From the wilds of the U.S. and Russia, through the empty vastness of the Pacific, to the bitter cold of night on Everest, there are some places you do not want to find yourself alone. But these people did, and with only themselves to rely on, they survived to tell the tale. Here are ten of the best survival stories that you’ll ever read…
10. Ernest Shackleton – Antarctica
Irish explorer Ernest Shackleton knew before he set out on his 1914 expedition how tough Antarctica could be. After all, he’d been forced to turn back after falling ill while slogging on foot towards the South Pole with Robert Falcon Scott in 1901. But it hadn’t put him off going back to the frozen continent, as he led 27 men into the wintry world of the far south.
The plan in 1914 was to quite literally walk across the coldest continent. But Shackleton’s vessel, the Endurance, didn’t make it as far as Antarctica. The Weddell Sea, bordering his destination, is renowned for its treacherousness, and so it proved. The ship became caught fast in sea ice which had formed early that year.
For nearly a year, Shackleton and his crew survived deep in his ship. But the ice that had gripped the vessel eventually broke it apart. So the men had to move out onto the surface of the frozen sea. Eventually, they sledded to Elephant Island, an inhospitable berth, but at least relatively dry land. Meanwhile, back home, Shackleton and his crew had been given up for dead.
Aware that he and his crew could not hope for rescue, Shackleton decided to make for the island of South Georgia, where a station for whaling could be found. All that stood in the way was 800 miles of freezing cold water. So he and a hand-picked team of five fellow crew members climbed aboard a lifeboat open to the elements and set off to seek help. To make things tougher, Shackleton landed across the island from the station and had to finish off his amazing adventure with a hike over mountains. Incredibly, every single member of his original 27-strong crew survived the ordeal.
9. The Wild Boars Thai soccer team – Tham Luang cave
Perhaps it wasn’t the best idea for the dozen youngsters who formed the Wild Boars soccer team to visit Tham Luang cave after practice. Still, the boys’ coach led them into the watery cave, one of Thailand’s most extensive cavern systems, for a spot of impromptu spelunking. And they’d get to see a bit more of it than they’d counted on.
That’s because a sudden deluge forced the group a couple of miles deep into the system of caves. They scrambled up onto a raised section, which at least was reasonably dry. But the waters rose rapidly, cutting the lads and their coach off. For nine days, they were stuck without a bite to eat. All they had to drink was water that dripped from stalactites.
Commendably, the lads didn’t let themselves sink into despair. Instead, they began to bore a hole in the cave wall in the hope that they would uncover an exit. They staved off thoughts of food by meditating when they weren’t digging. Eventually, British cave diving experts – who had volunteered their services after loved ones fearing for the team’s safety had raised the alarm – managed to locate the stranded players and coach.
The divers were able to give the team’s precise location to the authorities, but getting them out required a full military mission. Brave Thai Seals – one of whom would give his life in the effort to rescue the lads – swam the youngsters out using scuba gear through the twists and turns of the cave system. Thankfully, the whole team survived the hours-long swim.
8. Juliane Koepcke – Peruvian rainforest
When lightning struck LANSA Flight 508 on the day before Christmas, 1971, over the rainforests of Peru, that was scary enough. But it was just the beginning of a terrifying ordeal that seems quite impossible to have survived. First the plane began to fall apart, while passenger Juliana Koepcke could only look on aghast, still sitting in her seat.
Koepcke tumbled two miles out of the sky, but unlike the other 92 passengers and crew on the plane, she didn’t fall to her death. No, the 17-year-old somehow survived the fall with no more than a broken collarbone, a gashed arm, and a swollen eye. The teen had struck the canopy of the jungle hard, but she was able to walk away.
Yet one problem that faced Koepcke was that she had no idea where to walk. On top of that, she had nothing to eat but a little candy. But she remembered that her mom and dad had told her that if lost in the jungle, she should trek along the path of watercourses, because people often construct settlements next to rivers. Finding a stream, she started to follow it.
For nine days, Koepcke tramped on her own through the jungle. For company she had only the clouds of insects who feasted on her and the maggots that chomped on her injured arm. But eventually she did find a camp, where she was able to deter the maggots with gasoline and await rescue. Lumberjacks discovered her, and not too much the worse for wear, Koepcke – who these days goes by her married name of Diller – soon made it to civilization.
7. Steven Callahan – Atlantic Ocean
Not content with having crossed the Atlantic Ocean in his 21-foot sloop, Steven Callahan turned around in January 1982 and set out for home. One night, en route for the Caribbean, a storm descended on him. Used to rough weather, Callahan wasn’t too worried. At least, that was until he discovered that his boat had been holed by a large sea animal.
The boat didn’t go down too fast, and Callahan was able to snatch some supplies and gear and put them into his raft, a 6ft rubber circle. But, after a handful of days, the meager food and water he’d grabbed had run out. Callahan was adrift hundreds of miles from land with nothing to eat or drink.
Luckily the sailor was nothing if not resourceful. He used a spear gun to catch fish and a solar still to make water. After two weeks alone, he spied a ship, but it didn’t respond to his signal. Soon, he had drifted to a part of the ocean that ships didn’t traverse; going crazy and suffering from salt-induced sores, he barely stayed alive in his raft.
So starved was Callahan during his raft adventure that he lost more than 30 percent of his bodyweight. Eventually, he drifted close to the island of Guadeloupe, where fishermen spotted the fish and birds circling his raft, lured by fish guts he’d thrown into the sea. The anglers came to his rescue, and after 76 days alone on the Atlantic Ocean, Callahan was saved.
6. Hugh Glass – American wilderness
Although not quite the story portrayed in 2015’s The Revenant, the true-life tale of Hugh Glass reveals a tough man in tough circumstances. Glass and a bunch of other fur trappers had gone out with Andrew Henry into the wilds of the Upper Missouri. They had to be willing to fight off Native Americans as they trapped beavers.
The braves weren’t the only danger, though. Glass encountered a grizzly bear, which fought with him to defend her cubs. Although he prevailed in the fight, he came off poorly. Savagely mauled, he lay unconscious. Two volunteers, Bridger and Fitzgerald, said they would stay with him until he passed, and they started the job of preparing his grave.
But Fitzgerald and Bridger abandoned Glass and told Henry that he’d passed. Still, Glass was made of tougher stuff. He came to with a busted leg, a torso so damaged the bones of his ribs were visible and myriad wounds over his body. To top it all, he found himself 200 miles from safety. To get to Fort Kiowa, he’d have to crawl, with nothing to fuel his journey other than roots and berries.
It took Glass six weeks to get as far as the Cheyenne River, where he could float to safety on a raft. Some time later, he had recovered from his wounds, and he decided that Fitzgerald and Bridger would pay the price for deserting him. In the end, though, despite his weeks of pain, when he had tracked them down, he let them both live.
5. Joe Simpson – Siula Grande
Soaring more than 20,000 feet into the Peruvian sky, the Siula Grande is one of the giant mountains of the Andes. And two young British mountaineers had decided to take on its West Face, which had never been successfully climbed. But Joe Simpson, then 25, and Simon Yates, 21, managed to reach the summit via the new route in 1985.
But the pair could not celebrate for long: they had to descend the mountain. Yet on the way down, disaster struck when Simpson fell off a cliff. With his leg broken, he now had to rely on Yates to lower him on a rope. Unsighted as darkness fell, Simpson ended up left dangling in midair when his companion mistakenly lowered him over the edge of another precipice. Unable to haul him back, Yates struggled for an hour before being forced into the terrible decision of having to cut the cord.
In his book, Touching the Void Simpson described his fall, “About a third of the way down the ice cliff, I was thinking, ‘Don’t fall here,’ because Simon was coming down and there was slack rope between us. I put my right axe in and the ice disintegrated. I landed at the base of the cliff.”
Simpson had survived his second fall, but with horrifying injuries to his leg: there was no way the climber could walk. He described the outcome in his book, writing, “The pain was excruciating.” But the stricken mountaineer did not just lie in the snow and die. Instead, he crawled all the way back to camp, where four days later he would stun Yates, who had believed him dead.
4. The Lykov Family – Siberia
Siberia is possibly not the most welcoming place for a family fleeing persecution because of their religious beliefs. But it’s where Karp Lykov and wife Akulina headed with their two young children in 1936. Armed with meager supplies, the intrepid family headed into the wilderness to create a new home.
The family trekked across Siberia, living in hut after hut as they went. Eventually, they made their home close to Mongolia. So settled were they that the pair added a couple more kids to their brood. Those youngsters did not so much as spy a person who wasn’t their relative before a team of geologists stumbled across their homestead in 1978.
Clearly the Lykovs had become entirely self-sufficient. Not only did they grow their own food, but they spun their own clothes from hemp that they had grown. The spare hemp seeds went into potato cakes with some rye, forming the staple of their diet. This, and strong faith in the Lord, kept the family going.
Of course, deepest Siberia isn’t rich farming land, so they’d go hungry during the winters. But they all agreed to save seeds to sow for the next year, despite knowing that they risked their lives by doing so. That the risk was real was brought home one winter when the matriarch Akulina passed away from hunger.
3. Salvador Ordóñez, Jesús Vidaña, and Lucio Rendón – Pacific Ocean
In fall 2005 a group of Mexican men set out for a few days of shark fishing. But their problems began when they inadvertently lost their tackle during the trip. And worse was to come when they tried to find the missing gear: they discovered their boat was left without any fuel. The hapless fishers were left adrift at sea.
A current dragged the boat out into the heart of the Pacific Ocean, where starvation gripped the crew. Two of the men perished before the remaining three made makeshift hooks and lines to capture fish. Along with trapped seabirds, which were consumed raw, the fish would sustain them as they drifted helplessly in the middle of the ocean.
For nine months, Jesús Vidaña, Salvador Ordóñez, and Lucio Rendón ate only what they could catch. Luckily, Ordóñez had taken a course in survival at sea. This, along with his trusty Bible, made him a valuable shipmate. But his greatest skill was catching seabirds, which earned him the nickname “The cat”.
Even Ordóñez couldn’t keep up the supply of birds all the time, though, and at one point they had only a single fowl between them for a fortnight, with stormy seas preventing any fishing. Still, they kept their spirits up with singing and dancing. Even heavy storms couldn’t sink them, and eventually Taiwanese fishermen rescued them off the Marshall Islands.
2. Aron Ralston – Bluejohn Canyon
Utah’s Canyonlands National Park offers some spectacular hiking, and in 2003 Aron Ralston was enjoying a trip through Bluejohn Canyon. Climbing down a wall, he dislodged a rock, and to his horror, it landed on his lower arm, pinning it against another stone. He could budge neither arm nor boulder.
Ralston had not left word about his destination, and it wasn’t the kind of place that saw many visitors, so he couldn’t hope for rescue. For a few days he was able to sustain himself on snacks and water that he had on him, but eventually both ran out. If he didn’t do something, he faced a grim end.
The adventurer gritted his teeth and decided to cut off his own arm. But that was no easy task: for two days he struggled to find a way to do it. In the end, after snapping the bones of his arm, he used a pocketknife to slice off his right hand. Now all that he had to do was get down the rest of the wall with a single hand and trek back to his car.
On the seven-mile trip back to his truck, a stumbling Ralston was found by a family of Europeans who were camping nearby. He had been on the brink of death through loss of blood. But he had survived, albeit not quite intact. Undeterred by his ordeal, he kept up his adventuring and, unsurprisingly, found a new career as a motivational speaker.
1. Beck Weathers – Mount Everest
For many, Everest represents the final frontier. The world’s highest mountain is a tough place to get caught in a storm, but in spring 1996 Texan Beck Weathers found himself struggling back to camp in the midst of a blizzard so fierce that he and his fellow climbers could scarcely see a yard in front of them.
One of the climbers’ guides, a Russian, found them huddled on the side of the mountain, but he decided there was no helping Weathers and left him. Once the storm had subsided, a Canadian physician came out to see whether he’d survived. Barely dressed, Weathers was rigid with cold and heavily frostbitten. He was left for dead again.
Weathers later recalled the moments that, against all the odds, he emerged from his cold-induced coma-like state and regained consciousness. He said, “This was real, and I’m starting to think: I’m on the mountain but I don’t have a clue where. If I don’t get up, if I don’t stand, if I don’t start thinking about where I am and how to get out of there, then this is going to be over very quickly.”
So miraculously Weathers rose from the snow and headed back to camp. The astonished members of his team called for help, and Weathers caught a helicopter to hospital. To this day, no one has ever been rescued from higher up. Although he lost an arm and the fingers of the other hand, he lived to tell the tale. Medics were later even able to grow a new nose in the middle of his forehead from grafted skin and transplant it back into position, replacing the one he’d lost to frostbite.