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Trapped in the snow overnight: Two Auburn teens' desperate fight for survival

"I kept thinking to myself, 'This is life or death. You're going to make it or you're going to die."

AUBURN, California — It started as a normal holiday weekend for Del Oro High School senior Mckenna Kelly and her boyfriend John Hansen. On Sunday afternoon, the teenage couple went to Foresthill for what they thought would be a few hours in the snow with John's dog, Marley. But it quickly went downhill. 

Facing heavier snow than expected, their car got stuck and lost all traction, leaving them stranded for hours. 

"The minutes started going by and that turned into hours and we tried to pretty much do everything we could in our power to get us back," Hansen recalled. "The solutions weren't exactly working."

The couple tried to put tree branches under the wheels to get traction, but nothing worked. As it grew dark -- with little food, no water or cell service, and just the jackets they wore that day -- reality set in: They were trapped for the night.

Trapped overnight 

"I kept thinking to myself, 'This is life or death. You're going to make it or you're going to die,'" Mckenna said.

Throughout the night, Mckenna and John tried heating snow in the car to drink water; they fed their dog, Marley, sardines from a can they had in their car; and used advice Mckenna learned from her chemistry teacher, Mrs. Luci.

"We started sleeping and we would set alarms for every hour to check the exhaust, because it was snowing so hard and if the snow covered the exhaust we would die in the car," Mckenna explained, saying her teacher had told her class about carbon monoxide.

But as the hours went on, anxiety started setting in. Just before sunrise John, in the hopes of finding cell service and medical help for Mckenna, decided to begin the five a half mile trek to China Wall, a staging area for snowmobiles and cross-country skiers.

Thirty minutes later the car broke down, leaving Mckenna and Marley with no heat.

Fighting for her life

Mckenna decided to follow John's footprints and make the hike through the snow, but after roughly a mile and a half she turned around.

"As I kept going longer and longer I started throwing up blood," she said. "And I decided I can't leave the dog in the car, so I turned around."

That is when things got really dire. 

"I came back and all the heat was gone," Mckenna recalled. "I had to strip my clothing and wrap everything around my legs because they were black and blue and purple and my toes were hard."

She couldn't breathe. She couldn't feel anything.

"And I had to pee on my legs to make it warm," she said. "And that was the most awful thing, because imagine, no one wants to have to pee on themselves, and it's awful."

Thinking she was going to die, Mckenna started writing "SOS" on her windshield and goodbye notes to her family and friends using pieces of paper she tore out of a Toyota handbook from the car.

"I never thought they would ever see me again," Mckenna explained.

The rescue

By now, John had made it to China Wall. He called 911 and first responders were on their way. But because of accessibility issues, it would still be hours before a snowcat could rescue them. 

Then another way out emerged. 

"I saw a guy on a snowmobile pass and I started screaming as loud as I could," Mckenna said. "He came by, I asked him to take me down to where my boyfriend was and he said 'The sheriffs are looking for you.'"

The unknown Good Samaritan took Mckenna back to camp, where Placer Sheriffs then jumped into action. While John and a team went up to rescue Marley, others called Mckenna an ambulance. She was transported to Kaiser Roseville where she was treated for hypothermia and frostbite.

Monday evening she was discharged, but Tuesday night she found herself back at the hospital and she says it could take weeks or even months for her legs and feet to fully recover. 

Even so, Mckenna and John are just thankful to be alive.

"I kept thinking to myself, 'This is life or death,'" Mckenna said. "'You're going to make it or you're going to die.'"

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