The alarm sounded just after 2 p.m. last Wednesday. Three men living in Longyearbyen, all in their 30s, did not show up at work as scheduled after a snowmobile expedition to the east coast.
A massive search and rescue machinery was set in motion. But there was one problem: nobody knew exactly where the men were going. No one knew if they had reached the coast, or if they had gone somewhere else. Longyearbyen was their last known position, according to The Governor of Svalbard.
Spotting a light
Late into the night one of the governor's rescue helicopters flew over any cracks seen in the clouds above Königsbergbreen on the way towards another exploration area on the coast. Suddenly a rescuer saw a white light between the clouds.
"We turned 180 degrees and tried to find it again, but it was not easy," said Lufttransport's Arne Martin Lie, the commander during the operation. "It was bad weather and we were flying high."
"In a few minutes we descended under the clouds and then again there was a little light. It was dark, but thanks to night glasses we were able to maneuver toward the glacier."
"Then they discovered the helicopter and shot up flares," Lie said. "I think they sent up three. We found them, picked them up and took them home."
The men were back in Longyearbyen around midnight.
After nine hours of intense exploration in difficult conditions, the men were found in good condition in one of Svalbard's most desolate and dangerous places. Lie described seeing the flash as a unique feeling.
"You get a little kick when you observe something that really should not be there," he said. "You think that you have found what you are looking for, but can not be absolutely sure. Then comes the flares. Then one person ahead. Than another person. And then finally the third."
"Finding them alive is a true, true joy," said Hans Arne Jensen, head of Lufttransport.
Many in action
The exploration area was enormous and significant resources had to be set in motion, said Sidsel Svarstad, a police chief lieutenant for the governor.
"There were many people in action, and many kilometers were flown," she said. "We dealt with gathering information about the group, their expedition destination, route choice, touring experience and what equipment they had. It was important, for example, to find out if they had old tracks on their GPS."
Primary snowmobile routes, alternative routes and a number of cabins in remote areas were among the places searched.
"We had two helicopters with full crews" Svarstad said. "At 9 p.m. two snowmobile patrols were sent out as well, with four in each group. Inside, six people sat and planned strategically and worked with intelligence, while we established search areas and obtained personal data for eventually notifying next of kin. They must be notified early so that incorrect rumors do not reach them. It is also important for them to know that all available resources are being utilized."
In a pit
The men spent 30 hours in a snow pit on Köningsbergbreen in bad weather before they were found. Beside them stood two broken snowmobiles.
"What had happened was that on Monday they each embarked on a snowmobile toward the Agardh cabin on the east coast," Svarstad said. "One of the snowmobiles broke down, so they continued on the other two."
"They came to the cabin and lay over there. The next day there was terrific weather and they drove north across Nordmannsfonna to take another route home. But then they encountered both deep snow and bad weather, and afterward had difficulties with both of the other snowmobiles."
The men then tried to proceed on foot to an area where other snowmobilers were, but weather conditions forced them to abandon the trek, according to the governor's office. The men therefore returned to the snowmobiles and dug a snow pit to shelter them from the wind.
'Did a lot right'
They didn't have a satellite phone, emergency locator beacon, VHF radio or other equipment to convey they were in distress, but the governor's office isn't criticizing the trio for being poorly prepared.
"I will not criticize the group in hindsight," Svarstad said. "The important thing for us is that they and others take lessons. What is important is that they did a lot right after they landed in a bad situation. They took the GPS position of the place the snowmobiles stood, they dug down, took care of each other and thought positively."
She said the incident is a reminder of several things people going out into the field should do in Svalbard.
"The lessons are that you should carry an emergency locator beacon or other communications equipment to signal where you are," she said. "Moreover, you should have a gear to keep warm for a long time. Just a jervenduk (emergency shelter wrap) can be of great benefit. The last is that you should tell someone where you are going."