The day I was rescued by a helicopter in the Arctic
I was face down in the snow. A sharp blinding pain in my left leg. From that moment on, everything happened in slow motion. I lifted my face from the ground and looked behind me; to my horror, my leg was trapped under the overturned snowmobile. I was in the middle of nowhere, and I knew I was in big trouble. I screamed as hard as I could.
Since I booked this trip, I started to obsess over the little things that could go wrong. When I decided to go to Svalbard, I knew I was putting myself at risk. Going to the Arctic in February requires an adventurous soul. Going on a snowmobile trip in these conditions requires a bit of craziness.
There were three of us against the Arctic wilderness: the guide, my husband, and I. It was the end of the polar night, and the sun was not rising above the horizon yet. The twilight provided us a few hours of light. The plan was to drive 140 km, from Longyearbyen to the Russian mining village of Barentsburg, and then back.
The guide gave us a safety briefing before we departed. He carried a satellite phone and showed us how to use it in case something happened to him. He also carried a rifle to protect us from polar bears. The safety sled attached to his snowmobile was full of equipment and had enough food for three days in the wild.
It was still dark when we headed toward the heart of Svalbard. It was -17°C, but the weather was clear. We left Longyearbyen behind and reached the mountains. I was apprehensive. When we were crossing a frozen river, I was terrified to hear the sound of ice breaking underneath my vehicle. I looked down and saw cracks opening under the weight of my snowmobile. I tried not to think about the possibility of sinking. I followed the guide’s tracks, and we managed to get to the other side.
My fears faded as we continued the journey without complications. We rode up a mountain to admire the view. Apart from the pale-pink sky, everything was white. I felt on top of the world.
We came across some wild reindeer along the way. They paid no attention to us. We were in the remote wilderness, where animals don’t fear humans.
The path was trickier near the end. We were just a few kilometers away from Barentsburg. At one point the guide made a sharp turn and rode up a steep hill. My husband followed, and then I did. Trying to avoid the snowmobile to tilt, I put all my weight on the hillside. It wasn’t enough. I fell down the hill.
I screamed for help. The most horrible scream. My husband quickly jumped out of his snowmobile and ran towards me. The guide followed. They were far away, and it seemed like an eternity until they came close. They tried to lift up my snowmobile to release my leg. It was too heavy. It moved an inch and then fell on my leg again. They tried one more time. I was desperate already. When they pulled, I used my right leg to help. When I was free, I crawled away as fast as I could.
I was afraid the take my boots off and see the extent of the damage. I did it slowly, and I looked away. Where my left leg was hit, there was a hollow. The bone seemed intact though, and there was no bleeding. Still, I couldn’t drive the snowmobile back. I waited for your guide to think about our next move.
– “Wait here while I search for a safe place for the helicopter to land,” the guide said.
He left. After finding a safe spot, he had called for rescue using his satellite phone. It would take around 40 minutes for them to come. I was relieved.
The next 40 minutes lasted forever while I tried to keep myself warm and awake. I felt strangely sleepy.
– “Don’t stop moving your arms and legs!” the guide said.
I tried to obey, but soon, my mind would go away, and my eyes would close. All I wanted to do was sleep. He gave me hot berry juice to drink and wrapped me in blankets. Still, I was cold. He kept asking me questions to keep me awake. It was then that I realized I was going through the first stage of hypothermia.
The helicopter landed. We were waiting for it at the chosen spot. They took me to the Svalbard Airport, where an ambulance was already waiting for me. The ambulance took me to the hospital. The x-ray showed no fracture. Lucky me! Just deep muscular damage and a sprained ankle.
I would live, but my nerves were wrecked. I vowed never to drive a snowmobile again, but some days later, I was already thinking about breaking my vow.