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Sequoia hiker: "I didn't know if I was going to survive."

June 20, 2011 |  8:09 pm

Top photo: Underneath the snow bridge. Credit: Stefan Barycki Marcia Rasmussen, 51, was walking across a snow bridge spanning a small stream in Sequoia National Park last week when the hard-packed snow collapsed and she plunged four feet into the swift water.

“There was no warning,” she said. “One second I’m walking on top of snow , then I’m in the water.”

Dragged along the narrow icy tunnel carved by the creek, she tumbled down a waterfall before finding branches to stop her. But she was still stuck beneath several feet of snowpack.

For three hours, she tried to claw her way out, without gloves. In the final moments before her arms stopped working, she threw her backpack up and out of a 6-inch-wide hole she had dug. A passing hiker spotted it and hauled her out.

The Squaw Valley horse farmer, an experienced hiker, described her ordeal in an interview Monday. She said she is still recovering from minor frostbite that has blackened and blistered the skin on her hands and left knee, preventing the marathon runner from training at the park’s high-elevation trails. She “feels very, very lucky to be alive,” she said.

Rasmussen is a cross-country skier and mountaineer who has led a team up Mount Rainier. For 30 years, she trained wilderness search and rescue teams in Virginia. So, as Rasmussen fell through the 4-foot snow bridge, which she says looked hard, thick and packed solidly, she didn’t panic. “It was like being flushed down a toilet,” she said.

Snow bridges are formed when the top of a creek freezes, creating a tunnel. The water below can be barely warmer than the snow.



The view under Franklin Creek's Snow Bridge from Stefan Barycki on Vimeo.


To most experienced hikers, crossing a snow bridge isn’t a risky endeavor, and crossing the bridge over Franklin Creek is frequent, a Sequoia park spokeswoman said. This year the central Sierra Nevada had 1.5 times as much snow as in previous winters, and the snow lingers longer above 3,000 feet.

Rasmussen said that even though it was 80 degrees outside, she was confident the bridge would hold. She wore only nylon jogging apparel.

Once she had plunged into the water, Rasmussen said, she acted on instinct. “You don’t have time to think ,” she said. “My only thought was: Get out of the water. It’s a very fast way to die. There is no swimming in water that cold.”

Her only option to get out of the stream tunnel was to dig upward through 2 feet of packed snow. She looked for thinner areas in the tunnel, which appear as powder-blue spots when the light shines through, and started digging with bare hands. She dug for three hours.

“I used to do search and rescue, so the whole time I’m digging, I know what I’m up against,” Rasmussen said. “I know how people die in the snow, but there wasn’t much I could do.”

Spiritual, not religious, Rasmussen said she prayed part of the time and talked to herself the rest. “I talked to myself a lot, telling myself I had to be smart and think through my options, telling myself to keep digging,” she said.

Right about the time her freezing arms were beginning to give out on her, she threw her hydration pack out of the hole, which was about 6 inches in diameter. “I hadn’t seen anybody on this trail all day, but there’s always hope,” she said. "And that’s exactly what happened."

Stefan Barycki, 26, a photographer from Visalia, had crossed the snow bridge while Rasmussen was underneath. On a return trip, he noticed the backpack. Barycki said he wasn’t alarmed when he went over to check the pack out, thinking someone had left it behind. When he saw the hole and peered down it, he spotted Rasmussen’s face looking back at him.

“It freaked me out someone was down there,” Barycki said. “I could see her mouth saying ‘Help,’ but she couldn’t speak and was shaking like crazy.”

Barycki screamed for his friend to come over and they dug the hole wider. “Give me your hand!” Barycki recalled yelling. The men pulled her up.

They took off their shirts and wrapped them around her, asking her name. But Rasmussen was incoherent, suffering hypothermia.

Barycki said he stayed with Rasmussen while his friend went for help. Rasmussen said she remembers very little of the rescue.

Feeding her PowerBars, Barycki left to get water out of his pack on the other side of the snow bridge. As he crossed, the bridge collapsed again, cutting his leg (See video below). He said the water was shallow enough for him to get out, but he was shaken and cautious, and remained on the other side, monitoring Rasmussen from a short distance.

Coincidently, Ed Patrovsky, a retired national park ranger and a longtime friend of Rasmussen’s, walked by on her side of the creek and gave her his sleeping bag and more clothing. The men waited for about two hours until the park’s helicopter and a medic and ranger on foot arrived.

Rasmussen said she was able to walk away and didn’t need the park’s medical assistance or an emergency evacuation. She left the park around nightfall, went to pick up her husband from work, which is a 2.5 hour drive, and came home and slept.

“I am strong and determined,” Rasumussen said. “I do well in the outdoors and in extreme situations. I didn’t know till the last second if I was going to make it, but I didn’t let myself dwell on those thoughts.

“I will be back up their as soon as I can run again.”
Photo: Marcia Rasmussen, 51, running in Sequoia Park on the High Sierra Trail, 2007.Credit: Marcia Rasmussen

Thick Western snowpack holds water--and potential peril 

Blasting through Yosemite's snowbound Tioga Road

Emergency rescue and Sequoia National Park

--Ashlie Rodriguez

Top photo: Underneath the snow bridge. Credit: Stefan Barycki

Bottom photo: Marcia Rasmussen, 51, running in Sequoia Park on the High Sierra Trail, 2007. Credit: Marcia Rasmussen  

Video: The view under Franklin Creek's Snow Bridge. Credit: Stefan Barycki