West Coast man survives whiteout

10:53, Aug 30 2009
HAPPY TO SEE YOU: Joseph Gibbons manages a grin soon after being rescued from freezing Arctic conditions in Greenland.

A West Coast man has lost his feet and a hand to frostbite after surviving three days in an Arctic whiteout.

Joseph Gibbons, of Karamea, was last night recovering in an American hospital after surgeons had to amputate his right hand and his feet to his heels.

Gibbons, 39, said he was always determined to survive.

"I made a decision to be pig-headed. I wanted to see my wife again, and I wanted to see my folks again and come home," Gibbons said from his hospital bed in the University of California Davis burns unit.

"You make that crucial decision and have the will to make it through."

On April 15, Gibbons was caught in a whiteout without survival equipment while working near Summit Camp, the highest point of Greenland's ice cap.


He had spent the northern winter working for a contractor employed by the United States Government in Greenland, researching how camps could be put together to better survive the harsh conditions.

Gibbons, nicknamed Jake Speed, had just checked equipment several kilometres from the main station, intending to return before an impending storm hit.

However, a faulty fuel gauge meant his Ski-Doo ran out of petrol about 5km from safety.

"Then the storm broke and I decided to hunker down and dig some sort of shelter," he told The Press.

"I went out for what I thought would be a 20 to 30-minute excursion, so I didn't have any survival gear per se."

As the storm intensified and the winds rose, the temperature plummeted to minus 40 degrees C.

With little visibility, Gibbons had no idea of direction, and was forced to try and sit out the storm in a snow hole.

"You can't tell up from down," he said.

"You can't tell direction. You can't see the terrain, and there is no sun or dark. "You are floating in the clouds. There's nothing but white."

He spent the next three nights and two days fighting to keep his blood flowing by standing and walking, as well as forcing himself not to drift into an eternal sleep.

After his third night, the winds abated to reveal his first sunrise since his ordeal began.

"That's the most beautiful sunrise I have seen in my entire life," Gibbons said.

During his time in the wilderness, Gibbons' colleagues had been desperately searching, but were frustrated by the severe storm.

A few hours after the weather cleared, Gibbons spotted a plane.

He forced his shattered body to follow its route.

His shambling walk turned into a run as his colleagues approached in a snow vehicle.

"I can't tell you the feelings that rumbled through me then," Gibbons said.

"I feel confident I wouldn't have lasted another night out there with the temperature coming down."

He was taken to hospital in the capital city of Nuuk, before being transferred to the University of California burns unit. He has been undergoing treatment for three weeks and may still lose his heels.

However, Gibbons plans to begin work in Antarctica by November, using prostheses and a hook. He puts his survival down to good luck and over 10 years experience working in the world's frozen wastes. His first goal is to return with wife Kathy Blumm to their home in Karamea. "I just want to get back and have a surf and go to the pub and get a jug," he said.

The Press