WHITEFISH -- For Mark and Signe Brust, a backcountry birthday ski in Glacier National Park has become a favorite tradition to help ring in another year.
"Every year on my birthday we do a big ski, and this year we decided to go out for a long day in the park and then have dinner," Signe Brust, a newly minted 39-year-old, said Monday. "Our kids were with a baby sitter and we had the whole day to enjoy."
The Kila couple planned on completing a stout 26-mile loop, but it turned out to be a more arduous trip than either had anticipated.
The Brusts are both fit and experienced skiers, and they set out Saturday morning from Polebridge Ranger Station in the North Fork area of Glacier National Park. They covered the 6.2 miles to Bowman Lake without difficulty, aside from thin snow coverage, and after a quick lunch continued on to the Akokala Creek Trail, intent on looping back to the ranger station and their car.
"For us to complete this loop did not seem unmanageable," Signe Brust said, "but it turned out to be quite an adventure."
Knowing they would finish the trip in the dark, the couple wasn't overly concerned by the late hour or the difficult terrain, which required occasional route finding as they moved over the overgrown and snow-covered trail. When they reached the Akokala Creek junction later than expected, it still made more sense to complete the loop than to backtrack.
But then Signe's binding froze in the open position, so backtracking wasn't an option, and they were reduced to a slow hike along their intended route.
Mark decided to try a shortcut and got off course somewhere in the Parke Creek drainage.
"I knew we only had four miles to go downhill, and I saw a corner that I thought we could cut," he said. "By the time I realized we had detoured it was getting dark. Based on the terrain I knew it was hopeless to move in the dark, so we started looking for a place to sleep."
Under dusky skies, Mark and Signe began setting up camp with the scant gear they'd packed with them. Fortunately, it included a saw, matches, butane lighter, wool socks, wool pants, extra base layers, an emergency blanket, food and water. They found a large tree that had been knocked down by the wind, creating a vertical earthen wall. Using their skis and the emergency blanket, they built an adjoining lean-to shelter and crawled into their nook.
"I just carry those items out of habit," Mark Brust said. "We got a big blazing fire going, and the emergency blanket turned out to be pretty helpful. It reflected the heat so at times it was almost too hot. I wouldn't call our situation overly comfortable or ideal, but we had all the basics covered and it certainly could have been worse."
Mark also packed along his SPOT emergency satellite tracker and sent out an initial message to friends and family, informing them of their coordinates and letting them know they were stuck. As darkness settled over their camp, they debated whether to send out an emergency signal.
"I figured that in the morning we'd find the trail and walk out. I knew what would happen by pressing the SOS button, and we had a slight difference of opinion as to whether this was an emergency or not," he said. "Given the same set of parameters I wouldn't do anything differently."
He sent out the emergency message around 8 p.m. and Flathead County dispatchers were able to determine that the message originated from a remote location about one mile north of the Akokala Creek Trail.
Park rangers were notified, but ground and air searches were delayed until Sunday morning because of bad weather, downed trees and difficult trail conditions.
The National Weather Service reported heavy snowfall and strong west winds in the North Fork overnight, with temperatures dropping to the single digits by daybreak. Winds gusted to 40 mph, creating visibility problems and very low wind chills.
"We would doze a little bit and then wake up shivering and stoke the fire," Signe Brust said. "We'd get warm again and snooze a little bit. We were pretty good given the circumstances."
Park rangers and members of the Flathead County Mountain Rescue Team set out on snowshoes and cross-country skis on Sunday morning, and Kalispell's A.L.E.R.T. helicopter flew over the area as weather conditions allowed.
"As soon as I heard the rotors of the helicopter I built a fire in about a minute," Mark said. "I had blaze orange vests in the bottom of my pack from hunting season and they spotted us. Somehow they were able to land on the hillside about a half-mile away."
The helicopter landed briefly and put two emergency medical technicians on the ground, and they found the couple and treated them at the scene. When the weather cleared, the helicopter returned to pick up the skiers and the EMTs.
Several members of the Flathead County Mountain Rescue Team began to arrive in the area on foot after hiking nearly five miles. Just then a storm blew in, and the helicopter was unable to retrieve them. After some food and a fire, they began the hike out.
"I have nothing but good things to say about the Glacier National Park incident team, the Mountain Rescue Team and the A.L.E.R.T guys," Mark Brust said. "They are the real heroes."
The helicopter eventually ferried the couple to a landing area near the Polebridge Mercantile, where they were met by park rangers and driven to the Polebridge Ranger Station. They returned home in their own vehicle at 2 p.m. Sunday.
"There's a little wounded pride because I had to call in the cavalry, but we are very thankful that nobody got hurt," Mark Brust said.
The couple picked up their children, ages 2 and 5, from their neighbors' home and were instantly reminded how lucky they are.
"Even though the problems started compounding, with the equipment malfunction and losing the trail, we really did get lucky out there," he said.