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March 2013

Out Alive: Trapped in an Ice Tunnel

A solo hiker tries to claw her way out of a frozen cave after a winter pathway collapses.
Fighting the flow (Image by J Dombrowski)

The Victim Marcia Rasmussen, 53, plummeted into the ice-choked waters of Franklin Creek while running in Sequoia National Park on June 14, 2011.

The raging, snowmelt-fueled current swept me downstream, and I grasped at the featureless white walls slipping past, desperate for hand- or footholds—anything that would keep the waist-deep creek from pushing me over the 10-foot waterfall downstream. By the time my chilled fingers caught a protruding branch, the current had swept me 60 feet down a tunnel of ice. I gripped my pathetic lifeline, a pencil-size twig, with all my strength and crawled out of the rushing water into a cave barely large enough to keep my curled, 5’4” frame out of the raging stream. I felt like a captive, but lucky to be alive.

At 11:15 a.m., two hours earlier, I’d set out on a high-altitude training run in California’s Sequoia National Park in sunny, 70°F temps. I was prepping for an ultramarathon and had come to the park for a scenic workout, and to see how close I could get to the 10,500-foot passes atop the Great Western Divide. The Franklin Pass/Farewell Gap trailhead at 7,800 feet was snowfree, and I climbed five miles and 1,000 vertical feet before the trail’s surface became snow-covered and treacherous enough that I had to turn around.

On my outbound run, I’d noted the potential instability of the five-foot-deep snow bridge over Franklin Creek, but I’d prodded the surface with a hefty stick, and I’d knelt to examine it. There were no visible signs of weakness, and the surface was rock hard—I guessed it could support a truck. Though I didn’t have skis or snowshoes to distribute my weight, I crossed without incident.

Conditions past the creek stayed cool for the duration of my run, but I expected the lower-elevation snow to soften as the day warmed. So when I approached the snow bridge again on my return trip, I examined it thoroughly. 

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