"If I lose a few toes, in the grand scheme of things, they're just toes," says Karen Klein. "We made it. We're a miracle. We're still here for each other and that's all that matters."

By Cathy Free
Updated December 27, 2016 08:03 PM
Advertisement

A Pennsylvania family received what they are calling a “Christmas miracle and Hanukkah gift” all in one after they were rescued following two frigid nights near the Grand Canyon’s North Rim when they took a wrong road and their vacation rental car became stuck.

Recovering from exhaustion and frostbite after hiking 30 miles in the snow over Christmas weekend in search of help for her husband and son, Karen Klein, 46, a community college professor who is a runner and triathlete, tells PEOPLE exclusively that “my mama bear instincts kicked in and I just told myself I had to keep going to save my family.”

“I was determined not to fall asleep and kept walking, even when I became delirious,” Klein, of Easton, Pennsylvania, who survived by eating twigs and snow and drinking her urine, tells PEOPLE. “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.”

The Klein family’s unexpected adventure began on Dec. 22, after they left their Las Vegas hotel to fulfill a bucket list dream of seeing the Grand Canyon. Karen, her husband, Eric Klein, and their son, Isaac, 10, didn’t know that State Road 67 leading to the north rim of the canyon was closed for the winter. They relied on their car’s GPS, which detoured them to back roads used by the U.S. Forest Service.

After their car became stuck in a ditch, sunset approached and snow began to fall, “We were faced with some decisions,” Karen, a biology professor at Northampton Community College, tells PEOPLE. “Since our cell phones didn’t receive service and I’m a runner and have taken wilderness survival classes, we decided that I would hike out and look for help.”

Plus, her husband had surgery for a back injury last summer, she says. After hugging Eric and Isaac goodbye, she set out with a bottle of water and a snack-sized box of Cheerios, thinking that she would make it to a well-traveled road in a couple of hours.

Karen with son Isaac and husband Eric
| Credit: Courtesy Klein family

By Friday afternoon, when she hadn’t returned, Eric, a mental-health counselor at the same college, 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,’ ” Eric tells PEOPLE.

“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,'” he says. “It was very upsetting to leave him. But I knew it would take much longer to reach high ground if he went with me.”

Meanwhile, Karen was into her second day of traversing a small road, Route 22, hoping that somebody would come by. The night before, she had walked about 26 miles, resting only briefly beneath an evergreen tree and rocking herself back and forth to stay awake.

“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, recalling her survival training, drank 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.”

Ill-equipped for hiking in such severe conditions, 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.

When she finally saw a sign indicating that a Grand Canyon visitor’s center was four miles away, “I knew that I could do it —that I simply had to do it,” she says. “I had to physically lift my left leg up each time to move forward. I did that last four miles 10 steps at a time. It took me nine and a half hours.”

Because the visitor’s center was closed for the winter and nobody was around, Karen broke into a ranger’s cabin. There was no heat, no electricity and no food, “but it was shelter,” she says. “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.”

Karen didn’t know it, but rescuers were on their way. After walking 15 miles uphill, Eric was finally able to dial 911 and explain his family’s desperate situation.

“Then I hiked back to the car to be with Isaac,” he says. “Such a great kid he is. He said he shut the car on and off so he wouldn’t waste gas. Then he passed the time listening to music and sending positive energy out to the universe.”

At 2:30 a.m., following Karen’s trail, rescuers finally reached her at the cabin, wrapping her in blankets and giving her something hot to drink. She was then taken to a regional hospital in Kanab, Utah, where she was reunited with Eric and Isaac, before being transported to Dixie Regional Medical Center in St. George, Utah, to be treated for severe frostbite on her toes.

“Hugging them, it just reaffirmed my commitment to them,” Karen, who is expected to be released from the hospital before New Year’s Eve (her birthday), tells PEOPLE. “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.”

As for Eric, who calls his wife “the true hero” in their saga, “I hope our story proves that you can influence your own narrative,” he says. “You can write your own story. 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.”