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Emergency rescue at Sequoia National Park [UPDATED]

A Squaw Valley hiker had to be rescued this week at Sequoia National Park after falling through a snow bridge into the icy cold creek below, park authorities said.  The woman, 51, was found by hikers three hours later suffering from hypothermia, but was able to walk away from the scene.

Park officials declined to release the woman’s name but said she left Farewell Gap Trailhead for a day hike, training for an ultra-marathon. She crossed a snow bridge, but on her way back, the snow bridge collapsed.  The woman fell into the freezing creek with 5 feet of snow from the bridge falling on top of her, according to park spokeswoman Dana M. Dierkes.

The creek’s strong currents pulled the hiker downstream for about 40 feet, until she was able to stop herself, with the snow still atop her. The woman was able to dig up through the snow, creating  a small hole at the surface, and throw her backpack out. The pack  was seen by another hiking party, whose members pulled the woman out of the water.

[UPDATED:11:15 a.m. Monday June 20. In a comment to this post, hiker Marcia Rasmussen, confirmed the observation of a witness to her rescue, saying,  "It is true that I was not in the water more than a few seconds. I was able to grab a small bush and pull myself up into a small alcove, where I could dig for the surface." ]

“She is extremely lucky another group was passing by when she threw her backpack,” Dierkes said. “There were other hikers at the park, but this was really good timing.”

When hikers got to the woman she was incoherent, officials said. One member of the hiking party went for help, while the park’s helicopter, plus a medic and ranger on foot, arrived shortly after.

The woman declined evacuation or medical assistance, Dierkes said, because she was able to walk from the scene.

Sequoia officials say slowly melting snow is causing strong currents and rising water levels in the park. Some trails remain covered in snow and many creeks are not passable.

The Central Sierra Nevada mountains have 1.5 times more snow this year  than in previous winters.
As snow continues to melt, the water levels will rise and currents are stronger, park officials warn. Not only does snow last longer at higher elevations, but it hasn’t been as warm and snow is not melting as fast.

“If you are unsure about a snow area, err on the side of caution when crossing,” Dierkes said.

Photo: Sequoia National Park. Credit: Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times

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Thank you, Ed, for correcting the story. After a section of the snow bridge collapsed beneath me, I fell into the stream and was swept into a tunnel beneath the snow. I was trapped there for 3 hours. It may be correct that the snowpack was 5 feet deep over most of the tunnel, but the place where I dug to the surface was only about 2 feet thick. As Ed commented, the sunlight penetrated in this spot, giving it a blue glow. It is true that I was not in the water more than a few seconds. I was able to grab a small bush and pull myself up into a small alcove, where I could dig for the surface. I sustained superficial frostbite in both hands and one knee, but no permanent injuries.
Thank you, Ed. I am grateful for your help. And I am one very, very lucky woman.

Dana M. Dierkes, Public Affairs Specialist of Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks, confirms, "Yes, the woman was trapped in the creek, under snow, for 3+ hours. Based upon sampling in other creeks at similar elevations, we believe the water to have been approximately 40 degrees in temperature. She is alive and well. I have e-mailed back and forth with the woman since the incident.
She was extremely lucky!"

She was only in the water for a few seconds, not 3 hours, after being swept about 30 feet downstream; before managing to get out of the water. However, she was still trapped under the massive snow bridge, with an air pocket between the ground and the snow. She could see "Blue" from a thin spot in the snow above, and started digging a hole. She couldn't climb out of this hole, but managed to throw her daypack out, and 2 alert hikers noticed it and investigated. I was backpacking and happened on the scene just after the hikers pulled her out of the hole, and I wrapped my sleeping bag around her to warm her up. Yes, she was fully hypothermic and this took a long time. After she rewarmed, she checked her timer and that's where the 3 hour figure came from.

"The woman, 52, was found by hikers three hours later suffering from hypothermia, but was able to walk away from the scene."

The only outcome of exposure to 35 degree water for 3 hours is death. I am glad the woman is alive, but this story is inaccurate.


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