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2 November 2016

The Swedish Man Who Survived for 2 Months in a Snowed-in Car

The sturdy Swedes sure can handle the cold. We recently covered how skier Anna Bågenholm endured a body temperature of 56.7°F (13.7°C) after being trapped under a frozen river after an accident. She’s not the only Scandinavian survivor, though. Bågenholm’s ordeal was a rapid freeze, but her compatriot Peter Skyllberg underwent a much longer, if less intense, deep chill, surviving for two months in a snowed-in car outside Umeå, northern Sweden.

Not Peter Skyllberg's car, but a pretty cold one all the same - Img source: dmvyanks / Flikr
Umeå is the last major town before Sweden’s northern wilderness begins, and Peter Skyllberg, aged 44, had been living in his car in the forests outside the town since May of that year. On December 15th, receipts show that he had been into a shop to buy magazines and coffee, and then he just disappeared. It turns out that his car had become snowed-in in the forest, where temperatures had begun to plunge as low as -22°F (-30°C).

On February 17th, a pair of snowmobilers stumbled upon the snowbound vehicle, which they thought had crashed. They were astounded when they dug through the snow and peered in through the icy windows to see a man lying on the backseat wrapped in a sleeping bag. Ebbe Nyberg, a local police officer, stated that ‘they were amazed at what they found: a man in his mid-40s huddled inside in a sleeping bag, starving and barely able to move or speak.’

When police came and dragged Skyllberg from the car, his body was so emaciated that his upper arms were as thin as his wrists. He eventually woke up and told them that he had been in the car since December 19th, almost a whole two months. This is corroborated by the receipts in the car and Skyllberg’s deteriorated physical state. Dr Ulf Segerberg, the chief medical officer at Noorland's University Hospital in Umeå, said that 2 months was about the ‘upper limit’ of how long somebody could survive without food.

Segerberg also speculated that Skyllberg was able to survive as the car had an “igloo effect”, keeping the interior of the car warmer than the freezing -22°F (-30°C) surroundings. Igloo expert Dr Bert Yankielun told the Huffington Post that the “igloo effect” was a good way to explain to the public how the snow insulated the car. He said that ‘snow consists of ice crystals and air, and the air is trapped in little tiny microscopic pockets between the ice crystals. And it’s the air that provides an insulating factor. It’s much like, I tell people, look at your fluffy ski jacket full of fibers with all the little pockets of air between the fibers.’ Don’t try and buy any ski jackets made of snow though. That won’t work. Try something more high tech instead.

Even with this insulating effect, temperatures inside the cargloo would have been hovering around freezing, and Skyllberg was forced to drink melted snow to stay hydrated, so it wouldn’t exactly have been warm. Key also to his survival was the thermal protective clothing he had with him, such as his sleeping bag and winter clothes.

There was some speculation that Skyllberg had gone into a kind of hibernation, with doctors split as to whether this was even humanly possible. Dr Stefan Branth, from Uppsala University, said that he believed Skyllberg’s metabolism could have slowed down ‘like a bear that hibernates.’ The aforementioned Dr Segerberg, however, was sceptical, noting that human body temperatures can only drop a small amount before a coma sets in.

Whether or not Skyllberg was hibernating or not was not the only controversy, with one of the rescuing police officers claiming that the snow by one of the rear doors was loose enough that Skyllberg could have got out if he wanted to. The initial rescuers and other police officers still maintain that the man was fully trapped. Parts of Skyllberg’s backstory, such as huge debts and family problems, did emerge in the media snowstorm surrounding the story, but regardless of the reasons, his 2-month-long survival in such freezing temperatures is quite a feat.

Overall, it’s a good job Peter Skyllberg had winter clothes on hand to keep him warm. One thing’s for sure, he must have been bored. I hope he had something to watch… maybe the extreme Netflix n chill?

Sam Franklin

With a master’s in Literature, Sam inhales books and anything readable, spending his working hours reformulating the info he gathers into digestible articles. When not reading or writing, he likes to put his camera to work around the world, snapping street photography from Stockholm to Tokyo. Too much of this time spent in Japan teaching English has nurtured a weakness for sashimi, Japanese whisky, and robot cafés.