I Will Survive
Call us rubberneckers, but who can resist the panic, terror, and inspiration of a good survival tale? We combed through vast libraries of lore to find 10 more unforgettable, nearly unbelievable great escapes. Brace yourself.
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Out of the Void
Coombs vs. the Avalanche
In June 1992, Colby Coombs was a 25-year-old National Outdoor Leadership School instructor on vacation in the Alaska Range with his friends Ritt Kellogg and Tom Walter. The trio headed off for 17,400-foot Mount Foraker and over three days attempted to put up a new direct finish on its Pink Panther route. But as they neared their goal, a storm moved in, and the mountain let loose.
The avalanche knocked Coombs and his companions 800 feet down the side of the face. When Coombs awoke six hours later, he was dangling from his rope, suffering from two fractured vertebrae in his neck, a broken shoulder blade, and a fractured ankle. He swung over to Walter, who was hanging on a rope nearby, but his friend’s face was fully masked in ice, and he was dead. A day later, Coombs found his old college roommate, Kellogg, who had also been killed.
Over the next four days, Coombs shut out all thoughts of his dead friends and laboriously picked his way down the mountain. “I just had to keep my eyes open and ignore the pain,” remembers Coombs, who now runs the Alaska Mountaineering School in his hometown of Talkeetna. After reaching base camp, he still had to complete a dangerous five-mile crossing of Kahiltna Glacier, with no way to rescue himself if he fell into a crevasse. Against all odds, he made it. Today, the 37-year-old Coombs constantly emphasizes safety in his AMS courses. “I don’t tell my story much, only when it comes up during teachable moments,” he says. “But if you do get in trouble, anything that gets in the way of success has to be eliminated—emotion, fear, pain. It’s the mental things that will impede your survival.”
The Ice Zone
Starved, Poisoned, Stranded
“Douglas Mawson was this mild-mannered person who turned into someone incredibly hard to kill,” says veteran Antarctic guide Dave Hahn. In the austral summer of 1912, Mawson, a 30-year-old Australian geologist and explorer, led a 25-man scientific team to eastern Antarctica. From base camp, in Commonwealth Bay, Mawson set off with a dog handler named Belgrave Ninnis and world ski champion Xavier Mertz to explore the interior. It was tough going. After six weeks, the three men and 12 remaining dogs had covered only a quarter of the 1,200 miles they’d hoped to travel. The day they were to turn back, Ninnis, their six strongest dogs, and the food sledge vanished into a crevasse. Mawson and 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 weakest dogs one by one for food. 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. Three weeks later, Mertz was dead.
Mawson pushed on. He made it to Aladdin’s Cave, an outpost five and a half miles from base camp, where fierce winds stranded him for a week. Finally, the weather broke, and Mawson made the steep hike down to camp. As fate would have it, he was too late: The ship sent to pick up his expedition had sailed away six hours before. But a small group of men had waited in case Mawson returned, and they holed up in the camp until the ship came back for them—ten and a half months later.
Mind Over Matter
Lost at Sea, Tami Oldham Ashcraft Wanted to Die
The human body can endure a lot of mistreatment; it’s the mind that is truly fragile. In October 1983, Ashcraft, then 23, and her British boyfriend, Richard Sharp, both California residents and longtime sailors, accepted a job delivering a yacht from Tahiti to San Diego. The first week, they sailed the luxurious 44-foot Hazana east in calm seas. Then reports of a tropical depression off Central America came in over the radio. Ashcraft and Sharp tried to run north of the storm but soon were battling 50-foot seas in the heart of Category 4 Hurricane Raymond. Sharp sent Ashcraft below deck and clipped himself in to a lifeline. Moments later, the boat rolled over, then flipped end over end.
When Ashcraft regained consciousness 27 hours later, the storm was over, but her head was covered in blood, and Sharp’s tether trailed off into the dark ocean. The boat was dismasted, the engine and electronic equipment didn’t work, and the cabin was partially flooded. Though there was enough food and water on board to sustain her, Ashcraft was on the verge of a mental breakdown and wouldn’t eat. Mourning for Sharp and weak from blood loss, she did nothing for two days—until a voice in her head began demanding that she get to work. “Being on that boat was like solitary confinement,” recalls Ashcraft. “The voice kept me on track. I just followed it.”
Working with a sextant for two days, she figured out her bearings and rigged a sail to position herself in currents she hoped would take her to Hawaii. After 42 days, she sailed into the Big Island’s Hilo Harbor. Today, Ashcraft, who told her story in the 2000 book Red Sky in Mourning, lives in Washington State’s San Juan Islands, where she continues to sail.
The Only One Who Lived
On Christmas Eve 1971, German teenager Juliane Koepcke sat next to her mother in the window seat of a Lockheed Electra. She had just graduated from high school in Lima, Peru, and was on her way to Pucallpa, where she and her mother would rendezvous with her father, biologist Hans Koepcke. But the plane never made it. The Electra hit a freak storm, and the 17-year-old girl looked out the window to see the right wing aflame. She turned to her mother, who said, “This is the end of everything.” The last thing Juliane remembers is feeling herself whirling in midair.
She awoke three hours later, still strapped into her seat, in the Amazon. Miraculously, she had only fractured her collarbone, gashed her right arm, and lost vision in one eye. She began looking for her mother, but all she found were empty seats and a row of three young women, covered in flies. Of the 92 people on board, Koepcke was the lone survivor. Although in shock, she remembered her father’s advice: Heading downhill in the jungle leads to water, and water leads to civilization. Koepcke bushwhacked along the rainforest floor, frequently hearing planes above, but she had no way to signal them. On the tenth day, she came across a hunter’s hut, outfitted with salt and kerosene, which Koepcke used to clean worms out of her skin. The next day, a group of Peruvian hunters arrived. They took her to the town of Tournavista, where a local pilot flew her to her father, in Pucallpa.
“She was in the middle of the jungle,” says Herb Golder, who in 1998 revisited Peru with Juliane—now 50 and a zoologist living in Germany—while working as assistant director on Wings of Hope, Werner Herzog’s documentary about the ordeal. “And this 17-year-old girl in a torn miniskirt and one sandal walks out alive.”
Captain Eddie Rickenbacker Takes on the Elements
Rickenbacker shot down 26 enemy planes and tangled with the Red Baron over France during WWI, earning the Medal of Honor. On October 21, 1942, the Ohio native was en route from Hawaii to evaluate American air bases in the South Pacific when his Flying Fortress bomber ditched into the ocean. In the rush to evacuate, all eight on board neglected to grab sufficient supplies—leaving them stuck in three life rafts with five chocolate bars, four oranges, and some fishing hooks and line. Rickenbacker, clad in a blue suit and a gray fedora, took charge, lashing the three rafts together. He and his seven men broiled on the open seas, their parched skin cracked and bleeding. After a week, they were out of food, until a gull fortuitously landed on Rickenbacker’s head. He reached up and wrung its neck. The men split the meat and used the entrails as bait, pulling in a mackerel and a sea bass. Five days later, one of the men died from exposure. On day 20, the rafts separated in a last-ditch attempt to find rescue. The gamble paid off: A Navy scout spotted and rescued one of the rafts, and the pilot was alerted to Rickenbacker’s location. On his 24th day adrift, a Catalina seaplane retrieved Rickenbacker and the men in his boat. The third raft washed up on a beach, where a missionary found them. In 1973, Rickenbacker died of natural causes, at the age of 83.
Heat of the Moment
Terror Rained from the Sky
When Mount St. Helens erupted at 8:32 a.m. on May 18, 1980, Washington-based Bruce Nelson and Sue Ruff, both 22, were camping with four friends on the banks of the state’s Green River—a presumably safe 14 miles north of the volcano—eating marshmallows for breakfast. But the wrath of St. Helens spared nothing in her reach, and within minutes of the eruption nearly every tree in a 15-mile radius had been ripped out of the ground. Nelson and Ruff were blown into a deep hole left by an uprooted tree. After the initial blasts ended, the couple hid under a pile of debris as huge ice chunks fell from the sky. Later, they heard two of their friends, Brian Thomas and Dan Balch, calling for help. Balch had been severely burned by a heat blast, which had melted the flesh off his arms, and he had no shoes. Thomas had been hit by a tree, which broke his hip. Nelson and Ruff made a shelter for Thomas, walked Balch to the river, then began hiking through hot, knee-high ash to find help. That night, they were spotted by emergency helicopters and rescued. Nelson argued with the National Guard pilot until he agreed to take him back up to the camp to get his friends. By then, Balch had been given an extra pair of shoes by a group of passing survivors and had hiked out with them, and Thomas was later evacuated by a small helicopter. Five days after the blast, authorities consented to fly Nelson back up to his camp to look for his other two friends, Terry Crall and Karen Varner, who were still missing. He found them in their tent, Crall’s arm wrapped protectively over Varner—both dead, crushed by a tree.
Left for Dead
Frontiersman Hugh Glass Came out of the Jaws of a Grizzly, Alive
In 1823, Glass signed on with a crew of trappers heading up the Missouri River to Fort Henry, in southwestern Montana. Halfway to their destination, Glass, who was about 40, was tracking game when he stumbled upon a mother grizzly and two cubs. The bear reared up and dug her teeth into him, ripping off huge chunks of his flesh. His companions came down the path and shot the six-foot bear through the skull, and the animal collapsed on Glass. The hunters, thinking there was no way the man could live through the night, made him a bed out of a buffalo hide and waited for him to die. But the next morning, Glass was still breathing. The mission leader, Major Andrew Henry, decided that the trappers needed to move out of hostile Arikara Indian land and paid two men to stay with Glass in his final hours. But he held on. After three days, the men abandoned the unconscious trapper, taking his knife and gun.
Glass awoke and found himself alone and unable to walk. He began to crawl the 100 miles back to Fort Kiowa, through the heart of Arikara country. Inch by inch, Glass, who as a young man had learned from the Pawnee Indians how to live off the land, dragged himself through the scrub, getting strength by eating wild fruit and meat from the carcass of a buffalo calf killed by wolves. After six months, he shambled into Fort Kiowa and resumed life as a trapper. Ten years later, during a trip along the Yellowstone River, he was killed by an Arikara Indian.
Scorching Heat and the Sahara Couldn’t Kill a Cop
“All I could think about was that I was going to die a horrible death,” Mauro Prosperi, the Italian marathoner and pentathlete, said in an interview after he was lost in the Moroccan Sahara for ten days. “I had once heard that dying of thirst was the worst possible fate.” In April 1994, the 39-year-old policeman from Sicily signed on for the Marathon des Sables, a seven-day, 145-mile run across the Sahara. Prosperi was in seventh place when a windstorm kicked up and violent clouds of sand obscured the course. He wrapped a towel around his face and stumbled on, trying to maintain his position, until he was forced to take shelter under a bush. When the wind subsided, the racecourse was nowhere in sight. With temperatures soaring above 100 degrees, Prosperi was lost, and had only a few swallows of water left in his bottle.
Three days later, the runner spotted a small Muslim shrine, and he set his Italian flag outside on a tent pole. Nearly mad from thirst, he caught two small bats, wrung their necks, and slurped their blood. Convinced he couldn’t last another day without water, Prosperi used a piece of charcoal to write a note to his wife, then slit his wrist—but his blood had thickened and wouldn’t flow. In desperation, he set out across the desert toward a mountain range 20 miles in the distance. Five days later, he came upon a group of Tuareg nomads, who took him on camelback to a nearby village. He’d walked to Algeria—130 miles west of the course—dropped 33 pounds, and severely damaged his liver. He has since returned to compete in the Marathon des Sables six times.
A Leg to Stand On
Amputation: A Split Decision
William Jeracki probably understands Aron Ralston’s ordeal better than most. On October 6, 1993, Jeracki, a 38-year-old anesthetist from Conifer, Colorado, was fishing alone on a small creek near St. Mary’s Glacier, outside Denver, when he accidentally dislodged a large boulder, which landed on his left leg and crushed it.
Jeracki knew a snowstorm was forecast for that evening but had not left word with anyone about where he was going. Now, wearing only light clothes, he didn’t believe he’d survive the night. He had to make a choice: amputate his leg or wait for help and risk dying of exposure. After three hours he pulled a pocketknife from his tackle box, tied off his leg with fishing line, and began sawing through his flesh at the knee. He sliced through tendons, nerves, and his patellar ligament until his femur slid out of the knee socket. Once free, he crawled to his truck, then managed to drive the stick shift a half-mile to Alice–St. Mary’s, where he was air-evacuated to Denver’s University of Colorado Hospital. Searchers recovered his severed leg, but surgeons were unable to reattach it. Today, Jeracki, who uses a prosthetic leg, declines to be interviewed about the incident, but it has had a profound impact on the course of his life—afterwards, he went back to school to become a licensed prosthetist.
After his escape, Jeracki told the Associated Press, “I’ll never know if that was the best possible decision. But I’m here. I feel lucky to be alive.”
This Dog’s Life
A Labrador Overcomes 25-Foot Seas and Sub-Zero Temps
On January 22, 2004, 48-year-old beach logger and dog breeder Greg Clark was motoring to the village of Craig, in southeastern Alaska, in his 32-foot boat, Katrina, on his way to deliver a two-month-old Labrador puppy. As always, Brick, Clark’s good-tempered eight-year-old black Lab, rode along. At 12:23 p.m., Clark sent out an SOS distress call, saying he’d struck rocks near Heceta Island. But by the time help arrived, the boat had disappeared. For three days, searchers combed the area for signs of Clark and his dogs, turning up only an unused survival suit and pieces of boat wreckage.
A month later, on February 19, local fisherman Kevin Dau was out with his father off Heceta Island when the older Dau thought he spotted a wolf on shore. Kevin, a friend of Clark’s, took one look and knew it was Brick. He called for the dog, and Brick swam so fast to the boat that “there was a wake coming off of him,” Kevin told a newspaper at the time. Brick’s fur was matted with tree sap, he was thin, and he’d injured his leg, but otherwise he was in good condition. Locals were stunned that the dog had survived, and speculated how. Had he eaten ground squirrels? Found an unfrozen stream? Slept under bushes for warmth in the sub-zero temperatures? No one knows but Brick, who is now safely ensconced in a new home.
“I feel like it’s a message from Greg, saying who knows what,” John Pugh, a friend of Clark’s, told a reporter at the time. “I haven’t quite figured it out, but it is a miracle, that’s for sure.”