CODY, Wyo. — By the end, they had just eight pieces of bread and a half tank of gas left.
It was Sunday night, Nov. 3, and Mark and Kristine Wathke, missing since Oct. 28, were sitting in their Kia Forte trapped in a foot of snow above 10,000 feet on the Beartooth Highway. They had come to the realization that probably they weren’t going to be found, that this was likely the end.
It had dropped to 7 degrees below zero that night; Mark’s water bottle, sitting in the back window, froze solid in a matter of hours.
The night before, on Nov. 2, when the idea first truly set in that they might not make it off the mountain, they decided to write goodbye notes to their loved ones and make a recording giving their farewells.
Up until that point, they’d been pretty sure someone would come looking for them.
The couple, from Wisconsin, had just finished a weeklong vacation touring national parks in South Dakota, Idaho and Wyoming. The grand finale was Yellowstone, and by Monday afternoon, Oct. 28, they were headed out of the park, turned for home.
“This was the return trip,” Mark said.
“We were headed home,” Kristine said.
They had reservations for a hotel in Miles City and so they punched the address into their cellphone’s mapping application. The route it gave them took them out of the Northeast Entrance of Yellowstone National Park on Highway 212 over the Beartooth Pass.
“Thank you, Google,” Kristine said.
They had no idea the road had been closed since September, that the highway is only open seasonally. They’d had pleasant weather that day in the park. So they set out and made it well past Cooke City before they started seeing any snow.
They both said they never saw any signs saying the highway was closed.
About 35 miles up the highway, they started to see the first snow. It quickly became drifts, and at about the point they decided to turn around, the Kia got stuck. It was around 5 p.m.
“The drifts got deep in a hurry,” Mark said.
Kristine started digging in sand piles along the side of the road, trying to get anything under the tires that would give them traction. With about an hour of daylight left, Mark decided he’d walk 30 minutes back down the highway to see what he could find.
An hour later, he returned to the car having seen no signs of life. With the sun setting, they realized they would be spending the night in their vehicle.
And at that point, it wasn’t too bad. They’d stopped at a grocery store outside Mammoth Hot Springs and bought bread, peanut butter, jelly, a package of cookies and a box of instant oatmeal. They had provisions, so on Tuesday morning they went into survival mode.
“We wanted to get home, so we did what we could to survive,” Mark said.
They rationed the food — a half sandwich each per day with a handful of cookies. They scouted out their location, cut some branches from the trees by the road to place under their wheels hoping that would be enough to give their car the traction it needed to get out of the snow.
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They figured by Wednesday evening, Oct. 30, family and friends would notice they were missing and by Thursday someone would come up the road to find them.
Each night, as it got dark, they’d climb into the back of the Kia and cover themselves with all the clothes they had packed for their road trip. It was enough to keep them relatively warm through the night, but each time they moved, the clothes would fall to the floor.
They figured they got maybe eight hours of sleep for the six days they were stuck.
The frustration they felt as Thursday turned to Friday, Nov. 1, still having seen no one, quickly gave way to hopelessness.
“Why is no one coming?” Kristine remembers asking.
“That’s why it got so bleak so quick,” Mark added.
“It was just bleak,” Kristine added.
“There was no deck of cards, either,” Mark quipped. Each day that passed was one day further from the sure rescue they had been convinced was coming.
On Saturday night, Nov. 2, with supplies running low, they began to talk about freezing together in the car and never returning home. They decided that, while they still could, they’d write down their goodbyes and leave a message for their families recorded on their cellphone.
Sunday night was as cold as they’d been the whole week, and that’s when they finally accepted their fate. “We were like, ‘Alright, we’re going to die,’ ” Kristine said. And then Monday morning dawned a couple hours later, and Mark thought he heard an engine.
“Mark heard it first and he was like, ‘Kris! Kris! Kris!,’ ” she said. “We saw him coming up the road and I was just crying.”
Rancher Troy Barnett had decided Sunday night, Nov. 3, that he’d check the highway after hearing that a couple had gone missing from Yellowstone earlier in the week. He found them first thing, put them on his snowmobile and drove them down the highway.
By Monday night, the Wathkes were in Cody, eating dinner at a Pizza Hut and getting ready to crash in a bed at the Super 8 Motel next door.
Mark’s company, Bell Lumber and Pole, will fly him and Kris home Tuesday afternoon and Super 8 covered their room for the night.
“They’ve all been angels,” Kris said.
But it’s Barnett who will always have a special place in their lives.
“He’s the angel in this story,” Kris said.
Monday night, just hours from their rescue and sitting in the Super 8 Motel lobby, warm, dry and full, they were flush with an exhausted giddiness.
“We’re just so happy to be alive,” Kristine said.