By Dave Hynes
There is something so immensely captivating about survival stories. It is difficult to actually ascribe what it is that exactly captivates us about them. Perhaps it’s the sheer capacity of human empathy, a whatif- it-was-us-ism which so afflicts us when we hear of the extreme adventurer whose adventure has gone so askew. Or perhaps they emit a sense of exhilaration and self-belief, an assurance that the human spirit can indeed conquer everything-even if, not quite, the summit of every mountain. Perhaps survival tales merely offer another form of entertainment which gets our ears flapping when we hear such buzz words as ‘against the odds’, ‘indomitable spirit’ and ‘unbreakable bonds’- certainly the ears of Hollywood start pricking at them. It’s no secret that ‘survival’ sells- not that survival is even strictly necessary. Indeed, many of the survival stories featured in this ‘top ten’ have been turned into books and films precisely for that reason. So, in order of ‘survivorocity’, what are the greatest tales of endurance ever told?
Lend me a hand buddy! 127 hours of being pinned down by the world’s most stubborn boulder and amputating his arm with a pint-sized pocket knife was undeniably amazing. Still, that most people were rooting for the boulder is a testament to how dislikeable he is- no mean feat in itself.
On October 26, 1967 McCain´s plane was shot down during a bombing run over Hanoi. He broke both arms and one leg in the ensuing crash. Tortured and taken to Hoa Loa prison, nicknamed the “Hanoi Hilton,” McCain spent five years in various prison camps, three in solitary confinement. The presidential contest against Obama would prove an even tougher proposition.
Near the summit members of three separate expeditions were caught in a storm and faced a battle against hurricanes, exposure, altitude and starvation- culminating in the worst single-season death toll in Everest’s history. In 1996, Jon Krakauer went to Everest for Outside magazine to report on how commercial expeditions were changing the mountain. He couldn’t have hoped for a bigger scoop. Krakauer’s ‘Into Thin Air’ changed adventure publishing forever.
Douglas Mawson, a crazy Aussie explorer ventured to eastern Antarctica. The fateful day they were to turn back, his companion Ninnis, their six strongest dogs, and the food sledge vanished into a crevasse. Mawson and his remaining companion Mertz were left with a week’s supply of food, no dog rations, and a five-week journey ahead of them. They set off, shooting the dogs for food as they progressed. Unbeknownst to Mawson and Mertz, the huskies’ livers were poisoning them with toxic amounts of vitamin A, causing deep strips of their skin to peel off. Mawson was eventually rescued – ten and a half months later.
A Scottish farmer embarked upon a round-the-world-voyage with his family and was having a whale of a time until five orca’s rammed his small schooner. The boat sank and with it seemingly any hope of survival. Thousands of miles from land, the Robertson’s braved the savage sea in a small dinghy without food- their story is one of love and courage ‘against all odds’.
Siula Grande 1991
Made famous by the documentary Touching the Void the plight of Joe Simpson is well-known; broken leg, ice crevasse, cut rope and all. The man scrambled to base camp just as his partner (ostracized by the climbing world) was about to leave- he endured it all, especially a Boney M song on repeat!
Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 was flying over the Andes when it crashed. It was carrying a Uruguayan College rugby team, but only 16 lived to tell the tale. The others died during the crash, in the days soon after from injuries or cold, and eight succumbed to an avalanche on the 17th day. Reduced to cannibalism, the remaining men trekked for 10 weeks before salvation came.
Alluded to in the film Jaws, the SS. Indianapolis was hit by a torpedo from a Japanese submarine in the Pacific Ocean. It would be largest disaster at sea the US ever endured. Half the crew drowned within minutes, although they would prove to be the lucky ones. The surviving soldiers fought starvation, hallucinations, sunstroke and almost a week of constant shark attacks. Huddled together in circles, thousands of oceanic whitetips rained down on the men- a tragic bloodbath in the wild ocean.
The story of Gudlaugur Fridthórsson is about as crazy as it gets. His fishing vessel upturned off the bitter Icelandic coast. His wet clothes were drawing heat from his body. He was battling with insanity. Swimming in near-freezing seas for six hours, climbing and hiking steep ice mountains amidst blizzards, he eventually found rescue. In hospital doctors were unable to find a pulse and his body temperature was considered well below that considered necessary to survive in the sea for more than 20 minutes! It turned out he possessed body fat three times thicker than most humans!
When Gudlaugur Fridthorssonwent about trying to enlist a crew to navigate the Arctic he posted an advert in the Times; ‘men wanted for hazardous journey, safe return doubtful, honour and recognition in case of success’ Old Ernie was not a man to sugar the pill. It would be for heroic failure however that those who enlisted would be recognised. Half the crew would die but the other half, under Shackleton’s courageous command, would go on to survive the bitter Arctic surviving on seal blubber for six months as their vessel froze rigid in a bed of ice.. Shackleton stayed with his men throughout the ordeal. His name will forever evoke the qualities of leadership which the great survival stories are all about.