What’s the definition of a great survival story? Some of the obvious answers to that question include, coming face to face with death, an unbelievable escape, or, because of fate or just plain dumb luck, an individual was able to survive some extreme disaster.
For me, my list of the top five survival stories of all time is based on two criteria: a convincing story of human perseverance and an iron will to survive, and the author’s ability to tell the story in a compelling manner which keeps me on the edge of my seat.
So, in reverse order, here's my all-time best survival stories:
The Long Walk
Stephen Ambrose, the late historian and author of Undaunted Courage and Band of Brothers, said that “The Long Walk is a book that I absolutely could not put down and one that I will never forget”. I couldn’t agree with him more.
My only hope is that Slavomir Rawicz, the protagonist in this story, hasn’t pulled the wool over the eyes of everyone, including Mr. Ambrose.
Ever since The Long Walk was published in 1956, the authenticity of the story has been challenged. Unfortunately Rawicz was never able to provide any documentation to prove his story. However, it does seem that the general consensus among most critics is that the story is mostly true, but, possibly embellished. It’s even possible that the embellishment occurred at the hand of his English speaking ghost-writer. For an interesting perspective on the veracity of the story from someone who retraced the steps of Rawicz in 2004, and who came to believe the story to be true, please click here.
Slavomir Rawicz was a cavalry officer in the Polish army when he was captured by the Red Army during the German-Soviet partition of Poland in 1939. After being tortured and put on trial in Moscow he was sentenced to 25 years of hard labor in a Siberian Gulag.
After a year of unbearable and inhumane conditions, Rawicz and six other prisoners escaped from their labor camp in Yakutsk.
In order to make their way to freedom the escapees marched 4000 miles, on foot, across the frozen Siberian tundra, the Gobi Desert, through Tibet, and over the Himalayan Mountains to British India. Along the way they conquered fatigue, thirst, starvation as well as their own inner demons. The story is also famous for the claim that the surviving escapees saw a pair of yetis while traversing the Himalayas.
Whether the story is actually true, partially true, or totally fabricated, this book is still a great read, one that will definitely keep you on the edge of your seat.
We Die Alone
Stephen Ambrose wrote the introduction for We Die Alone. In it he states that it was “a book that I absolutely could not put down, and one that I will never forget”. That quote might sound a little familiar. I did a double take at first as well, but Ambrose states in the intro that, in addition to We Die Alone, he has only described three other books in his life this way, one of those being The Long Walk.
Like The Long Walk, We Die Alone is a story of survival in extreme circumstances that takes place during World War II. However, there’s never been any controversy surrounding the validity of this story.
In March 1943 a team of four expatriate Norwegian commandoes, including Jan Baalsrud, sailed from England to Nazi-occupied Norway to organize and supply the Norwegian resistance.
Somehow the commandoes were betrayed shortly after landing and the team was ambushed by the Nazis, leaving Baalsrud as the lone survivor.
We Die Alone recounts Baalsrud’s incredible and improbable escape and his iron will to survive. Poorly clothed, with one foot entirely bare, and part of his big toe shot off, Baalsrud was relentlessly pursued by the Nazis.
Surviving an avalanche, and suffering from frostbite and snow blindness, Baalsrud fought his way over the Norwegian mountains and tundra to a small arctic village. He was near death and was a virtual cripple when he stumbled into the village of Mandal. Fortunately, the locals were willing to help save him, and at mortal risk to themselves, help him escape to Sweden.
Into Thin Air
I remember reading Jon Krakauer’s original article on the infamous Mt. Everest disaster in Outside Magazine and being completely astounded by what occurred on that mountain that day. And then, a year later, he published his bestseller, Into Thin Air, which fleshed out many more details of the ill-fated expeditions that left eight people dead that day. Although several books and articles have been written, Into Thin Air would become the definitive account of the deadliest season in the history of Mt. Everest.
Originally, Krakauer went on assignment for Outside Magazine to report on the growing commercialization of guided trips up Mount Everest and the inherent danger to unsuspecting clients. Instead, he wound up writing a first-hand account of the disaster that unfolded after a ferocious storm blasted Everest with gale force winds that killed eight climbers.
The most amazing aspect of the story centered around Beck Weathers. Twice abandoned and presumed to be dead on the South Col, Weathers spent some 18 hours in subzero temperatures - in the death zone - before miraculously regaining his senses and staggering into camp. He was suffering from severe frostbite, corneal lacerations, hypothermia, and had a face so badly frostbitten it barely seemed human.
Over the course of the next year Weathers underwent ten surgeries, the longest lasting 16 hours. His entire right hand and most of his left was amputated; surgeons were able to fashion a thumb out of muscle from his side and back.
The updated paperback edition of Into Thin Air includes an extensive new postscript that sheds fascinating light on the acrimonious debate that flared between Krakauer and Everest guide Anatoli Boukreev in the wake of the tragedy.
Miracle in the Andes
I must admit I was pretty apprehensive about reading this story in detail. I was quite familiar with the basic facts of the story: a plane carrying a Uruguayan rugby team crashes in the Andes Mountains; many on board are killed, and after several weeks without rescue and a few failed attempts to walk off the mountain, the survivors are forced to resort to cannibalism. My apprehension, as you might suspect, had to do with the cannibalism aspect of the story. It just seemed too disturbing to me.
My fears, as I discovered, were unfounded. Nando Parrado, the hero and author of the book, spent relatively little time discussing the details surrounding this aspect of the story.
Miracle in the Andes is actually a fresh re-telling of the high altitude plane crash through the lens of the person most responsible for the rescue of the survivors. The original story was recounted in the 1974 bestseller, Alive.
Although he suffered a fractured skull, was unconscious for three days after the crash, and was presumed to eventually succumb to his injuries, Parrado was able to revive. After several weeks of recovery he eventually devised a plan and led a team over the 17,000-foot peak that trapped the survivors on a glacier, and marched ten days to rescue and freedom.
The Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition
The best survival story of all time, and overall, one of the best books I’ve ever read is The Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition.
The story is about Sir Ernest Shackleton’s failed attempt to cross Antarctica on foot just prior to the start of World War I.
Before the expedition was able to reach the continent, their ship, the Endurance, became stuck in an early ice floe in the Weddell Sea. The crew of 27 had no means of communication or hope of outside help, thus condemning themselves to isolation for the next 22 months.
The men lived within the bowels of the Endurance for almost a year before the ice destroyed it, forcing the expedition to move out onto the frozen sea. Several months later, the expedition built sledges and moved to Elephant Island, a rocky deserted spot of land just beyond the Antarctic Peninsula. At this point no one knew what happened to the expedition or where they were. Most people assumed they had been killed.
Knowing that a rescue wasn’t going to happen, Shackleton made the decision to take one of the open lifeboats and cross the 800 miles of frigid sea to South Georgia Island where a small whaling station was located. Incredibly, he landed on the wrong side of the island and was forced to trek over the frozen mountains to reach the station.
This incredible book is also accompanied with the previously unpublished photographs of Frank Hurley, one of the members of the expedition.