Last week, Karen Klein had been looking forward to getting away for a little pre-holiday vacation. Along with her husband Eric and 10-year-old son, the 46-year-old Pennsylvania mother packed up her car and set out to see the Grand Canyon in Arizona.
But according to Pennsylvania’s CBS affiliate WTTV, the family of three was driving along State Road 67 when they came upon a road closure and — following their GPS — took an unexpected detour down a service road that runs through the forest. As it turned out, the service road was covered in snow, which forced the family to turn their car around. But when they did, they found themselves stuck in a ditch and unable to move.
With snow continuing to fall and no other cars on the road or people in sight to flag down, Karen set out on foot to get help on Thursday afternoon. She was armed with little more than some water and a few snacks, but believed the entrance to the park was not far away.
It would be two days until she would be seen again.
Meanwhile, her husband was panicking. Back in the car, he was beginning to suffer from frostbite, and worried whether Karen was able to reach help or if she was somehow lost in the wilderness and in danger.
WTTV reports that by Friday afternoon, Eric decided to leave the car with the couple’s son and set out for help himself. Once he reached higher ground, he was able to finally get a cell phone signal and call for help. But sadly, he soon learned that Karen had still not been heard from.
After hours of searching, she was finally found by authorities on Christmas Eve — barely conscious and suffering from exposure, but alive. Rescuers soon determined that she’d hiked an incredible 26 miles for 30 straight hours before seeking refuge inside a guard shack that had been closed for the season.
To her family, that remarkable feat wasn’t actually a surprise.
As her twin sister Kristen Haase later told WFMZ, “She would make a decision and she would stick to it and never give up. She would do it or she would die trying.”
And that she did.
It’s that fierce determination that ultimately kept Karen alive, as she now says she survived by eating berries and twigs, and even by drinking her own urine.
And if you’re wondering just how she managed to pull those badass survival skills out of nowhere, she luckily did have some practice: Karen is a seasoned triathlete who, coincidentally, has taken wilderness survival classes in the past.
Still, the grueling nature of her trek towards safety is unlike anything she ever thought she’d encounter; and as her sister later shared, Karen carried two thoughts in her mind throughout her entire journey; two thoughts that kept her going.
“She didn’t want her mother to bury her daughter,” explained Haase. “She didn’t want her son to be without a mother.”
And so, she refused to give up. Even when her eyelids hung heavy after staying awake for more than 45 hours; even after losing a shoe and being forced to continue hiking for miles without it.
“I was determined not to fall asleep and kept walking, even when I became delirious,” Karen told PEOPLE. “This might sound trivial, but I kept thinking of Ellen DeGeneres’s character, Dory, in ‘Finding Nemo’ saying, ‘Just keep swimming.’ It dragged on forever, it really did. But love and strength saw me through.”
The final few miles, she later told reporters, took over nine hours to hike, as her body seemed to give out every 10 feet. It wasn’t until she broke into the guard shack — a small cottage intended for park rangers during the summer season — that she was able to finally rest, and warm herself under blankets she found inside.
It would be six more hours until rescuers found her, but eventually, she was reunited with her family at a nearby hospital.
Though Karen remains hospitalized and may have to undergo surgery to remove two of her toes due to frostbite, WTTV reports that she’s overjoyed to be with her family, and remains grateful that her story — which could have easily ended in tragedy — was ultimately one of survival, hope, and the power of determination.