The hard-packed snow atop Franklin Creek in Sequoia National Park appeared safe, but when Marcia Rasmussen, 51, walked across, it collapsed, plunging her into an icy tunnel with frigid water. For three hours, in freezing temperatures, she clawed at the frozen ceiling, her bare hands going numb and her body giving out before passersby found her.
FOR THE RECORD An article in the June 21 LATExtra about hiker Marcia Rasmussen identified Ed Patrovsky as a longtime friend of Rasmussen. He is a longtime friend of Rasmussen's husband.

An experienced hiker, marathon runner and skier, Rasmussen, of Squaw Valley, described last week's ordeal Monday. She said she is still recovering from minor frostbite that has blackened and blistered her hands and left knee, preventing her from training on the park's high-elevation trails. She said she "feels very, very lucky to be alive."

Temperatures were rising toward 80 degrees when Rasmussen left the Farewell Gap trailhead on Wednesday for a day hike to train for an ultra-marathon. She assessed the snowpack and crossed the bridge without incident, but by the time she came back, the 4-foot-thick foundation had weakened. It cracked open, dropping her the into fast flowing, freezing currents below.

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

Rasmussen trained wilderness search-and-rescue teams in Virginia for 30 years. So she didn't panic as she fell through the 4-foot-thick snow bridge. "It was like being flushed down a toilet," Rasmussen said.

Dragged by the current along the narrow, icy tunnel, she tumbled down a waterfall before finding branches to stop herself. She told herself not to panic. "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."

She pulled herself out of the water into a small alcove. But she was still stuck beneath several feet of hardened snowpack, wearing only nylon jogging clothes.

Rasmussen looked for telltale light blue patches in the snow, a sign that it was thin enough to let light through, and began clawing at what turned out to be 2 feet of frozen snow.

"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 but not religious, Rasmussen said she prayed and "talked to myself a lot, telling myself I had to be smart and think through my options, telling myself to keep digging."

About the time her freezing arms were beginning to give out, 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, noticed the backpack. Barycki said he wasn't alarmed when he examined the pack, thinking that someone had left it behind. When he saw the hole and peered down, he spotted Rasmussen 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 enlarged the hole. They hoisted her out, took off their shirts, and wrapped them around her. Rasmussen was incoherent and suffering fromhypothermia. She said she remembers very little of the rescue.

After feeding her PowerBars, Barycki left to get water out of his pack on the other side of the snow bridge, when it collapsed under him. He scrambled out, but was shaken and cautious, and remained on the other side, monitoring Rasmussen from a short distance.

By chance, Ed Patrovsky, a retired park ranger and longtime friend of Rasmussen, 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 arrived, as well as a medic and ranger on foot.

Rasmussen says she was able to walk away and didn't need the park's medical assistance or evacuation. She left the park around nightfall, went to pick up her husband from work, which is a 2 1/2-hour drive, came home and slept.

"I am strong and determined," Rasmussen 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 there as soon as I can run again," she said.