WYOMING – Mark and Kristine Wathke from Cornell took a trip to Yellowstone National Park recently that almost ended in tragedy.
The couple was apparently stranded in their car for six straight days on the Beartooth Highway after their cellphone’s GPS took them on a road that had been closed since September. This led them to become stuck in over a foot of snow after they didn’t see the road-closed sign.
Mark is the brother and brother-in-law of Boyceville area residents Paul Wathke and his wife Julie.
Mark and Kristine Wathke had made contact with their family on Tuesday, October 29 and informed them that they should be home by the following day. Reservations were also made at a hotel in Miles City, Montana for that day, but they never arrived.
When the couple did not arrive at their hotel and they did not return home on October 30 as planned, family members became concerned.
Family members began to check with all the hospitals, highway patrol and law enforcement from Wisconsin to Wyoming said the couples’ sister-in-law Julie Wathke.
“We were assisted mainly by Wyoming and Montana law enforcement,” Julie Wathke wrote in an emailed response to questions from the Tribune Press Reporter.
“Wyoming search and rescue searched by air and ground. We were in constant contact with them and assisted in tracking down their route home to narrow down the search,” added Julie Wathke.
While the search continued, Paul Wathke went to stay with their parents, Walter and Marilyn Wathke, in Eau Claire.
Meanwhile news of the couple’s disappearance hit social media.
Mark’s best friend started the facebook group to bring Mark and Kris home said Julie Wathke.
Eventually that Facebook notice caught the eye of a woman in Cody, Wyoming on Sunday, November 3.
That post prompted her husband, rancher Troy Barnett, to head out early Monday morning, November 4 to search for the Wathkes. After driving his truck as far down Beartooth Highway as he could, he apparently underloaded his snowmobile from the truck and continued his search eventually finding Mark and Kristine tired, weak, but alive.
According to a report from the Park County Sheriff’s Department in Wyoming, Barnett said, “he located the couple around 8:30 a.m. They were cold and hungry, but otherwise unharmed. They had plenty of fuel in their car and were therefore able to start the engine periodically to keep warm. They also had plenty of water and a limited amount of food.”
After being trapped for nearly a week, the Wathkes’ recorded their final goodbyes with their cell phones and hand-written notes as they feared the worst.
It was indeed a miracle that the Wathkes survived the ordeal with little ill effects despite subzero temperatures at night.
The Wathkes’ were taken by snowmobile to safety where they finally contacted their family after having no service for nearly six days. The couple remained in the area while a crew worked to free their vehicle. They then flew back to Wisconsin where they were reunited with family and friends.
The Wahtkes not realizing that that they were taveling on a closed road that beautiful Indian Summer afternoon after leaving Yellowstone National park, continued on Beartooth Highway for 14 miles until they hit an area of previous snow fall and became stuck in a drift on the roadway. The road baracades were just two miles beyond the point where their vehicle, a Kia Forte, had stopped.
Too far and much too cold for the Wathkes, who did not have any blankets or heavy winter clothing to backtrack on foot, the couple stayed with their car and hoped that someone would find them soon.
The Wathkes ran the vehicle for 10 minutes every four hours just to take the chill out of the vehicle and used clothing from their suitcases to cover themselves. For six days, they subsisted on some cookies, eight slices of peanut butter, jelly, some oatmeal and bottled water (that often froze at night).
Finally, the nightmare came to an happy conclusion when Troy Barnett found them.
After a short recovery period, both Mark and Kristine returned to their jobs this week.