce independence helped her survive her ordeal.

“But in the other way, what saved me was other people. I don’t know how resilient we can be on our own forever,” she says.

Those other people included friends she’d been house-sitting for nearby, who were away in Scotland. They’d tried to contact Claire after noticing her social media accounts sleeping for a few days.

“When they couldn’t get in touch with me, they felt something wasn’t right,” Claire says.

“They had some mates go around the house to check on me and I wasn’t there, and the car wasn’t there, so then they had to call search and rescue.”

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