Top 10 Highlights
What would be worse, five days lost, hungry, tired, badly injured and in pain, or twenty days lost, hungry, tired but not injured and only suffering from exposure and general discomfort? Was the survivor alone through the ordeal or did they have company?
There are a number of things to consider when ranking these incredible stories, but ultimately the situations are too unique to make this a black box calculation. Suffice to say, touch wood, we never have to go through anything remotely like what these people went through.
10. Julian Ritter, Laurie Kokx & Winfried Heiringhoff
Julian Ritter, an American artist, set off from Santa Barbara in his 45’ yacht in February 1968 for the voyage he had wanted to do all his life. This followed two years of intense mourning and soul searching after the death of his wife from cancer in 1966.
Accounts vary as to where Lauren Kokx joined Ritter. Kokx was seventeen or eighteen years old at the time. Ritter had painted her portrait before leaving Santa Barbara and he subsequently asked her to join him on his voyage. She agreed and flew down to meet him. Ritter and Kokx spent six months in Puntarenas, Costa Rica, where Ritter painted.
They left Central America and sailed across the Pacific to the Galapagos Islands, Tahiti and Bora Bora where Winfried Heiringhoff joined Ritter and Kokx as a crewman.
They left Bora Bora in June 1970 heading for Hilo, Hawaii, a journey they expected to take 30 days. However the seas were rough and things started going wrong in a pretty major way. The yacht’s motor, oil pump, generator, battery, sextant and radio either failed or became faulty. The stitching on the sails started giving way and needed repairing, the mast became disabled and, worst of all, the yacht started leaking.
They managed to keep the yacht afloat by hand pumping up to 250 gallons of water out of the vessel each day, but they became lost and started to drift.
They didn’t make it to Hawaii and ran out of food after 40 days at sea. They scraped algae off the side of the boat to make broth and occasionally managed to catch a fish. However the algae eventually ran out. By this time they were weak and unable to do anything to improve their situation. All seemed lost.
On the 14th September the USS Niagara Falls spotted them purely by chance and boarded the yacht. Ritter, Kokx and Heiringhoff were said to look like ‘living skeletons’ and the ships doctor estimated that Ritter and Heiringhoff had four days at most to live, while Kokx was merely hours away from death. They had all lost a substantial percentage of their body weight and were barely able to walk.
Ritter, 61, Kokx, 22 and Heiringhoff, 28, managed to survive without food for around 7 weeks. We can only imagine what rescue felt like after so long.
9. Harrison Okene
Harrison Okene was a cook on a tug boat working in the Gulf of Guinea off the coast of Nigeria in May 2013. As the tug was taking an oil tanker out to sea a freak wave capsized it, snapping the line to the tanker and quickly filling it with water. Okene was in the bathroom, the other 11 crew did not survive as the tug boat sank in 30 m (100 ft) of water.
Okene was tossed about the bathroom as the vessel went down and ended up in one of the offices on the boat where there happened to be a pocket of air. The tug had come to rest, upside down on the bottom of the ocean.
Okene was in his underpants, in the pitch black, the water was freezing, he didn’t have any food or water, and he didn’t have much air. Not good. He did find a life vest with a couple of torches on it, and a can of coke.
He heard fish, presumably sharks, come into the vessel and eat his crew mates. His chances of staying alive were getting smaller by the minute. Except that he lasted in that small air pocket and freezing water for 62 hours. More than two and a half days. Pitch black, freezing, alone, fish eating your crew mates. I keep repeating myself because it’s so horrible. It’s could well be the worst situation imaginable.
When divers reached the vessel one of them came into Okene’s room and radioed that there was another victim. Okene had to swim after him and tap him on the shoulder to let him know he was alive. Wow, did that diver get the shock of his life. Totally amazing.
Experts have since worked out that the air pocket Okene had found actually had a lot more air in it than the size of the pocket would indicate. The air had been compressed by the pressure of the sea water. In addition, the sea water absorbed enough of the carbon dioxide that Okene was exhaling to keep the concentration below 5 percent of the air, at which point it would have become lethal.
They estimated there was enough oxygen in the air bubble to keep someone alive for about 60 hours. Okene was in there for 62 hours. It certainly was his lucky day. Hold on, no it wasn’t. Yes it was.
Amazing real-life rescue footage.
8. Julian Koepcke
Juliane Koepcke was a 17 year old girl flying over Peru with her mother in December 1971 when their plane was struck by lightning and disintegrated at an altitude of 10,000 ft. Incredibly Juliane survived the fall to the ground, probably because she had remained strapped in her seat when the plane fell apart. She was the sole survivor of 93 passengers and crew on the flight.
She suffered a broken collar bone, lacerations and one of her eyes was swollen shut. She had lost her mother (who had also miraculously survived but succumbed to her injuries within a few days) and was totally lost and alone in the Amazonian jungle.
After looking for her mother or any other survivors, Juliane found a small stream. Her father had taught her that following a stream downstream would eventually lead to some form of human habitation. The stream also provided Juliane with drinking water and a relatively easy path through the dense rainforest.
Juliane’s parents were scientists who spent time in the rainforest and she had accompanied them on trips on the past. So she knew a bit about life in the jungle. She was walking on the banks of the stream but knew that was where stingrays rest so she decided to swim in the middle of the river instead. She knew the risk of meeting piranhas or caiman in the faster flowing water was low.
Each night she would find a spot on the bank that looked safe and each night she would be mercilessly attacked by mosquitoes and other insects. It rained regularly and at night being wet made her cold. The top of her back became so badly sunburned from being exposed as she swam that it bled.
Day after day she continued swimming downstream, but she also became weaker and weaker because she was not eating. Juliane eventually became delirious but continued downstream.
Finally, on the 10th day, she found a boat. There were no people in the area but she got petrol from the boats motor and poured it on her arms. Thirty five maggots emerged from one arm alone. A track led into the rainforest from the boat and Juliane found a cabin up the path. She waited there until the next morning when the owners of the boat returned and took her to hospital.
Juliane faced loneliness, stress, hunger, disorientation, pain and a number of injuries, and the probable death of her mother. 11 days in these conditions was incredible for this young woman.
A great documentary with Juliana Koepcke.
The last few minutes of Werner Hertzog’s documentary on Juliana, Wings of Hope.
7. Ricky Megee
Ricky Megee is an Australian man who was drugged, robbed of all his belongings and left for dead in a remote area of the outback of northern Australia. After taking a lift he believes something was put in his drink and he passed out, waking some time later lying in a shallow hole with dingoes scratching at him.
He walked for ten days in bare feet in intense heat with no food or water and eventually realized that he had to stop and get some nutrition or he would die.
Megee luckily came across a dam and constructed a crude shelter nearby. He would eat whatever he could find – insects, grasshoppers, leeches, the occasional snake and frogs.
He stayed there for 71 days before being found by stockmen. He had lost half his body weight.Image courtesy of prepareaware.wordpress.com
6. Sir Ernest Shackleton
Ernest Shackleton was a British explorer and one of the great Antarctic explorers of the early 20th century. In his early 20’s he was an officer on one of Captain Robert Scott’s early expeditions and subsequently (1907) led his own expedition to within 180 km’s (111 miles) of the South Pole. That was the closest anyone had got to the pole at that point and Shackleton was knighted for his efforts.
After both Robert Scott and Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole in 1911/12, Shackleton, not to be outdone, set out on what would have been the greatest polar expeditions of all time – crossing Antarctica from the Weddell Sea to the Ross Sea via the South Pole.
However he was in trouble before even setting foot on the Antarctic when his ship got trapped in sea ice and was eventually crushed. Shackleton and his 28 man crew lived on the ice from November 1915 to April 1916 before the floe they were on started breaking up and they abandoned it in three small lifeboats.
Five tortuous days on the great Southern Ocean in open life boats exhausted them all, but they made it to Elephant Island at the base of the South Atlantic Ocean. This was a barren place, far from shipping lanes, so Shackleton quickly decided to take one of the boats to South Georgia island where he new there were whaling stations and help.
The only problem with going to South Georgia was that it was a journey of 800 nautical miles (almost 1,500 km’s or 900 miles) across some of the roughest ocean in the world.
They made what improvements they could to one of the lifeboats. It was strengthened, the sides raised and a cover made for shelter. Shackleton and five crew set off on 24th April, 1916 and reached South Georgia after fifteen days of brutal storms, constant fear of capsizing, little rest and hope that their navigation was accurate.
But they landed on the wrong side of South Georgia and rather risk going back to sea Shackleton took two of the men and trekked 50 km’s (30 miles) over the high mountainous inland of the island in freezing conditions with limited gear. 36 hours later they reached the whaling station.
Three attempts were made to reach the men left down on Elephant Island, each time sea ice blocked the way. They were finally rescued on the 30th August, four and a half months after Shackleton had left.
All up it was more than 19 months between being stuck in the sea ice and setting foot back on land. While they had reasonable supplies for much of this time, they were utterly and totally isolated and would have certainly perished if the rescue plan put in place by Shackleton hadn’t been successful.
This was an epic journey and an inspirational story of survival.
A great photo montage of Ernest Shackleton and the voyage of the Endeavor.
5. Loac Pillois and Guilhem Nayral
Loac Pillois and Guilhem Nayral, two landscape gardeners from France, got lost in the Amazonian jungle in French Guyana in 2007 and survived for 51 days by eating spiders, insects, frogs and a couple of turtles they managed to catch. When rescued Nayral had lost 4 stone, had flesh-eating parasites and was partially paralysed from eating a poisonous spider.
Their original plan was to walk from a drop off point on the Approuague River to the village of Saul some 125 kms (78 miles) away. When they started the trek they had food for 11 days, a machete, tarp, compass and a couple of hammocks. After several weeks they realised they were lost. They had run out of food and didn’t know where they were. They decided to wait for help and made a camp using the tarp.
They had plenty of water because it was the wet season in this tropical area and rained a lot. They tried eating various plants, testing whether they were suitable or not by taking turns eating and watching how each other reacted.
They caught mygale Spiders (tarantula’s) and cooked them to get rid of the spiders poison. They were so hungry that they even ate insects that collected around their faeces.
Eventually they abandoned their camp and tried to get to Saul. Though they didn’t know it, they were very close to help when Nayral cooked a spider to eat. He didn’t cook it well enough though and the poison engulfed his mouth and eventually his whole body. He couldn’t go on but Pillois did, finding Saul just a few miles away.
They were rescued after 51 days. An amazing survival effort. They were fortunate to have rain water and each others company, but it imagine eating just a spider and a few insects each day. For weeks and weeks and weeks.
4. Joe Simpson and Simon Yates
Joe Simpson and Simon Yates successfully climbed the West Face of the Siula Grande mountain in the Peruvian Andes in 1985. The 6,344 m (20,813 ft) mountain had never been climbed using this route before and they did it ‘alpine style’, which means they carried everything with them and did not use guide ropes or oxygen. (As opposed to having a team carrying supplies, establishing camps on the mountain and so on).
This is a seriously high mountain so reaching the summit in this manner was a major achievement.
However on the decent Simpson slipped down an icy slope and his right leg was badly broken. The tibia (one of the bones in the lower leg) had been speared into the knee joint, breaking both in numerous places. It was a very bad and very painful break.
To make matters worse the weather was deteriorating, they had no fuel for their stove and night was closing in. They decided to make a quick descent to try to reach a safer altitude and somewhere to spend the night. Given the state of Simpson’s leg they decided to do the descent by tying rope between them and Yates would carefully lower Simpson, letting him slide down the slope until the rope was taught. Yates would then climb down to Simpson and repeat the process.
What they didn’t know, given that it was now dark and the weather had closed in, was that they were heading straight for a cliff. Once Simpson reached the cliff he was powerless to stop himself falling off and Yates was only just able to gain enough purchase on the slope to stop himself being pulled over as well.
Tired and freezing, Simpson was simply unable to climb back up the rope despite all his efforts to do so and Yates did not have the strength or purchase in the snow to pull Simpson back up. Because of the wind and the distance between the two they were unable to communicate so both maintained their positions and individually considered the next step.
At this Simpson’s hands were becoming frost-bitten and he was hanging exposed in freezing storm conditions. Yates was similarly exposed, but even worse, the snow around him was starting to move as Simpson’s weight continued to pull Yates toward the edge of the cliff.
Finally Yates decided they would both certainly die if they stayed as they were and there was only one option, to cut the rope and save himself. He did this and Simpson plummeted 50 metres (160 feet), the height of a 16 story building.
Yates made himself a snow cave and survived the night. The next morning he descended to the cliff and saw where Simpson had gone. He called and called but heard nothing back and assumed Simpson had died. Yates returned down the mountain to their base camp.
Simpson had in fact survived the fall and had ended up on a ledge in a crevasse. He also called out in the hope that Yates would come and help him but it soon became obvious that Yates had assumed he was dead.
The ledge that Simpson was on was small and the only way out of the crevasse was up its vertical sides. Given the state of Simpson’s leg and hands this was an impossibility and his only chance was to lower himself further into the crevasse in the hope that there might be another way out. What a really, really bad position to be in…
Lady luck shone on Simpson that day and after lowering himself to the crevasse floor he did find a way out. Reaching sunlight and feeling its warmth would have been incredible.
But, not out of the woods yet. Their camp was about 7 km’s (5 miles) away across a treacherous ice field full of more crevasses and then a rocky scree below that. It took Simpson three days to get back. Three days mostly crawling with a badly broken leg, frost-bitten hands, no food, tiny amounts of water he was able to suck from the ground and pure exhaustion after climbing the mountain.
He became delirious and could easily have passed out and not made it. For him this three days was an eternity. He recalled knowing he was close to the camp when he was dragging himself across what must have been the lavatory area with its distinctive smell.
He got back just a few hours before Yates was leaving.
Certainly one of the greatest stories of survival ever.
Touching the Void is an incredible documentary. Here’s a taste.
3. Aron Ralston
There is little need to introduce the story of Ralston getting his arm pinned by a boulder at the bottom of a Utah canyon. It is certainly one of the greatest survival stories of all time.
While the lack of food and water were severe, five days was a relatively short time to suffer in this way compared to some others on this list. Not that he didn’t suffer, he clearly did. Hell, he couldn’t even sit or lie down, that alone would have been like torture. In fact the realisation that he was almost certainly going to die would have enhanced and focused each bit of pain, suffering and anguish that he felt.
What made Ralston’s situation so uniquely difficult was that he was left with absolutely no choice but to make the decision to cut off his arm, or die. Hack his arm off, or die.
Cutting off your arm would be an incredibly difficult thing to do. Der! It needs to be said though, and repeated. It would be an incredibly difficult thing to do. Self harm goes against all our instincts. Very, very hard, hacking at your arm with a fairly blunt knife, breaking the bone, trying to remain conscious, trying to stop the bleeding, trying to cut through nerves and tendons… few of the other entries had to do anything like that.
Ralston had a (relatively) short, sharp experience that had an almost unreal intensity. Survival at its raw best.
Ralston taking us through how he cut his arm off. Oh boy.
2. Hugh Glass
Hugh Glass joined a group of fur trappers in 1822 and in 1823 was in the Upper Missouri River area with some of the other trappers, scouting ahead looking for deer for the group. He inadvertently came across a grizzly bear mother and her cubs and the mother attacked him, clawing him repeatedly.
Glass used his knife to fight back and eventually killed the bear, but not before he had suffered terrible lacerations to his scalp, face, neck, chest, arms and hands, a broken leg and vicious bite marks to his shoulder and back. Blood was coming from the cuts in his throat and his ribs were exposed to daylight.
When the other members of the group found him he was unconscious. His breath was gurgling through the laceration in his throat and he was clearly in a bad way. It was assumed Glass would die within a short space of time so the leader of the group left two members to bury Glass once he’d died.
There are conflicting accounts of what happened next, but the essence is that the two trappers left to bury Glass took his rifle, knife and supplies instead and left him near his grave which they had started digging. It is likely they left because their own safety was at risk and they took Glass’s belongings because he was about to die.
Of course Glass didn’t die. He regained consciousness, strapped a splint to his broken leg, repaired his maggot infested wounds as best he could and crawled or hobbled more than 320km (200 miles) to the nearest settlement, Fort Kiowa.
His journey lasted around 40 days during which he ate buffalo berries, roots, a rattlesnake he killed, eggs from nests he raided and whatever else he could find, including the offal of a buffalo calf that had been killed by wolves.
It is difficult to imagine the pain Glass must have been in and the mental anguish of being alone in the wilderness with wild animals and aggressive Indians potentially around every corner. (Although he did receive help from some Sioux Indians at one point). Moving meant he couldn’t construct a decent shelter so presumably he was exposed to the elements on most nights, which at that time were extremely cold.
Given the physical condition Hugh Glass was in, the fact that he was alone, and the distance he had to travel with severe injuries to find help, this is an extraordinary achievement in survival.
Great video on Glass and his story.
1. Steven Callahan
Steven Callahan is an experienced sailor, author and boat designer who lived through an epic survival story that has to be the greatest of all time.
In 1982, when he was just 29 years old, Callahan set sail from the Canary Islands on his way to Antigua in the Caribbean. He was in a 21 ft yacht that he had designed and built himself. Six days later, after hitting what he presumes was a whale, his yacht had sunk and he was adrift in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean in a rubber life raft barely the length of his body.
In the life raft he had a number of items including water, a still to purify sea water, charts, flares and a fishing line. He also had a ‘ditch kit’ which was a bag packed with survival gear including a bit more water, more flares, a survival book and a spear gun. He was to live for 76 days in this tiny, fragile vessel.
Callahan used the solar still from early in the voyage to preserve his fresh water, however his food went relatively quickly. What saved him were the barnacles that started attaching themselves to the bottom of his raft. They attracted small fish which then attracted larger fish. He had a makeshift spear and was able to catch the larger fish.
He had several major setbacks. Firstly one of the fish he caught tore a hole in the side of his raft and he spent several days alternating between trying to fix the hole and pumping air into the raft so it wouldn’t completely collapse. Eventually he used a fork to hold the tear together and he was able to pump the raft back to a safe level.
Next his solar still gave out and he was no longer able to produce the little fresh water that he had been able to previously. He still had a few cans of the original water and this was enough to keep him alive.
On the 76th day adrift at sea he saw land and was rescued shortly after by local fishermen.
What all this doesn’t portray is how totally and utterly exhausted, malnourished, sunburned, depressed and, eventually, delusional he was. He had lost a third of his body weight and his leg muscles had atrophied. His skin was raw from the salt water and sunburn. He spent six weeks in hospital in the Caribbean, just 60 miles south of where he was heading originally.
Alone for two and a half months, scarcely enough water, no food unless he caught it, little shelter, hot through the day and cold through the night, this was survival at its most extreme in every way possible.
A terrific documentary with Steven Callahan.
Peter Skyllberg was a 44 year old Swedish man who is thought to have been trapped in his car by snow for something like 60 days in 2012. He stayed alive by eating snow and the few snacks he had with him. If true this would have rated highly on our list, but there are a number of inconsistencies that cast doubt on the story.
For one, the people who eventually ‘rescued’ Skyllberg noticed that the snow around one of the rear doors was loose and that the door appeared to have been opened. There was a main road less than a mile away and plenty of passing skiers and snowmobiles in the area.
In addition, it is impossible to live on snow by simply eating it as it would drop the body temperature too much. It was regularly -30C (-22F) in the area. He must have had a way to melt the snow to obtain water.
Lastly, if he had been snowed in then he would have eventually suffocated in the car. It seems logical that if he had a way of letting air into the car then he also probably had a way of getting out.
Skyllberg was known to be a recluse. He had lost a property he had been renovating because he couldn’t service the debt and had lost a girlfriend.
Although he was totally emancipated and had clearly spent months in his car, it is unclear as to whether he could have left and sought help if he’d wanted to.
In November 2012, 18 year old Matthew Allen left the family home in northern Sydney and spent 63 days lost in nearby bush. When he was found he was partially blind, covered in leeches and insect bites, had gangrene to one of his legs and had lost half his body weight.
He had lived by drinking water from a muddy creek and eating a few bits of food he had taken with him.
While this is an incredible tale of survival, Allen chose to remain in the bush and not seek help. In effect he wasn’t lost, he actually didn’t want to be found.