Survival and Sacrifice: The Harrowing Story of Two Lost Hikers in Rattlesnake Canyon


Life is filled with ordinary moments that can take a sudden, unexpected turn. Sometimes, everyday people are forced to make truly unthinkable decisions, and their survival instincts are put to the test. One such harrowing story unfolded in Rattlesnake Canyon, a remote part of Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico in August 1999. Two friends embarked on what they thought would be the adventure of a lifetime, only to find themselves in a life-or-death situation that would lead to an unimaginable decision.

The Adventure Begins

It all began with two friends, David Coughlin and Rafi Kodokian, leaving their ordinary lives in Boston, Massachusetts, behind to embark on a journey to California. Their plan was simple: travel cross-country, explore new places, and have the adventure of a lifetime. Carlsbad Caverns National Park, with its vast, untamed desert landscapes, was a highlight of their trip.

David and Rafi’s journey had taken them more than 2,000 miles west, sleeping at campsites and cheap motels along the way. The final destination was the University of Santa Barbara, where David would be pursuing his Masters in environmental engineering. However, Carlsbad Caverns offered a thrilling detour from their ordinary lives.

The Desert Wilderness

Carlsbad Caverns National Park spans a vast 47,000 acres of wild desert terrain, a stark contrast to their usual urban surroundings. For David and Rafi, this adventure felt like exploring the Wild West, an opportunity to live out their cowboy dreams.

On the morning of August 5th, 1999, David woke up in his green and maroon tent, a temporary shelter they had set up in Rattlesnake Canyon. He could hear Rafi preparing breakfast outside, collecting supplies for their morning hike. Excitement filled the air as they anticipated the day’s adventures.

Water Worries

Despite the early hour, the desert sun was already scorching, and David found himself sweating profusely. He took a sip of his dwindling water supply, recalling the park ranger’s stern advice about the importance of hydration in the desert. However, Rafi, with more camping experience, assured David that they didn’t need as much water as the ranger had recommended.

Instead of carrying the suggested gallon per person per day, they had brought only three 16 oz bottles of water for both of them, a decision that would soon prove disastrous.

Lost in the Wilderness

The day’s plan was simple: hike out of Rattlesnake Canyon, reach their car, and continue their journey to California. They had camped close to the parking lot, so the hike back should be quick. However, hours into their walk, they realized they were lost. The stacks of white rocks that had marked the trail had disappeared.

In a growing sense of frustration and exhaustion, they searched for familiar landmarks but found none. Panic was setting in, and their water supply was rapidly depleting. They decided to stop, rest, and consult their topographical map.

A Fateful Decision

Neither David nor Rafi could decipher the intricate lines and contours on the map. The sweltering heat was taking its toll, and their situation grew direr by the minute. They considered walking further, but their energy was waning, and Rafi was becoming increasingly sick from drinking his own urine.

Dave’s legs were cramping, making it difficult to walk. They knew they had to wait for rescue, but no one knew their exact location. With no food, little water, and a growing sense of desperation, they felt helpless.

Building Hope and Facing Despair

As they lay in their tent, a faint glimmer of hope appeared. In the distance, they spotted what looked like headlights, potentially from a nearby road. Believing salvation was within reach, they decided to head in that direction. But after hours of walking, they reached only more wilderness, their water reserves nearly depleted.

Exhausted and defeated, they returned to their campsite, expecting that park rangers would have arrived to rescue them. However, there was no sign of anyone.

A Grim Realization

The days dragged on, and their situation grew increasingly dire. Dave and Rafi attempted to signal for help, but their efforts were in vain. The lack of food, water, and the sweltering heat pushed them to the brink of despair.

As they faced the prospect of death, they made a grim decision. In a final act of desperation and with a heavy heart, Dave asked Rafi to end his life. Rafi, seeing no other option, complied. After taking Dave’s life, Rafi intended to take his own. They believed this was the only way to avoid a painful, lingering death in the wilderness.

A Miraculous Rescue

Miraculously, the morning of August 8th, 1999, brought salvation in the form of a park ranger named Lance Matson. Lance and a volunteer had been searching for the missing campers and discovered their ransacked campsite. Inside the tent, they found Rafi, alive but emaciated.

Rafi, who had been waiting to die, asked for water. Lance gave him water and inquired about Dave’s whereabouts. Rafi simply pointed in the direction where Dave’s body lay, concealed under rocks. The park ranger found Dave’s lifeless body, a tragic end to an agonizing journey.

Aftermath and Legal Proceedings

Rafi Kodokian faced legal consequences for his actions. He pled guilty to murder but insisted that he had killed Dave at his friend’s request, a mercy killing driven by desperation. His sentence was 16 years in prison, though he served only 16 months.


The story of Dave and Rafi’s ordeal in Rattlesnake Canyon serves as a stark reminder of the harsh realities of wilderness survival. It’s a tale of two friends who made an unthinkable decision in the face of imminent death, a decision born out of desperation and hopelessness. Their tragic journey serves as a haunting reminder of the power of the human spirit to endure, even in the bleakest of circumstances.

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