Out of fuel for fire and battling frostbite, a young couple says they were prepared to die when emergency officers rescued them from a freezing-cold ice cave over the weekend.
Spencer and Jessica Christiansen were soaking wet and fighting hypothermia when rescue workers pulled them out of the total darkness of an unmapped ice cave in Wyoming on Sunday night 30 hours after they entered and lost their way.
“You know you're headed down to your death and they found us just right before we had to burn the last of what we had left to survive a few more hours,” Jessica Christiansen told “Good Morning America” in an exclusive interview on Wednesday. “We knew we only had about an hour or two before we would've died.”
After getting drenched in a waterfall, the Christiansens said they burned their backpacks, some of their gear and even clumps of her hair in an effort to stay warm. But they eventually ran out of things to burn.
“We were so cold, shivering and our fingers were numb because our gloves were soaked from going through river canals so we decided for a moment to slow down, make a fire, get some energy and food,” Spencer Christiansen told “GMA.” “We were clammed up, we were miserable, we were wet, so we had to think of what we were going to do next.”
The Idaho couple spent three weeks researching the cave and took all the necessary precautions before they entered, but “incorrect information” caused them to lose their way, he said.
“I was excited! I just wanted a quick adventure. I wanted to have a good adventure for a day,” Spencer Christiansen said. “I spent three weeks, nonstop, to try and gather as much info as possible. ... We came up with very little.”
The husband and wife, both experienced climbers, said they entered the Darby Canyon Ice Cave early Saturday morning with plans to explore for a few hours. The trip was a birthday celebration for Spencer, whose birthday came on Aug. 12, the day they were rescued.
They left their 1-year-old daughter, Aurora, with her grandmother and told the family to notify the police if they didn’t return the next day.
The families' decision to call for help Sunday morning may have saved the couple’s lives, according to Teton County Undersheriff Matt Carr.
“They did have a plan. They told [their family] if they weren't back by a certain time to give us a call,” Carr told “GMA.” At least that triggered us to get going in the right direction because it does sound like the condition we found them in was pretty important that we get moving in the direction as soon as possible.”
Carr said the cave is like a maze and only expert spelunkers are encouraged to explore it. Jessica fell 20 feet while climbing a frozen waterfall at one point, but Spencer thankfully caught her to avoid even further disaster.
“The cave is a series of large caverns and tight crawls and there are areas where you are literally on your hands and toes trying to squeeze through and then that connects to some larger caverns as well,” Carr said. “There is a lot of running water, ice cold water, running throughout there that you have to cross to get in.”
Rescuers found the pair shivering and unable to move when they arrived.
Both are doing well now, though they were treated for frostbite on their hands.
Search and rescue volunteer K.C. Bess said it took the team between five and six hours to locate the couple.
“Where we found them they were 25 feet up in a small hole or cavern and one of our team members had to ascend up a rope to get to them, do an assessment on them, [and] build an anchor to help them repel out of that spot,” Bess told “GMA.” “They were starting to really shiver a lot, shaking, and showing some signs of hypothermia.”
The couple believes they were rescued just in time.
“It's really scary to think you're leaving a child with no parents and no way out. It's really cold and it's really scary to face your death for sure,” Jessica Christiansen said. “The scariest part it got to was when Spencer was scared. I had total faith in him the whole time to get me out of there, but when I saw how scared he was I knew it was the end for us.”
She says the “terrifying” experience has changed her and her husband for the better.
“Things that were important before, definitely aren't anymore. ... I can't watch regular TV or look at Instagram or Facebook because selfies aren't important anymore, I don't care,” Jessica Christiansen said.
Her husband echoed her sentiments, calling the exploration an adventure that he’ll never forget.
“You kinda get to the point where you say you kinda realize what's important and what's not,” he said. “That comes after you escape but when you get to that point, the things that you stressed about so much are usually tiny pathetic things that don't even actually matter in the big scale.”