There were hugs, pats on the back and hot drinks for four Alpine Cliff Rescue team volunteers when they arrived back in Wanaka from Mount Aspiring late yesterday afternoon having rescued Australian army lieutenant Terry Harch.
Lt Harch is now in Dunedin Hospital recovering from his ordeal, which began at the beginning of the week when he was caught out by bad weather and set off his emergency beacon.
The signal was picked up in Texas and relayed to the New Zealand Rescue Co-ordination Centre, which has spent four days in rescue mode — stymied for the most part by bad weather.
Cliff rescue team leader Davie Robinson and team members Anthea Fisher, Richard Raynes and Lionel Clay finally managed to reach Lt Harch on Thursday evening, and began treating him for hypothermia and frostbite.
Robinson said they were "very lucky" to get a clear patch of weather "right on dark" on Thursday so they could get on to the mountain, near the top of the Bonar Glacier.
"It was touch and go," Robertson said.
He credited Lt Harch being found to the "great eyes" of the three helicopter pilots from Southern Lakes Helicopters and Aspiring Helicopters and Lt Harch, who made himself visible from near his "very small snow cave" in a "wind scoop" just off the eastern side of the glacier.
Robinson said it was "a big surprise" to see him waving.
"We weren't expecting that.
"Without that we probably wouldn't have found him that evening, because it was getting dark."
Aspiring Helicopters pilot James Ford agreed, saying without Lt Harch's arm movements it would have been difficult to pick him out from rocks in the background.
"He was pretty tricky to see.
"The movement of his arm was what gave him away.
"That was the thing that made the difference.
"Otherwise, he would have looked like a rock."
After almost three days of continuous bad weather, the few minutes of clear weather allowing the rescue team to be dropped off was "the opportunity of the day", Ford said.
"All we did was concentrate on getting [the team] in there and then we were gone.
"It was quick."
Robinson said Lt Harch was "very dehydrated, very tired. He was communicating straight away which is a really good sign ... and he was making sense which is really important.
"He said he was glad we were there."
The team set about getting him into dry clothes and erecting two tents for the night.
"Terry was in a lot better condition than any of us expected; a big testament to Terry and how he looked after himself for three days.
"Once he's got himself in trouble, he's done everything well."
During the night, Lt Harch was in "quite a lot of pain" Robinson said.
"Our main job was to reheat Terry and prevent further injury ... which we did very successfully.
"With that reheat, when you've got cold extremities, there's a lot of pain involved.
"There wasn't much we could do for that pain at that point.
"He had a tough night."
It snowed all Thursday night, which ruled out the chance of being lifted off the mountain in the dark.
However, the team was prepared for four nights on the mountain if necessary.
Robinson said the idea of sledging Lt Harch down to the French Ridge hut was dismissed.
"We were in a really safe camp and it wouldn't have made much sense to move from that point."
He considered the rescue had gone "really well".
"I think it's a good example of all the right people in the right place at the right time.
"We've got a fantastic team here."
Ford said helicopter crews spent yesterday at the head of the Waipara River on the West Coast looking up the Bonar Glacier, waiting for the moment when the cloud and the light conditions improved to a level where they could fly.
Family members were expected to be with Lt Harch in Dunedin.
An Australian Defence Force publication said Lt Harch served as a combat engineer based at Lavarack Barracks in Townsville.
He had previously climbed Mt Cook to raise money for the charity Soldier On.
Who is the climber rescued from Mt Aspiring?
• Australian media reports Lieutenant Terry Harch is a 29-year-old army captain and an experienced climber.
• Lt Harch set out to climb the mountain last Friday and was expected back on Monday, but was trapped on the mountain for days before rescuers reached him.
• According to a 2014 article in the Australian Army newspaper, Lt Harch was then based at Lavarack Barracks in Townsville in Queensland.
• The same year, he climbed Mount Cook with two others to raise money for Soldier On, a charity that supports Australian Defence Force members who have suffered physical or mental wounds in the course of their service.