Human beings are capable of extraordinary things. One of the most remarkable is our ability to survive. Time and again, instances of human endurance surpass all of our expectations, inspiring and humbling us.
A month ago, I received the first of many e-mails about a friend of mine from the Antarctic Program. Jake has worked in Antarctica for many years, wintering over no fewer than five times at South Pole Station. Even for the Antarctic community, you could easily call him a legend. When not in Antarctica or New Zealand, he often works as polar support staff at the other end of the earth: the Arctic regions of Greenland in the far north.
Last month Jake was caught in a whiteout at a remote outpost in the Arctic. An experienced heavy-equipment operator, he was checking the ski-way at the National Science Foundation’s research station called Summit when the sudden, intense storm hit. He became disoriented, and the whiteout made a return to the station impossible.
Not one to ever give up, he dug a hole for shelter and hunkered in it for 58 hours, riding out a snowstorm featuring 45-knot winds. Against all the odds, he survived.
“Personally I — like most of us — would have died in that hole,” wrote another South Pole veteran after word of Jake’s ordeal got out.
Summit is located at the peak of the ice cap in central Greenland, nearly 260 miles from the nearest point of land. When Jake was reported missing, an intensive search and rescue operation was started. Several nations participated including the U.S., the Greenland Home Rule Government, the Royal Danish Air Force, and chartered aircraft from Air Greenland. Despite their efforts, it was two more days before he was found — miraculously, both alive and alert.
They were searching for his body when he crawled out of his shelter and asked them for a ride back.
Jake used the survival techniques taught to all NSF field personnel in Antarctica and in the Arctic, digging a shelter and moving his body frequently to keep his blood circulating. After his rescue, he was flown to a hospital in Nuuk, the capital of Greenland, for initial treatment.
People like Jake make the science research in the remotest polar regions of the world possible — research that is crucial to our understanding of our climate, global warming and other phenomena. “Our personnel and contractor support staff endure personal hardships and risks in doing their jobs, and they’re key to the success of our research,” said Karl A. Erb, director of NSF’s Office of Polar Programs, in a statement on Jake’s ordeal and rescue.
Jake did everything right, and he lives to tell the tale — and to recuperate, as he did not come through the experience unscathed. His survival comes at a price, though how high that price will be is not yet known. Jake was sent on a medical flight from Nuuk to the UC Davis burn unit in California for treatment for frostbite. The first period of “thawing out” takes a couple of weeks, and only time will tell how well his extremities have fared; he may lose a hand as well as parts of his feet. Even so, his spirits are high. A photograph of Jake after his rescue shows him grinning his familiar, upbeat smile. He is happy to be alive.
“Looking pretty good … amazingly good, in fact, for what he went through,” wrote his wife, Kathy, in an e-mail to his South Pole friends. “We are all just glad he decided he ain’t finished here yet and had the will and the smarts to make it through.
“He is determined to get back to work,” she added. “He told the Greenland crew he will see them in a few weeks.” Unlikely though that may be, it underscores the fighting spirit of this adventurer.
It was willpower, as much as knowledge and training, that brought Jake through those 58 hours alone in a polar blizzard. With years of experience in some of the world’s harshest regions, Jake has more than just wisdom and skill — he possesses a great deal of determination and grit. That mental toughness was surely what enabled him to survive, combined with his belief in his own ability to live.
I can’t begin to imagine all that went through Jake’s mind during those days he spent riding out a lethal storm, crouched in a hole in the Arctic snow. But I feel certain that it was his trust that he would make it out of there that carried him through. Sometimes, surviving is the biggest act of faith of all — faith in man’s ability to do extraordinary things.
Meg Adams, who grew up in Holden and graduated from John Bapst Memorial High School in Bangor and Vassar College in New York, shares her experiences with readers each Friday. For more about her adventures, go to the BDN Web site: bangordailynews.com or e-mail her at email@example.com.