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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)

I poked at the surface again and knelt to scan the snow for cracks or depressions— telltale danger signs. From my vantage, however, I couldn’t see the bridge’s base, which was losing strength as the creek swelled with meltwater that splashed the icy structure from below. Had I used a probe or pole to test deeper than the frozen surface, or had I been able to see its base, I might have noted that it had weakened.

I was two miles from the trailhead when the bridge collapsed beneath my feet. Plunging into the fast-moving, 40°F water, I struggled against the powerful current, trying to stay afloat and slow my passage through the tunnel. Thankfully, I was able to crawl into my tiny alcove before going over the falls or being pinned underwater. But the stream lapped my toes, and my running clothes offered little insulation. I craned my neck up- and downstream looking for a way out, but the tunnel extended as far as I could see. In an attempt to calm myself and think clearly, I lay back and stared at the cave’s ceiling. Sunlit teals and blues shone through, the palest spots hinting at the thinnest layers of ice. Wise or not, my only choice was to punch through the roof of this icy tomb. I scratched at the ice with my bare fingers, which soon numbed with cold. It was like defrosting a freezer barehanded, but as I clawed at the ceiling, it thinned and brightened. After two hours of digging, I’d tunneled through several feet of ice and snow, finally breaking the surface with a finger-size hole.

After another hour, I’d stretched the window’s width to six inches, but the tunnel was still too narrow to crawl through. Digging had helped keep me from succumbing to the cold, but I was exhausted, struggling to stay conscious, and getting hypothermic—physically incapable of further widening it. Knowing I had to draw attention to myself, I thrust my daypack through the vent and onto the surface, hoping it would be a beacon to passersby. The last-ditch tactic worked! Just moments later, my legs frozen and my muscles seizing as I looked desperately through the hole, a pair of eyes popped into my field of vision and gazed back at me. A hiker had come to investigate my blue pack, and within minutes he and his companions freed me from the icy vault. Ten days later, the snowbridge was gone, but my frostbite scars remain.

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