Trapped in the ice at 19,000ft, soldiers can only wait and pray

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The Independent Online
TWO BRITISH soldiers trapped on north America's highest mountain without a tent were last night facing their fourth night in blizzard conditions after a military expedition went horribly wrong.

Rescuers were praying for a break in the weather in order to send a high- altitude helicopter to pluck Corporal Carl Bougard and Sergeant Martin Spooner from the icy slopes of Mount McKinley in Alaska.

The men, from the Princess of Wales Royal Regiment and the Army Physical Training Corps, were trapped at 19,300ft when three of a six-man team aiming for the 20,032ft peak fell down an ice chute known to climbers as the Orient Express.

After the accident last Thursday, two of the group, Captain Phil Whitfield, 23, of the Royal Marines, and Sgt Johny Johnstone, 33, of the Parachute Regiment set off for base camp at 14,500ft to seek help while Capt Justin Featherstone, 28, the Princess of Wales team leader, waited with the remaining three men injured in the fall.

However, the condition of one - Cpl Steve Brown, 26, of 22 Engineer Regiment, who suffered head injuries - began to deteriorate and Capt Featherstone decided to try to carry him down the snow-covered mountainside. But disaster struck again at 17,000ft when the latter lost his footing and fell about 2,000ft down the slope with Cpl Brown.

"Both men were incredibly lucky to survive the fall," said Jane Tranel of the National Park Service. "Mr Featherstone is thought to have a fractured left ankle and some head injuries, but luckily Mr Brown [who also has frostbite] did not suffer any more injuries than he did during his first fall.

"A dozen rescuers mounted a heroic attempt to reach the two men from the 14,200ft level camp and managed to drag Mr Featherstone [to safety] using a rope."

That still left Cpl Bougard and Sgt Spooner, both 35-year-old experienced climbers, trapped up the mountain. Sgt Spooner is thought to have a broken ankle and leg but Cpl Bougard is thought not to be injured.

Concern was growing last night because rescuers had had no radio contact with the men for two days.

Ms Tranel said: "We are hoping that mother nature is kind to us and the weather conditions improve enough for us to get a helicopter out to the men.

"Our first priority is to make contact and then to drop supplies. At the moment the men are locked in."

The trapped men were part of a 10-strong expedition aiming to be the first to climb Alaska's highest mountain and then canoe 149 miles to the sea. Three of the party on the mountain, Private Ian Hayward, 18, Cpl Gary Keep, 27, and Lance Corporal Nigel Coar, 23, all of the Princess of Wales Royal Regiment, were not involved in the accident. The remaining member, Private Luke Mills, was sent home ill last week.

The wait for news has been draining for the men's loved ones. Cpl Bougard's girlfriend, Paula Wanstall, 27, said: "I felt sick when I when I found out that Carl was one of those stranded. I just started hyperventilating. I have been in a state of disbelief all day. When I first heard that some soldiers in Alaska were missing I had a really bad feeling that it would be him."

Capt Featherstone's mother, Linda, said the rescue team had done an "unbelievable job" in bringing her son back to base camp.

Speaking from the family home in Somerset, Mrs Featherstone said there was obviously a "desperate situation" on the mountain, and added: "The whole expedition went horribly wrong. I would like to know he is off the mountain and in hospital, but they have a full medical team at base camp. One of the rescuers told me: 'If you are going to fall on a mountain fall on our mountain - we have the best rescue services in the world'."

The expedition is the latest in a series organised by Capt Featherstone to raise cash for the Barnardo's Inclusion Project in west Somerset, where his parents live. The charity enables youngsters to take part in play, leisure and sporting activities in the community.

Capt Featherstone is not a stranger to problems on Mount McKinley. In 1994 he was beaten just short of the summit by altitude sickness. He joined the Army 10 years ago and is now based in Canterbury< Kent, with the First Battalion of the Princess of Wales Royal Regiment.

A qualified mountaineering and canoeing instructor, he has already been on several expeditions, which have included the Alps, Chile and Malaysia, and more were planned. "His mind is full of endless expeditions," said his mother, adding that among her son's future plans had been a trip to the Himalayas.

A spokesman for the Ministry of Defence said yesterday that the rescuers needed only a brief window of clear weather in which to send up a special French-made Lama helicopter to reach the two stranded men. However, yesterday conditions were windy and snowy.

"The men don't have a tent, but they are experienced mountaineers and experts in survival," the spokesman said. "They have cold-weather gear and equipment and they will be following their training carefully, digging snowholes and so on. If the Americans can get to them, we are confident they will be OK."

If a helicopter rescue remains impossible today, a United States expedition at 17,000ft will attempt to reach the men.

The Mount McKinley incident has echoes of another ill-fated military expedition into Lows Gully, a mile-deep ravine on Mount Kinabalu in Malaysia, South-East Asia's highest mountain, in 1994. Two British officers and three Hong Kong Chinese soldiers were trapped for 16 days with only enough rations for three days. At the time they were found, following a huge rescue operation by the British and Malaysian military, medics said that they were on the point of starvation.

A Board of Inquiry later criticised the two officers, Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Neill, 46, and his second-in-command Major Ron Foster, 54, for "flawed judgement", but neither was disciplined.

THE COLDEST MOUNTAIN ON EARTH

ALTHOUGH NOT one of the world's top 20 highest peaks, Mt McKinley has a reputation among climbers as being arguably the coldest mountain in the world. Because it is so far north, it is subjected to icy blasts in excess of 100mph and temperatures falling to -40C.

Nevertheless, because it is the highest mountain in North America, it attracts thousands of climbers.

On Saturday, mountain rangers logged more than 300 people on its slopes. With such numbers attempting what can be a dangerous slog, there are deaths on the mountain each year.

The Independent's Steve Goodwin, an experienced mountaineer who last month came to within 100m of the summit of Mt Everest, said: "It doesn't have a serious 'killer mountain' reputation but it does have some extreme routes that can be tricky. Those, coupled with the low temperatures can cause problems. Four nights on a mountain without a tent has to be regarded as being very serious for these men, but people have survived longer in snowholes with the right equipment."

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