Pershing County, Nevada, Desert

Two men were found after being stranded for 10 days in the Pershing County, Nevada, dessert. Only one survived.

by James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H.


I read an interesting story about a seventy-six-year-old man found alert and alive after being stranded for ten days in a Nevada desert.* His friend didn’t make it. The article didn’t describe the man who died, but the one who survived, James Klemovich, was a diabetic with a pacemaker who’d had triple-bypass heart surgery.

Of course the first question I asked myself is, why did one die and the other, in obvious poor health, survive? And what lessons can be learned from their ordeal?

According to Reno’s News 4, an NBC affiliate:

Klemovich told the Sheriff he kept hydrated by melting snow and remembering what he learned as a Boy Scout. … He confessed to the Sheriff he wouldn’t be going out there again without several survival items in his vehicle.

Lesson one: Be prepared. Learn skills; take first-aid and first-responder courses; read books and blogs; keep food, water, and supplies in your care.

Another question I asked is why did no one find them for ten days? Lesson two: Tell someone where you’re going and when you’ll be back.

But there are other survival lessons hidden in this story as well—ones not so oft-repeated.

Why Did One Man Die?

First, I must tell you the friend who died, Laszlo Szabo, seventy-five, had left a few days earlier for help. But, because he was the one who took off, I can only surmise he was at least as healthy. And they both were found about the same time, so it wasn’t that.

One thing that decreased his survival chances could have been the extra calories he burned from walking. Men have been known to live without food for many weeks. Ghandi fasted for twenty-one days. The man who survived stayed put. Lesson three: If you’re stranded, conserve your energy.

Other contributing factors:

  • Szabo probably didn’t take enough water. He could only carry so much. Unlike living without food, you cannot live for more than three to five days without water. And it was the desert, which is going to dehydrate you even faster. The man who survived had melted snow to drink. Szabo may have not.
  • He may have become confused. He had been gone days but was found only a mile-and-a-half from the car. Either he died right after he started, he was walking in circles, or he was trying to get back to the car. Dehydration not only makes you weak, but it can cause you to have poor judgment, even confusion. Who knows? This could have been the reason he took off in the first place. It certainly wouldn’t help him make good decisions in the wilderness. Lesson four: If you must travel, mark your way back.
  • He no longer had the car to protect him against the elements. Lesson five: If you must leave, carry a lightweight layer to for protection from the sun, wind, and cold.

What Helped the Other Man Survive?

  • Klemovich preserved his energy and burned fewer calories. Also, he may have benefited from the ample stored calories in his fat (judging by his picture). Lesson six: Stay put unless you have a good idea where you’re going and have the food and water to make it.
  • He used his Boy Scouts skills, such as building a fire. It can get cold in the desert at night. Our body uses more energy when it’s cold and trying to stay warm. Lesson seven: Keep matches in a waterproof container as part of your car supplies.
  • With a three-vessel bypass and diabetes, I doubt he could have walked very far without chest pain and shortness of breath. Lesson eight: Know your limitations. Lesson nine: Keep a few days of essential medications in your car supplies.

So Why Didn’t the Diabetes Kill Klemovich?

The article doesn’t say which type of diabetes he has, but I expect it’s type 2. People with type 2 diabetes produce too much glucose but don’t use it efficiently. This wreaks havoc with their metabolism. Calorie restriction is a cornerstone of treatment (though not this extreme and not for this long). The fasting may have helped keep his blood-sugar levels down. Plus, hydration helps dilute extra sugar and excrete toxins through the urine. The fact that he kept drinking undoubtedly helped keep his diabetes in check.

Lesson 10

The Associated Press reports, “Joanne Klemovich said she knows the first words she’ll say to her husband of 48 years as of Wednesday: ‘Happy belated anniversary.'” Lesson ten: If you forget your wedding anniversary you’d better have a good excuse.

Full disclosure: I think I know the medical aspects of survival pretty well, but many of you reading this blog have much more experience and knowledge in other aspects of wilderness-survival techniques. For my education and others’ please share your comments. Of course, as always, I welcome questions also.

*This links to an Associated Press article, which may only be up for a limited time, due to copyright restrictions.

Photo by slgwv on Flickr.