A prominent Colorado adventure athlete can thank her dog and a Utah search-and-rescue team for saving her life after she fell and injured herself while running and spent two nights in subfreezing weather near Moab last week.
Danelle Ballengee, 35, underwent a six-hour surgery Tuesday at Denver Health Medical Center to repair a broken pelvis suffered while running with her dog near the Amasa Back Trail south of Moab last week.
She also is recovering from severe frostbite on her feet, internal bleeding and numerous cuts and bruises.
The two-time adventure racing world champion and elite triathlete, trail runner and mountain biker slipped on a patch of ice on Hurrah Pass and tumbled off three successive rock faces of 10 to 20 feet each.
Utah's Grand County Search and Rescue team, on all-terrain vehicles, found Ballengee at about 3:30 p.m. Friday after her dog, Taz, a 3-year-old German shepherd-golden retriever mix, led rescuers on a five-mile journey to the accident site.
"I'm just happy to be alive," she said. "I thought about my family and my friends and everything I do, and I just kept saying to myself, 'I can't die. I'm not ready to die.' But it would have been so easy to relax and curl up and die."
Ballengee left around noon Dec. 13 for what she thought would be a casual two-hour trail run in the 40-degree weather. She was wearing light running pants, two lightweight running shirts and a lightweight fleece top.
After the fall, Ballengee crawled about a quarter-mile on her hands and knees to try to find help.
During the night, she did sit-ups and kept her upper body moving to keep warm. She drank snowmelt from a puddle when the water in her hydration pack ran out and ate two packets of raspberry energy gel she had carried on the run.
Moab police found Ballengee's pickup truck at the Amasa Back trailhead at 12:30 p.m. Friday. As search-and-rescue personnel arrived, a dog matching the description of Taz was seen running around the trailhead.
"The dog took our rescue personnel right to her. I think we would have eventually found her, because we were in the right location, but the dog saved us some time," said Curt Brewer, chief deputy with the Grand County Sheriff's Office.
On the first night of Ballengee's ordeal, Taz slept with his head on her stomach, but the second night he was hesitant to get near her.
"The first night I couldn't really cuddle with him because I had to stay on my back, but he cuddled next to me and helped keep me warm," Danelle said. "But the second night he either got mad or he got a plan in his head.
"Either way, I just can't wait to give him a big hug. He has no idea how important he can be."