ARIZONA – The best adventures are never planned, just as it wasn’t for the Klein family on Thursday, Dec. 22nd. After departing from Las Vegas to fulfill their lifelong bucket list dream of seeing the Grand Canyon, Karen, her husband Eric, and their son, Issac, 10, were not prepared for the adventure in store for them.
The trio were following their GPS down Route 67 which leads to the north rim of the canyon, but were unaware of the roads closure in the wintertime. Their GPS re-routed them to a back road used by U.S. Forest Service, which was not serviced for traffic.
Tensions rose as they drove down an unmarked and unplowed road for miles upon miles. Sunset crept up on them and next thing they knew, their car spun out into a ditch. Their cell phones were far beyond service, which left the family to face some decisions.
“I’m a runner and have taken wilderness survival classes. We decided that I would hike out and look for help” Karen explained to PEOPLE
Karen also noted that her husband had surgery for a back injury last summer. So she was nominated to endure the walk for help with nothing but a bottle of water and a snack-sized box of cheerios.
Side note: Husband of the year award?
Karen anticipated the journey to a well-traveled road to be a few hours, but it became much more than that. Hour after hour she trekked along the service road. Hours turned to days, and Karen turned to her wilderness training to survive.
“This might sound trivial, but I kept thinking of Ellen DeGeneres character, Dory, in ‘Finding Nemo’ saying, ‘Just keep swimming.’ It dragged on forever, it really did. But love and strength saw me through.”
By Friday afternoon, when she hadn’t returned, Eric made the difficult choice to leave Isaac alone in the car and hike to higher ground to get cell phone service and call 911.
“I told Isaac, ‘I need to get this car out of the ditch, get you out of the forest and find mommy and without help, that isn’t going to happen, I told him to run the car to keep the heat on, drink the juice and water that we had left, and not to open the doors for anyone unless they had a police or ranger badge.'” It was very upsetting to leave him. But I knew it would take much longer to reach high ground if he went with me,” Isaac told PEOPLE
Meanwhile, Karen was into her second day of traversing the small road in hopes of encountering anybody.
“It was snowing so badly that night that I had to use my cell phone light to see where I was going, and finally the battery went dead,” she tells PEOPLE. She ate the rest of her Cheerios, and resorted to drinking her urine for warmth and hydration.
“It tastes as bad as you imagine,” she says, “but it was warm and so I resorted to that a couple of times. I also ate snow along the way and bits of aspen and evergreen branches. They’re not tasty, either. But in a survival situation, that’s what you do.”
Eventually Karen pulled a muscle in her left leg and couldn’t lift her foot properly. Her shoe soon became frozen with ice and wouldn’t stay on, so she decided to walk without it.
After 9 hours of crutching her way towards a sign that promised a visitors center, she arrived to a vacant rangers cabin. After breaking in she found no food, water or electricity. However, she did credit the shelter alone to saving her on her second night in the wilderness.
“I wouldn’t have survived through another night without it. I felt around in the dark until I found a bed and curled up, exhausted.”
But little to Karen’s knowledge, help was already on its way. Her husband, who had hiked nearly 15 miles uphill, was able to get phone service and alert the authorities to what had happened around 2:30 a.m. on Dec. 24. And, after rescuers followed Karen’s trail back to the cabin, they quickly escorted her to Dixie Regional Medical Center in Utah, where she was treated for exhaustion and frostbite.
“Hugging them, it just reaffirmed my commitment to them,” Karen said from her hospital bed. “If I lose a few toes, in the grand scheme of things, they’re just toes. We made it. We’re a miracle. We’re still here for each other and that’s all that matters.” Eric, who calls his wife the “true hero,” said their experience “proves that you can influence your own narrative.”
“It might not be a first edition, but if you keep writing, you’ll get to an outcome better than if you wallow in self pity and dwell on the bad situation you’re in. Karen used everything she had to give our story a happy outcome. Between her and the unselfish, dedicated people who came to our rescue, we now have a new chapter to write,” Eric said.
Karen is expected to be released from the hospital on New Year’s Eve.