Survival: amazing stories of human resourcefulness

Doug Williams

Stories of survival fascinate most people, and this is probably because few of us are ever placed in the situation where we are required to use every scrap of ingenuity we have to try and remain in the land of the living. The following tales are of people who have had to draw on reserves of strength they did not know they had.

Aron Ralston

Ralston loved climbing solo and he set off to climb in the Blue John Canyon in Utah. As he was climbing down a canyon, a boulder came loose and trapped his hand. He had not told anyone where he was going, or when to expect him back so he knew that rescue would be impossible. With little food and water, he knew that he was going to have to rely on his own resourcefulness and rescue himself.

Self-portrait of American mountaineer Aron Ralston on the 14,137-foot-high summit of Capitol Peak, in Pitkin County, Colorado, USA, on February 7th, 2003 – Author: Aron Ralston – CC BY-SA 3.0
Self-portrait of American mountaineer Aron Ralston on the 14,137-foot-high summit of Capitol Peak, in Pitkin County, Colorado, USA, on February 7th, 2003 – Author: Aron Ralston – CC BY-SA 3.0

He struggled for three days to remove the boulder and release his hand to no avail, and he came to the realization that he was going to have to cut off his hand to save himself. For two days he tried to get the job done, and on the sixth day of his ordeal, he came to the conclusion that he would have to break the two major bones in his arm to free himself. After an hour of struggling with a multitool, he eventually managed to amputate his hand but was still faced with a 65ft drop to get back to his vehicle.

He managed to get down the canyon but was bleeding heavily, and if he had not been rescued by a family on a camping trip, he might not have survived the blood loss. His story was told in the movie 127 Hours.

Ada Blackjack

Ada Blackjack, a member of the indigenous Iñupiat people, was employed as a cook on an expedition to the Wrangel islands by Canadian adventurers Vilhjalmur Stefansson and Allan Crawford.

On the 16 September 1921, five members of the expedition were left on the island, but soon food and other supplies started running low so three of the team left to find help. Ada was left to care for a sick member of the crew.

Ada Blackjack
Ada Blackjack

The sick crewman later died, leaving Ada alone on the island where she survived on her own for two years by hunting seals and avoiding attack by polar bears. Eventually, she was rescued on 16 September 1921, but instead of being hailed for her fantastic feat of survival she was berated for not saving the life of her male counterpart. Later, the family of the dead crewman issued a statement saying that they had met with her and that she had done everything she could to save his life. She died in poverty in 1983.

The Family Robertson

On the 27 January 1971, Dougal Robertson set sail from Falmouth in Cornwall, UK, with his wife, Lyn, and their children Douglas (18), Anne (17), and twins Neil and Sandy, aged nine, aboard the 43ft wooden schooner, Lucette. Robertson was a retired Merchant Navy officer, and he felt that as his family lived in a remote area on a dairy farm at Meerbrook, near Leek, he wanted to take them on a voyage and expose them to ‘the university of life.’

Douglas told an interview with the BBC, that his father made little or no preparation for the voyage before they left. The family had no sailing experience, but their father did not even give them a practice sail before they left on their round-the-world odyssey. As they left Falmouth, he recalls his father standing yelling at the waves breaking over the boat, while the family suddenly realized that this was not going to be a walk in the park but rather a serious endeavor.

Robertson family
Robertson family

They settled into a routine, and for almost a year and a half, they roamed the ocean enjoying the warm Caribbean sunshine and beautiful sailing waters. Then tragedy struck when on the 15th June 1972, the yacht was attacked by a pod of killer whales off the Galapagos Islands. The boat was seriously damaged and started taking on water.

The family, along with student Robin Williams, who had hitched a lift with them, scrambled into a rubber life raft and the yacht’s dingy. The life raft was supposed to hold ten people, but it would not hold more than five, and it kept deflating. The bellows supplied with the raft gave up very quickly, and the family was forced to blow it up using their lungs until after 16 days it became unusable and they were forced to abandon it. They then all squeezed into the 10ft dinghy, taking it in turns to sit in the dry section.

The family lived off turtles and rainwater collected when it rained. They ate the turtle meat and dried the meat they could not consume. They melted the fat down in the sun and used it to moisturize their skin. On the 23rd July 1972, 38 days after they had been marooned, they were rescued when a Japanese trawler, the Toka Maru II, plucked them out of the sea after following their distress flare.

Dougal Robertson went back to the sea after their rescue while the rest of the family stayed on dry land.  Dougal wrote a book, Savage Sea, about their adventure. His son, Douglas, also wrote a book, The Last Voyage of the Lucette, which dealt more with how the family survived the ordeal.

The family donated the dinghy, christened Ednamair, to the National Maritime Museum in Falmouth, Cornwall.

Harrison Okene

Harrison Okene was the ship’s cook on the tugboat Jackson-4 that was towing an oil tanker off the coast of Nigeria when, at around 4:30 am, a rogue wave slammed into the tug, causing it to capsize.  All of the crew were locked in their cabins (a precaution against pirates) except for Harrison who had gone to the latrine.

When the tug capsized, Harrison tried to get to the emergency exit, but could not make it. He was knocked around by the boat sinking and eventually found himself trapped in the engineers’ office in a small bubble of air but what he did not know was that he was 100 feet underwater. He was almost naked and had no water or food, so survival seemed unlikely at this time.

For three days he sat in the bubble of air and was fast giving up hope of ever being rescued when, on the 28th May 2013, he heard a knocking sound. The divers that were attempting to find the bodies of the drowned sailors were astounded to see a hand waving at them through an opening in the wreck.  Taking extra diving equipment they brought him out of the wreck and back to the surface. Having spent over 60 hours at a depth of 100 feet, he had to spend two days decompressing in a chamber.  Once back on dry land, he vowed never to go to sea again!

Ernest Shackleton

Ernest Shackleton
Ernest Shackleton

Shackleton and his group of 28 fellow adventurers set out, in 1914, to walk to the South Pole and then on to meet up with their ship the Endurance. Unfortunately, they became trapped in the ice, and the Endurance was wrecked by the ice sheet as it packed around the wooden hull and crushed it, destroying it completely.

Their supplies started running low, and with the wrecked hull, the group took to their lifeboats.  After braving 14 days of bitter Antarctic conditions, they arrived on an island. They stopped to regroup and then had to undertake a perilous journey across South Georgia Island, to the closest habitation.

The trip was fraught with hardship, but all 28 men finally arrived safely. It was an astounding journey with little food, and the group was forced to kill and eat some of their dogs to survive.

Juliane Koepcke

Juliane Keopcke survived twice in a short space of time, and both survival stories are incredible.

In the first incident, she survived when the airplane that she was flying aboard disintegrated around her. On 24 December 1971, she was aboard LANSA flight 508 when the plane was struck by lightning and disintegrated in midair. She was still strapped to her seat when she found herself flying through the air above the Peruvian rainforest. She crashed into the forest and somehow ended up alive, on the ground, battered and bruised with a broken collarbone and lots of cuts and grazes.

Approximate flight route of LANSA Flight 508 – Author: Urutseg – CC BY-SA 3.0
Approximate flight route of LANSA Flight 508 – Author: Urutseg – CC BY-SA 3.0

Now her second story of survival was how she walked out of the jungle. After she had crashed into the ground, she found a small stream and started to follow it downstream. She staggered on for nine days with maggots infesting her arm until she found a small encampment. She found some rudimentary first aid supplies and used petrol to kill the maggots in her arm.

Juliane was found by lumber workers who gave her further first aid treatment and then transported her to civilization for medical care. Her astounding story was told by filmmaker Werner Herzog, in 2000, in the documentary Wings of Hope. In one of those strange twists of fate that life often throws up, Herzog was booked to fly on the same flight that Keopcke survived, but canceled at the last moment.

Apollo 13

This is one of the most famous stories of survival in an environment that very few humans have ever encountered; space. The crew of Apollo 13, Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert, and Fred Hayes traveled 248,655 miles from earth before turning around and arriving back safely. Their destination was the lunar surface, when faulty wiring caused an explosion in an oxygen tank, blowing a hole in the spacecraft.

The crew of Apollo 13 mission
The crew of Apollo 13 mission

They used the lunar module to try and get back safely to earth, but it was a hair-raising trip. They had food for two people for a day and a half which had to stretch to feed three people for four days, and the crew had to travel hundreds of miles away from the moon to find the correct trajectory to slingshot their way back to earth.

The lunar module provided safe sanctuary while they were maneuvering to get back to earth, but it would not survive the furious re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere, so they had to move back to the damaged command module for this phase of the trip. They all made it safely back to earth.

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fmssolution is one of the authors writing for Outdoor Revival