Danelle Ballengee opened the ute’s door and Taz jumped out, wagging his tail. Today they were going to run a trail into Utah’s rugged wilderness. While she stretched, the dog nuzzled her legs and watched her intently – a sign that he wanted to get moving.
It was Taz’s eyes that did it. She’d found him in a shelter, a puppy so unruly she named him after the Tasmanian Devil character in the Warner Bros. cartoon. He’d since grown into a 32kg mutt who was her constant companion, bouncing at her heels on her training runs.
Danelle checked her watch. She and Taz could easily make a loop and return by lunch. She’d eaten a light breakfast and would be ready for a shower and a meal back at her place in Moab at the end of her 16km run.
After limbering up, she patted Taz’s brown coat andstarted jogging. It was winter in the US – December 2006 – and they were alone.
Danelle pushed her 1.6m, 55kg frame and soon broke into a sweat. At 35, she remained a world-class endurance athlete who’d run in over 500 long-distance competitions through deserts and mountains around the world. Today’s training route was a mere two-hour work-out in the fresh air, even if the air was turning colder.
Up ahead, Taz disappeared, but Danelle didn’t worry as she scrambled along a remote rocky spur and up a second trail to the top of an 18m ridge of deep-coloured red rock. Near the summit, her foot hit a patch of black ice.
She scraped over solid stone as she slipped toward a precipice. Her hands grabbed for a hold and found none. She was falling. Then she slammed feet first onto a narrow rock ledge and collapsed.
Stunned, she felt her legs, afraid she might be paralysed. She could wiggle her toes, but when she tried to stand, pain shot through her. She heard her own screams echoing off the canyon walls. Her pelvis and several vertebrae were shattered. The lower half of her body was useless, dead weight.
Danelle looked at her watch. It was noon. She estimated she was 10km from her ute and trapped high on a hidden desert ledge in winter. Alone. And no-one knew where she was. Then she heard Taz.