Karen Klein's 47th birthday was an especially poignant one for her. A week ago she wasn't sure if she'd live to see it.
"I can't believe I'm home," Klein said.
Klein returned to her Easton, Pennsylvania home Saturday a week after surviving a day and a half in blizzard-like conditions near the Grand Canyon. It was only fitting that she celebrated her birthday with her family as it was her love for them that inspired her to hike through 26 miles of snow to get help after her vehicle got stuck in a forest ditch in the Grand Canyon.
Breaking news and the stories that matter to your neighborhood.
"I can't leave my son without a mom," she said. "I can't leave my husband without a wife. I can't have my parents bury me."
Klein, a professor at Northampton Community College, was on vacation in Las Vegas with her husband Eric Klein, 47, and their 10-year-old son Isaac.
They decided to travel to Bryce Canyon in Utah and the Grand Canyon in Arizona Thursday while using GPS. The family tried to drive on State Route 67 to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon but discovered it was closed for the winter. They then sought an alternate way to reach their destination.
"The GPS did not indicate that certain roads were closed and impassable," Klein said.
Jim Driscoll, chief deputy for Coconino County, Arizona, says it's a problem authorities have seen numerous times.
"Google Maps shows there's a way -- but it's impassable," he said.
As the family continued, a blizzard set in and their vehicle got stuck in a ditch on a forest road. With no cell service and bitter cold temperatures, the parents knew that they had to find help fast. They decided that Klein, who is a marathon runner and triathlete, was in the best shape to make the attempt.
Wearing a parka, knit cap and hiking boots, she journeyed into the snow while her husband and son stayed inside the vehicle.
"I had been eating aspen twigs and twigs from evergreen trees because I thought I'd only be gone for like an hour or two," Klein said.
But she ended up being gone for more than 30 hours.
"It was just like I've got to get there," Klein said. "Because I was so exhausted I could only move ten steps at a time and then stop and rest or I'd fall over."
Klein walked 26 miles through and over snow as deep as three feet before finding a tree she stayed under during the night.
"It was about five hours of just talking and rocking back and forth to keep myself awake," Klein said. "To keep myself warm."
Once the sun rose Friday, she walked again and found an empty ranger station at a park entrance closed for the season. She broke a window with her elbow and waited inside the cabin.
Around the same time, searchers rescued Eric and Isaac Klein after the 47-year-old father was able to hike to higher ground to get cellphone service and call for help. Authorities then started an air and ground search for Karen.
The searchers finally found her early Saturday morning curled up on a bed in the cabin. At that point, she was too weak to stand up.
"The first thing I said was, 'Oh my gosh officer, I'm so sorry I broke the window. Don't arrest me,'" Klein said, laughing.
From Joy to Tragedy: NBC10's Top News Stories of Year That Was
Klein's rescuers gave her food and water and she was taken to the hospital, where she was treated for severe frostbite. Her husband and son were also treated for exposure and later released.
Karen's twin sister Kristen Hasse told NBC10 she and her mother cried when they spoke with her on the phone.
"She was just so excited to hear her voice," Hasse said. "We both got on the phone and we both just sobbed that she was still alive."
Only hours after Klein's rescue, a major winter storm hit the region that would have made it nearly impossible to find her.
"This is a Christmas miracle," Driscoll said. "We were really beginning to think, especially with the snow coming in.... We pulled out all the stops."
Klein greeted neighbors Saturday as she walked through her neighborhood.
"I can't believe I'm home," she said. "When we pulled into the driveway I couldn't stop sobbing."
Klein celebrated her birthday, her life and the upcoming year with her loved ones knowing it was a celebration she would never take for granted.
"To be alive," Klein said. "How precious every single day is. And how important that your friends and your family are to you."