It’s every Adrenalist’s worst nightmare: setting out one morning to conquer an obstacle and being faced a few hours later with the reality that that obstacle may conquer you.
The human body is strong and the human mind even stronger, but there are some nightmarish situations that make death seem like an inevitability. Usually it is, but a combination of luck and the human spirit can make withstanding the unthinkable possible.
Here are the most amazing survival stories to both inspire you and give you pause next time you set off on an adventure. No matter where they’re headed, it behooves every Adrenalist to hope for the best and prepare for the worst.
Despite its characterization of mountain climbing as extremely dangerous, Heinrich Harrer’s “The White Spider” was the book that turned Joe Simpson onto the sport. Though he was enticed by the threat of demise lurking around every turn, Simpson never could have known that the scenarios he marveled at in the pages of his climbing muse would become horrifically reenacted in his own life. In 1985, Simpson and his climbing partner, Simon Yates, attempted to ascend the previously unclimbed western face of Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes. What began as a winsome adventure became a catastophe when Simpson broke his leg trying to descend the mountain in the throes of a viscious storm. He and Yates became separated and Simpson was forced to crawl, unaided, back to base camp. The leg trauma he endured was severe and he was told he’d never walk again but, two years and many surgeries later, he was back on the mountains and beginning his career as an award-winning author.
In August 1953, Schoening and six other men set out to climb K2. During the seventh day of their sans-oxygen-tank expedition, they became trapped in a storm at 25,000 feet. One member of their squad, Art Gilkey, developed blood clots and a resulting pulmonary embolism. In an effort to save Gilkey’s life, Schoenig and the other five men attempted to lower him down the mountain face in a sleeping bag. They descended K2 together, attached to one another for stability. When one member of the team slipped, all the others went down with him and Schoening had the prescence of mind to wedge his ice ax into the side of a frozen boulder right before all the men plummeted to their deaths. Sadly, Gilkey died that day, but all the others lived, and it was thanks to Schoening. In 1981, he received the American Alpine Club’s David A. Sowles Memorial Award, in recognition of his bravery, selflessness, and skill in executing the stupendous maneuver that came to be known as “The Belay.”
Jon Krakauer’s is one of the most well known and well documented survival stories of all time. His May 1996 trek up Mount Everest was met with a stormy disaster that resulted in the tragic deaths of four of his climbing team members. On a journalistic assignment for Outside Magazine, Krakauer faced Everest, never having climbed a mountain as large, and managed to walk away from the disaster (a miracle, considering how many seasoned Everest vets in his midst succumbed). Following the incident, he devoted the next year of his life to documenting that horrific story and turning it into a tribute to the men who were not as fortunate as he. “Into Thin Air” is, to this day, one of the most famous non-fiction adventure stories of all time.
Tami Oldham Ashcraft
Imagine being two thirds of the way through a majestic Tahiti-to-San Diego sail. You’re sleeping below deck and your significant other is skippering the vessel on a gorgeous sunny day. Then, all of a sudden, storm clouds form overhead, thunder cracks and, in the distance, you see a 50-foot swell. This is precisely the situation in which Tami Oldham Ashcraft found herself in 1983, during what was supposed to be a 30-day point-to-point sail. Unexpectedly thrown into the mire of Hurricane Raymond just 11 days before she reached her destination, Ashcraft awoke from unconsciousness to find her boyfriend gone and her boat’s mast snapped in half. Unwilling to give up on life, she fashioned a makeshift mast and sail, rationed what food remained, and made the 1,500-mile voyage to Hawaii’s Hilo Harbor. Her book, “Red Sky in the Morning” recounts her entire harrowing ordeal.
With degrees in mechanical engineering and French and a minor in piano, Aaron Rolston is a bonified brainiac, and, more likely than not, his intellectual might carried him through the most unfathomably awful experience of his life. In 2003, while descending a slot canyon at Utah’s Canyonlands National Park, a boulder Aaron was climbing over became dislodged, pinning his arm between it and the rockface’s wall. After trying unsuccessfully to break free for nearly five days, Aaron decided that, to survive, he’d need to sever the portion of his arm that was trapped. And sever he did, using the edge of a cheap, blunt pocket knife. After doing the unthinkable–without passing out or dying from blood loss–Rolston climbed out of the canyon and luckily encountered a family who facilitated his med-evac to a nearby hospital. Though he narrowly survived, reportedly losing 40 lbs and 25% of his blood, Ralston’s now healthy and living every day to the fullest. He’s written a book, been the subject of a documentaty and a feature film, and gives motivational speeches around the world. He’s never stopped climbing.
Cover Photo Credit: Mahatma4711 / Flickr.com