Copyright © 2015 Albuquerque Journal
A French man and woman who died hiking in southern New Mexico’s White Sands National Monument – leaving behind a surviving 9-year-old boy – apparently headed into the dunes without water and quickly succumbed to the extreme heat.
David and Ornella Steiner were on vacation with their son when they stopped at the monument Tuesday just after midday and set out to hike the Alkali Flat Trail, one of the monument’s more strenuous trails, according to the National Park Service, which manages the monument, and the Otero County Sheriff’s Office, which is in charge of the investigation.
Summer temperatures can become deadly at White Sands, a picturesque desert of rolling white dunes where there is little shade or shelter. Daytime temperatures peaked at 101 degrees in the monument on Tuesday.
It is not clear whether the Steiner family received or read safety warnings urging visitors to carry ample water and beware of the extreme heat.
The Alkali Flat Trail takes hikers on “a five-mile loop that looks benign” but is strenuous, White Sands Superintendent Marie Sauter said. “It’s up down, up down.”
A 23-year-old Iowa woman died on the same trail in June 2011 after experiencing signs of distress in the heat. In 2002, a 29-year-old Japanese businessman disappeared in the dunes in early September and was found dead of heat exposure weeks later.
The White Sands website has safety information posted in English and six other languages, including French. Sauter said printed materials in French are also available at the monument’s visitor center.
“The environment here can be extreme,” she said. “For folks who can be unaware, it’s very different. It’s like no other place. It’s super bright. It’s super hot. With the white reflecting, and no shade and no trees, it can be quite extreme.”
Sheriff Benny House said Ornella Steiner, 51, began feeling ill on the trail and decided to turn back to the family’s vehicle, while David, 42, and his son pressed on. The parents would both be found dead hours later, their little boy alive and suffering from heat exposure.
Park rangers found the body of Ornella Steiner around 5:30 p.m. on a routine patrol of the Alkali Flat Trail. They discovered David’s body and his son farther up the trail about an hour later, House said.
“I don’t think they were prepared for the heat,” House said. “I think they just thought it was a trail and they would walk it. They started out together. The mother had gotten ill. … It wasn’t very far before she went down and then, farther up the trail, the father went down. It’s just a tragedy.”
The boy was whisked out of the dunes by first responders to be treated, Sauter said. He was hospitalized, and French authorities were contacted, House said. The New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department took custody of the boy, he said, and would be returning him to his grandmother.
The bodies of his parents were sent to Albuquerque for autopsies, the results of which will be shared with French authorities, House said.
House said the family is from Burgundy, about three hours southeast of Paris.
White Sands National Monument encompasses 275 square miles of gypsum sand and is the world’s largest gypsum dune field.
The monument is between Alamogordo and White Sands Missile Range.
More than half a million people visit White Sands each year, Sauter said, with peak visitation during spring break and the summer. Many choose to drive through the monument only; others explore the dunes within eyeshot of their vehicles.
“At this time of year, we give as much information as possible,” she said. “We suggest not hiking in the middle of the day. When visitors insist, we say please reconsider.”