Lessons From a Recent Survival

Days ago a Pennsylvania family that set out to visit the Grand Canyon was plunged into a wilderness survival scenario.  Luckily for them, they all survived.  Luckily for us, we can learn from their experience, what they did right, what they did wrong, and what it is really like to face to face with survival in a cold weather environment.

The family consisted of three, Eric and Karen Klein, and their 10-year-old son.  They got to the park in the morning and were traveling by car using GPS, the plan was to see Bryce Canyon and the North Rim.  The GPS notified them of a road closure, the detour that was suggested lead them down a gradually degrading gravel road and eventually their vehicle was stuck, while snow was falling and temperatures were dropping.  With no cell service, things weren’t looking good.

Eric was still recovering from back surgery and Karen is a triathlete with survival training.  They made the decision that Karen was going to hike out and get help.

Karen ended up covering 26 miles over the course of 36 hours, sustaining a leg injury, losing a shoe somehow (it wasn’t reported how she lost her shoe or hurt her leg), suffering frostbite on her toes and fingers, and eventually collapsing in a cabin that she broke into through the window.  Eric and their son were rescued prior to Karen being found in the cabin by rescuers.  After she failed to return at night, Eric climbed to higher elevation and was able to use his cell phone to alert emergency services of their danger.

Let’s look at the what they did well, what they could have done better, and what was unavoidable.

  1. Don’t get your car stuck when you have no gear and snow is falling. Be safe, don’t take chances.
  2. The reports don’t mention anything about the family having camping gear with them in the car. Had they had blankets or better yet sleeping bags they could have waited in the car.
  3. Karen was found in a locked cabin with no supplies, only 100 yards from an open cabin with wood, matches, water and other supplies. The report doesn’t say whether or not she knew where she was at that point, but I suspect that she did not have a physical map on her which might have helped her find a better location that was well within her reach.
  4. After 11 hours of straight hiking in deep snow, Karen took shelter under an evergreen tree. This was the smart thing to do.  She did not waste time and energy building a shelter but made use of a natural shelter.
  5. Karen said that she ate twigs from trees and used snow for fluid. In most survival scenarios you too will be trying to get out of the wilderness and not have time to trap or catch animals, or even to spend much time foraging.
  6. Karen was able to make it 26 miles to a cabin through deep snow because she was in good shape and stayed focused on her goal to stay alive, not on the pain she was experiencing. Training physically should be a part of your life, otherwise, you will not be able to perform when you need it to stay alive like Karen did.
  7. Ultimately they were not rescued by Karen’s heroics, but by a cell phone call. Before you try the hardest and most dangerous route, make sure you exhaust all other routes first.  She could have easily climbed that hill and made that call instead of the 36-hour torturous ordeal that she chose.

Hopefully, we can avoid a similar situation, but if we can’t, well that’s why we should be training like Karen, so we can survive too.

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