On the Edge: 7 Extreme Survival Stories
The wilderness is harsh and unforgiving. These brave souls faced it head on and lived to tell the tale.
From being stranded in the heart of Antartica to three men forced to go further in outer space than any human being has ever gone before, our picks for the most amazing stories of people who pushed the far edges of endurance.
Juliane Koepcke had two big survival stories to tell by the end of her ordeal. On Christmas Eve 1971, Koepcke flew on LANSA Flight 508. The plane was struck by lightning. The plane began to disintegrate in midair, and Koepcke found herself still strapped to her seat—two miles above the Peruvian rain forest.
She was battered. She was bruised. Her collarbone was broken. But she was alive—the only survivor of the flight. And now, she found herself in the wilderness alone. Some candy was her only food, but she found a small stream. She waded downwater in it, able to keep herself hydrated at the same time.
The insects in the jungle stopped short of eating her alive and maggots had infected her arm, but after nine days, she was able to find an encampment. She gave herself rudimentary first aid, including pouring gasoline on the maggot infestation. A few hours later, lumber workers found her, giving her first aid and taking her to a more inhabited area where she was airlifted to a hospital.
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Her story was eventually told in the 2000 documentary Wings of Hope by director Werner Herzog, who had a seat booked on that very flight before cancelling at the last minute.
To date, no living humans have been as far in space as the crew of Apollo 13. (The ashes of Clyde Tombaugh are far past Pluto by now, but that’s a different story.) The crew’s path took them 248,655 miles from Earth before swinging back down for a miraculous landing.
But the crew never made it to the surface of the moon, their original destination. Instead, Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert, and Fred Hayse encountered a problem that could’ve killed them all: faulty wiring ignited an oxygen tank, blowing out part of the spacecraft.
Using the lunar module as a lifeboat, the crew stretched the rations that remained. They had to make a day-and-a-half worth of food for two people last for four days among three people. The crew had to make an orbital correction that took them far away from the moon to slingshot them back toward Earth.
The lunar module provided a safe haven for the astronauts in space while the crew was in space, but the craft couldn’t survive atmospheric re-entry. The crew moved back into the damaged command module before successfully making it to the ground, all unharmed save a severely dehydrated Hayse.
Ralston will forever be known as the guy who cut his hand off to escape a climbing accident that left him trapped between two boulders. Ralston was climbing in Blue John Canyon in Utah alone. As he shimmied down a canyon, a boulder came loose, and trapped Ralston’s hand.
No one knew he was there, and he only had a little bit of water and a little bit of food. It was up to him to rescue himself. He struggled for three days, before deciding to self-amputate in order to extricate himself. But after two days of trying various methods, he nearly gave up. At this point, he was out of water and surviving on his own urine.
That is until an idea came to him on day six: he could amputate a portion of his own arm much easier if he could only break his radius and ulna. After an hour of work with a cheap multitool, he had amputated his hand successfully, and had to still get back to his vehicle, descending a 65 foot wall with one hand.
He was eventually discovered by a European family on a camp out, and six hours after his self-amputation, he was rescued by authorities. He was found just in time: Ralston was on the brink of death from blood loss. He survives today, still taking outdoor expeditions and climbing adventures when not giving speeches or having movies made about his life. (127 Hours, if you haven’t seen it.)
Alaska native Ada Blackjack was a member of the indigenous Iñupiat people. She was hired by Canadians Vilhjalmur Stefansson and Allan Crawford on an expedition to the Wrangel Islands, which are now considered Russian territory.
The goal was to claim them in the name of Canada, and Blackjack was the seamstress and cook of the expedition.
Five members of the expedition were left on the island on September 16, 1921 as a territorial claim, but their rations soon ran low. Three members went off in search of help while Blackjack took care of an ailing crewmate, who later perished, leaving her alone on the island.
Blackjack survived there for two years, not an easy task considering the risk of polar bear attack. She learned to hunt seals and partly survived off their meat until she was finally rescued on August 28, 1923, almost two years after she’d been left on the island.
According to a site run by the University of Alaska-Anchorage, Blackjack did not receive a hero’s welcome. Instead, she was criticized for not saving the life of her male crewmate, though the family “eventually vindicated her after meeting with her and issuing a statement that Blackjack had done everything possible to save their son’s life.” Still, she spent the rest of her life in poverty before her death in 1983.
The Robertson Family
For 38 days, the Robertson family was lost at sea. Patriarch Dougal Robertson, a British dairy farmer, just wanted to take his family on a boat trip for the “university of life,” as his son called it. On January 27, 1971, Dougal, his wife, and their four children set out on a wooden schooner called the Lucette, heading to parts unknown.
Douglas, the eldest son, told the BBC his father had made few preparations for the trip, though he had been in the British merchant navy. For 17 months at sea, the family faired well, sailing from port-to-port and seeing the world. But on June 15, 1972, the family encountered a group of killer whales off the coast of the Galapagos Islands.
The whales attacked the boat, splintering it and severely damaging it. The ship was taking in water. All they had was a lifeboat and a small dinghy, and just six days worth of food. They survived on rainwater and hunted turtles, adrift at sea, hoping to ride Pacific currents to the middle of the ocean, which would then push them toward the Americas.
After 16 days, the raft was no longer usable, so the family their one inexperienced crew member fled to a dinghy. It was a 10 foot boat far over capacity, but they managed to cling on until they were discovered by Japanese fishermen on July 23, 1972.
On May 28, 2013, divers in the wreckage of the Jacson-4 were attempting a triage of the vessel, which 100 feet down off the coast of Nigeria after capsizing. What they didn’t expect to find was a survivor.
Harrison Okene was the ship’s cook. He was in the latrine when the boat capsized, and tried to reach an emergency exit hatch but failed. The boat began to fill with water with Okene trapped inside. Eventually, he found himself trapped with a four square foot bubble of air.
After three days, he had given up hope. Then he heard a knock. It was the hammer of the divers working on the surface of the ship. Eventually, diving gear was brought to him and he was brought to a decompression chamber, where he had to spend two days. He had been at depths that should have killed him in a situation that took the lives of everyone else on board.
Unsurprisingly, he vowed never to go out to sea again.
Ernest Shackleton had braved the south pole once, and we was ready to face it head on again in 1914, setting out with a group of 28 men. They hoped to make it all the way across the continent, arriving to a waiting ship at the other side.
Instead, they became hopelessly trapped in the ice as their ship, the Endurance, fell apart.
Eventually, supplies began to dwindle, and the men took to their lifeboats, floating to an island that took 14 days in bitter Antarctic Seas to reach. From there, they had to mount another expedition to South Georgia Island, the nearest inhabited island, nearly 1,000 miles from their original starting point.
Despite multiple hardships, all 28 men on the mission survived, though some of the dogs weren’t so lucky (and were eaten as food supplies ran low.) Not as fortunate was the ship waiting on the other side of Antartica, the Ross Sea Party, which experienced three deaths.