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Op-Ed: An Assessment Of Karen Klein’s 36 Hour Journey Being Lost In The Wilderness

January 30, 2017

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At my work we’ve been analyzing the misadventure of Karen Klein, the woman who this past December trekked 29 miles over 36 hours, in up to three feet of snow, to get help for her family following their car getting stuck at Bryce Canyon, the northern part of the Grand Canyon.

Forty six year old Karen Klein was on vacation in Las Vegas with husband Eric Klein, 47, and their 10-year-old son Isaac. On Thursday, December 22, 2016; the Kleins decided to travel to Bryce Canyon in Utah and the Grand Canyon in Arizona. The family tried to drive on State Route 67 to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, but along the way, their GPS alerted them it was closed for the winter. The GPS diverted them onto a Forest Service road that was mostly gravel. When they finally decided to turn around, their car got stuck.

It was bitterly cold, the sun was sinking and there was no cellphone signal. The Kleins knew they had to find help fast. As Eric Klein was recently recovering from a back injury, the decision was made that Karen – being in the best physical shape – would attempt to hike out as snow kept falling. Wearing a parka, knit cap and hiking boots, she journeyed into the snow while her husband and son stayed inside the vehicle.

Karen later said, “I thought I’d only be gone for like an hour or two.” She ended up traversing 29 miles, in up to three feet of snow, before seeking shelter in a small unheated cabin where she was ultimately located. On Friday morning, Karen found an empty ranger station at a park entrance closed for the season. She broke a window with her elbow and waited inside the cabin.

Around the same time, Isaac Klein hiked to higher ground where he was able to get cellphone signal and call for help. Searchers rescued Eric and Isaac, then started an air and ground search for Karen. A coordinated search was conducted by trackers from the Kane County Sheriff’s Department (Utah), Coconino County Sheriff’s Department (Arizona), National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, and Bureau of Land Management.

Searchers found Karen Klein early Saturday morning curled up on a bed in the cabin. At that point she was hallucinating and was too weak to stand up. Klein’s rescuers gave her food and water and she was taken to the hospital, where she was treated for severe frostbite. Her husband and son were also treated for exposure and later released.
Only hours after Klein’s rescue, a major winter storm hit the region that would have made it nearly impossible to find her.

Items of interest to my team include:

If the Kleins had consulted weather reports or sought information from hotel or tourist resources prior to setting out, they probably would not have set forth. Planning skills, knowledge of the limitations of GPS navigation, and a communications PACE (primary / alternate / contingency / emergency) plan may have prevented this event.

“The GPS did not indicate that certain roads were closed and impassable,” Klein said. Jim Driscoll, chief Deputy for Coconino County, Arizona, says it’s a problem authorities have seen numerous times: “Google Maps shows there’s a way, but it’s impassable.”

Karen Klein had taken wilderness survival classes that may have contributed to her survival. She ate aspen twigs and pine needles (pine needles contain up to 5 times the amount of vitamin C as an orange plus essential minerals that undoubtedly contributed to Karen’s survival). Knowing that eating snow leads to hypothermia, Karen instead drank her own urine to avoid dehydration.

U.S. military survival schools advise against drinking urine. A healthy person’s urine is about 95 percent water and sterile, so in the short term it’s safe to drink and does replenish lost water. But the other 5 percent of urine comprises a diverse collection of waste products, including nitrogen, potassium, and calcium – therefore repeat drinking of urine can cause problems. Karen was aware not to eat snow (leads to hypothermia) however she did place snow in her cheek to stay hydrated.

Karen Klein showed a determined survival mindset. Resting under a tree Thursday night, Karen forced herself to stay awake.

“I knew if I fell asleep that I would freeze to death,” Klein said. “I kept thinking, this isn’t how my life is supposed to end, no, no, no.”

“My son needs his mother, my husband needs his wife. I am not letting my mother bury me . . . that instinct just kicks in, you have to protect your family. You just keep driving forward. You just have to keep moving forward,” she added.

It took her nine hours to travel the last four miles. She’d walk 10 feet, collapse, pick herself back up and collapse again.

The ‘Rule of Threes’ states that a person can last approximately three weeks without food, three days without water, but can be taken down by the environment in as little as three hours. Coconino County Sheriff Jim Driscoll said Karen was fortunate; in the last month, three people have died there due to exposure to the cold.

“It can be a pretty hostile environment,” he said. “Especially at night.”

At about 8,500 feet, dehydration, hypothermia and exhaustion are big concerns.

Hindsight is twenty-twenty. The decision for Karen to walk out Thursday afternoon (during snowstorm) was possibly flawed; it may have been better to stay in place and begin her hike early in the morning, for maximum daylight. Before Karen departed, they could have attempted short movements to high ground to acquire cellphone signal. This eventually worked, of course, albeit after Karen had already departed.

Sean Linnane is the pseudonym of a retired Special Forces career NCO (1st SFG, 3d SFG, 10th SFG). He continues to serve as a security professional on six continents.