ANCHORAGE, Alaska — From the sky Tuesday, Alaska Air National Guard helicopter crewmen spotted an orange blanket tied to a half-buried snow ski and knew they were close to two near-hypothermic people marooned for four nights in an ice field.
A few hours later, when the weather cleared and the helicopter landed, Maj. Matthew Kirby and Master Sgt. Shane Hargis bounded out on snowshoes. Near the skis was a tent pole in a hole the width of a soda can. They shouted down the hole, and from 4 feet below, Christopher Hanna and Jennifer Neyman shouted back.
A few minutes of digging by Hargis and Kirby created a funnel-shaped hole 3 feet wide and Hanna and Neyman crawled out from a snow cave slightly larger than a casket.
The ordeal began Friday when Hanna, 45, and Neyman, 36, both of Soldotna, Alaska, were dropped off by a small airplane for a day of recreation on Harding Ice Field, a main feature of Kenai Fjords National Park on the Kenai Peninsula.
The vast expanse of white is punctuated by peaks poking through. Deb Kurtz, physical science program manager for the park, calls it an amazing place to experience.
"When you're up there, it almost feels like it's a desert made up of ice and snow," Kurtz said.
On Friday night, Hanna and Neyman set up a tent but heavy snowfall collapsed it.
"The snow literally crushed and buried their tent three feet down, three to four feet down," Kirby said. "That tent is going to become part of the glacier."
A snow cave was their only hope. As Neyman tried to create space by holding up the tent from the inside, Hanna dug outside the door in older, harder snow, below the tent, Kirby said.
The cave was perhaps 7-by-5 feet and 3-4 feet high, Kirby said. The skiers used the tent pole to maintain the breathing hole but the cave would not have endured much additional snowfall, he said.
"They were running out of pole," he said.
"If we hadn't gotten to them, they were slowly starving, dehydrating, trending toward a bad place," Kirby said. "But fortunately we were able to get there and pull them out."
An earlier version of the story incorrectly indicated the breathing hole was maintained with a ski pole.