A Canadian search and rescue team plucked Australian adventurer Tom Smitheringale off an ice pan in the High Arctic Thursday evening, just six hours after receiving his distress call.
Smitheringale, who was on a solo unsupported trek to the North Pole to raise funds for AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis research, fell through the ice on the 48th day of his journey.
Searchers found Smitheringale on the ice pan, about 200 kilometres north of Alert on Ellesmere Island.
"I was euphoric," Smitheringale said in an interview. "I couldn't believe at first that I could hear an aircraft. I couldn't believe they got to me so soon."
"I was certainly at the limit of my capabilities and there were times I thought I wouldn't make it," he added.
One of the rescuers, Canadian Forces search and rescue technician Master Cpl. Jim Cooke, said Smitheringale had suffered frostbite to his fingers and toes, but was able to walk on his own.
"He is very lucky to be alive," Cooke said. "In his condition he would not have lasted long. He was running on pure adrenalin."
Military exercise on at same time
By pure coincidence, the Canadian Forces were conducting their annual Arctic exercise in Nunavut, Operation Nunalivut 10, in and around Alert.
Maj. Steve Power, the commander of Canadian Forces Station Alert, said search and rescue technicians were training alongside Canadian Rangers near Ward Hunt Island.
A civilian Sikorsky helicopter was on contract to assist and resupply the Ranger patrol and a Canadian Forces Twin Otter airplane was also available.
As soon as Canadian officials received Smitheringale's distress call, Cooke and Master Cpl. Shane Best were sent to his rescue, along with the helicopter and Twin Otter aircraft.
"He didn't even come out of the tent until we landed," said Larry Graham, one of the helicopter pilots. "But as soon as he stood up and gave us a thumbs up, I knew he was salvageable."
Cooke said Smitheringale, a five-year veteran of the British Army, had stepped on a thin crust of wind-blown snow hiding a crack in the ice.
Smitheringale was strapped to his sleighs, which further complicated getting out of the water, Cooke said.
"He couldn't get a grip and he swam from one edge of the crack to the other, trying to find a good way to get up," Cooke said.
Finally after spending almost 10 minutes in frigid water with temperatures below –20 C, Smitheringale managed to pull himself up.
"Most people would have died after five minutes in that water," Cooke said. "He is a person of above-average strength and fitness."
"He told us he thought he was done for," Cooke said. "But he made one last-ditch effort and managed to pull himself up."
The ice was one to 1½ metres thick, Smitheringale said. His rescuers added that he pulled his sleighs across the crack, pitched a tent, lit his small gas stove, got into a wet sleeping bag and activated the emergency locator transmitter.
"I knew what I had to do and I did all the right things," Smitheringale said. "I kind of kicked into autopilot. I kept my heart rate down and did not panic."
"I knew if I can create a warm environment, get into dry gear, I might increase my chances of survival. That's all I wanted to do."
After he was rescued from the ice pan, Smitheringale was taken to the Alert station where he was examined by medics, while staff scrambled to find dry clothing that would fit his six-foot-six-inch frame.
"He told us he had fuel just for one night," said Best.
"He had no dry clothes and no way of drying them, a few more hours and it would have been a very different rescue," Cooke added.
At around midnight, looking tired but relieved, Smitheringale sat in the common area and tucked into a hot meal that was prepared by the station cook especially for him.