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Mom who walked 26 miles in frozen wilderness to save stranded family speaks out

A wife and mother recounted how she survived nearly three days in frozen wilderness after walking 26 miles to get help for her family.
/ Source: TODAY

As Karen Klein walked 26 miles in frozen wilderness in an attempt to get help for her stranded family, one thought kept her alive.

"I can't leave my son without a mom,'' she told NBC's Steve Patterson from her hospital bed. "I can't leave my husband without a wife. I'm not letting my parents bury me. I was determined that this is not how my life is going to end."

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Klein, 47, was rescued on Saturday morning after spending 30 hours in harsh conditions when her family became stranded near the Grand Canyon's North Rim.

"It's just starting to sort of sink in,'' she said. "It still feels somewhat surreal."

Klein was on vacation in Las Vegas with her husband, Eric, 47, and their son, Isaac, 10, when the family from Easton, Pennsylvania, decided to take a trip on Dec. 22 to Bryce Canyon and then to the North Rim.

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When they learned State Route 67 to the North Rim was closed for the winter, the GPS on their cell phone recommended a shortcut that turned out to be an impassable forest road. Their car ended up stuck in the mud in the midst of a blizzard, and there was no cell phone service to allow them to call for help.

"It was decided that there is a main road up ahead, and I have professional and recreational experience, a lifelong (experience) in the outdoors, so I said, 'I'll just go, I'll just walk up to the main road, I can do this, I'm a runner,''' she said.

mom who walked 26 miles in the frozen wilderness near the Grand Canyon to try to find help for her family
Officials say Karen Klein, 47, is lucky to be alive after walking 26 miles in frozen wilderness near the Grand Canyon to try to get help for her stranded husband and son. TODAY

Klein walked into the night, veering off course. She ate aspen twigs and did her best to stay awake in the freezing temperatures.

"It got to be about 1:30 in the morning and at this point I had walked about 26 miles, so I kept myself awake,'' she said. "I just talked to myself and rocked back to stay warm."

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Meanwhile, her husband had walked 15 miles in the other direction until he was able to get cell service and call 911. Around the same time he and Isaac were rescued on Friday morning, an exhausted Karen was battling frostbite after breaking a window to get inside an empty park ranger station.

Klein was eventually found by rescuers a day later on a bed in the cabin, unable to stand up while battling frostbite in her fingers and toes. She was airlifted to Intermountain Medical Center in Murray, Utah, where she is recovering.

Only hours after her rescue, a major winter storm hit the area that officials say would have made it impossible to locate her.

"I think Karen is a really brave woman who did the most she could to help her family,'' Dr. Mark Toth of Intermountain Medical Center told Patterson.

Follow writer Scott Stump on Twitter.