A worried phone call from policeman Dan Marsh expressing fears a stranded teenage hiker would not survive another night was the trigger for an extraordinary pitch-black rescue mission.
"He told us, 'Mate, you have to come now because I don't think we're going to make it'," police helicopter pilot Capt. Kenny Kross said yesterday.
Sen. Const. Marsh, a helicopter rescue crewman, and the 18-year-old were facing a second night in freezing temperatures near Bluff Knoll after poor weather hampered rescue efforts. Capt. Kross said his colleague's call came about 4pm on Sunday as they waited for a break in the rain, winds and low clouds to take the chopper for another rescue attempt.
"It was so cold and so wet and Dan thought the young fella might not survive another night up there in those conditions," he said.
"Once we had the phone call from Dan, and we knew the ground search teams weren't going to make it to them, we knew we had to do what we could and do it safely so that we could all get home."
Insp. Jenny O'Connell addd: "It wasn't an option to leave them there another night."
Capt. Kross, a former army pilot, said the two-day rescue in the Stirling Ranges National Park had been some of the most extreme flying conditions he had experienced.
As the teenage hiker was released from Albany Hospital yesterday and thanked everyone who helped him, more details emerged of the perilous ordeal.
Sen. Const. Marsh had been dropped in about 9pm on Saturday during early attempts to rescue the stricken bushwalker from dense scrub about 400m south-east of Bluff Knoll.
The teenager, who had been hiking since Thursday, activated his EPIRB on Saturday afternoon after he fell down a small cliff and became lost.
The plan had been for Sen. Const Marsh to get the 18-year-old ready so they could be winched out.
But the 75km/h winds made it too dangerous to lower the officer to the hiker's location, so Sen. Const. Marsh was lowered 500m away.
There was no trail and the officer was forced to crawl through dense tea tree scrub in the dark to reach the teenager.
Capt. Kross and winch operator Sen. Const. Bevin Coles tried repeatedly to lift the pair to safety but the winds made it impossible.,
Low on fuel, they returned to Albany and worsening weather stopped them taking off again.
Sen. Const. Marsh told colleagues that the Saturday night had not been too bad.
Both in warm clothing, the pair had huddled together in the teenager's sleeping bag for shelter.
But when rain set in about 4am on Sunday, they were soaked to the bone and cold.
It is believed the wind chill had taken the temperature down to at least -5C.
Sen. Const. Marsh kept the teenager's spirits up by chatting and keeping him informed of the search efforts.
State Emergency Service volunteers and park rangers hiked out early on Sunday as storms swept through the area, keeping the chopper grounded.
One search team came close to the pair on Sunday afternoon.
The groups could hear but not see each other. Rescuers were forced back in fading light.
Then at 5pm, soon after Sen. Const. Marsh's worried phone call, authorities had a lucky break - the clouds lifted and the wind changed direction.
Rescue crewman Sen. Const. Mal Currey was lowered to the ground about 7pm, putting a harness on the teenager while Sen. Const. Marsh was winched into the helicopter.
A survival kit with a tent, warm clothing and food was dropped down for Sen. Const. Currey and the teenager to use in case conditions took a turn for the worse again. The two were pulled inside after 20 minutes burning off fuel to give the helicopter the power to lift them.
Slightly hypothermic from the hours in the wet and cold, the teenager and Sen. Const. Marsh were wrapped in blankets and put in front of a heater for the flight back to Albany.
Weather Bureau computer modelling put temperatures in the area at about -5C, with the wind chill taking it to -10C. Snow fell later on Sunday night.
Police say the teenager had been well-prepared for the hike but not for the conditions in which he found himself. Insp. O'Connell said the EPIRB had saved his life.
After the teenager was released from hospital, he told Ten News that he was thankful to everyone who had helped him.