Soldier tells of mountain rescue from ice storm

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The Independent Online
AN INJURED British soldier yesterday spoke of his four-day ordeal in an ice storm on top of Mount McKinley after arriving back in Britain from Alaska.

Sergeant Martin Spooner, who flew back into Gatwick airport yesterday, had fallen down a snow chute during an army-organised charity assault on North America's highest mountain.

He spoke of how he and Corporal Carl Bougourd had both endured freezing temperatures and 75mph winds before they were eventually rescued six days ago.

Disaster first struck the eight-man expedition at 19,000ft, just three hours away from the summit, when the ropes that held the sergeant and two other climbers became separated.

Sgt Spooner, of the Army Physical Training Corp based in Crickhowell, South Wales, fell, tearing ligaments in an ankle. When the rest of the team realised he was unable to continue, Cpl Bougourd, 35, of the Princess of Wales's Royal Regiment, volunteered to stay with him while others went to get help.

Both men then had to wait four days for weather conditions to allow a rescue helicopter to approach. They were then taken to hospital in Anchorage, where the corporal is still recovering from frostbite.

At Gatwick in West Sussex yesterday, Sgt Spooner spoke with gratitude of the rescue operation that saved their lives. He explained that the helicopter had initially dropped two survival suits.

"About 2.40am they made a final pass and picked us up and took us straight off," said Sgt Spooner. "We had to grab on to each other and away we went. It was quite a rush."

Sgt Spooner said that neither man ever gave up hope, although they had no radio contact or food. "There was no negativity," he said. "It was just a waiting game."

He and Cpl Bougourd talked about family and friends as they got colder and weaker, and they built a snow wall to protect themselves from the elements.

The sergeant said they were never frightened and added in explanation: "There were no bears up there!"

Sgt Spooner was greeted by his two children Gemma, 11, and Rhys, 13, and his wife, Beverley, who told her husband that she did not want him to return to the mountain.

Despite his ordeal, Sgt Spooner, 35, had already indicated that he hoped to make another attempt on Mount McKinley one day.

The team's leader, Captain Justin Featherstone, also flew into Gatwick yesterday and defended the organisation behind the expedition.

"It was an accident on a mountain. There was nothing in the planning and execution of that that we could have done differently. There are no heroes, but everyone in the team performed fantastically well to help one another."

Capt Featherstone, who has climbed Mount McKinley once before, insisted that every member of the team got something out of the experience.