We vacation in the outdoors to get away from it all, but Mother Nature can be cruelly indifferent. These people didn’t beat nature at its own game, but they didn’t let it beat them, either. They just did what humans do best — think their way out of their problems.
10. Steven Callahan
In 1981, amateur sailor and naval inventor Steven Callahan departed Newport, Rhode Island by himself on a 21-foot sailboat and sailed it all the way south to Bermuda, then northeast across the entire Atlantic Ocean to England. He intended to sail in the transatlantic “Mini Transat 6.50” Sail Race, in which single-manned sailboats travel from Penzance, England to Antigua in the West Indies.
The weather turned foul en route and Callahan dropped out of the race, electing instead to sightsee down Spain, Portugal and then the Canary Islands, from which he departed on January 29, 1982 for Antigua. One week later, in the middle of the Atlantic, his sailboat was swamped in a severe storm and he fled into a six-foot-wide life raft with an emergency kit containing a speargun, a flaregun, a little tinned food, star charts and two solar stills, which desalinate ocean water. The food lasted him about a week, after which he took to fishing with the speargun. He was also able to eat barnacles that fixed themselves to the raft and birds he caught by hiding in a sleeping bag with fish left on the raft’s edge.
Callahan drifted for 76 days, during which he saw nine ships on the horizon but none close enough to see his flares. He did sit-ups and algebra problems to maintain his sanity, until he finally spied the lights of Marie-Galante Island off the coast of Guadeloupe. He had lost 60 pounds and developed severe saltwater sores, but the doctors in Gaudeloupe’s hospital were astounded by how healthy he still was. When asked what he wanted to eat, he said, “Land food.” He left the hospital after only seven hours, and less than four weeks later he started hitchhiking his way back to America on merchant ships.
9. Beck Weathers
Weathers is a doctor of pathology and amateur mountaineer who became stranded in a blizzard on Mount Everest on May 10, 1996, about 800 yards below the summit. At this altitude a blizzard turns the ground, sky, and everything else white, and climbers run a risk of simply falling off the mountain by walking toward what they think is a wall. Finding one’s way is almost impossible because there’s no way to gain one’s bearings. Weathers had also just undergone eye surgery, and so the altitude and snow rendered him blind.
Weathers tried to walk back down the way he had come, but he could no longer make out his footprints and quickly veered far off course. He had no tent and couldn’t find his way back to camp, so he was forced to spend the first half of the night sitting out in the open, alone and exposed to 60-mph winds at 40 degrees below zero.
Although he wore professional climbing gear, Weathers’ hands, arms, nose and ears were exposed and froze almost completely solid, to the point that he was unable to bend his fingers or elbows. He called incessantly for help for three hours, but didn’t have the breath to be overheard above the wind. So he decided to take his chances at finding the camp, and found it by groping into a tent he couldn’t see.
Professional mountaineer Anatoli Boukreev found him and dragged him inside, then left to search for other climbers in distress. When he returned he found Weathers alone in the tent, moaning and shivering under two sleeping bags. He told Weathers that if he could survive the night, he would have to walk down the next morning. When morning came, Boukreev helped Weathers to his feet and told him that if he couldn’t walk down to a lower camp on his own he would die, so Weathers walked on feet that had frozen beyond feeling. He claimed that he couldn’t tell when his feet had hit the snow until he felt his knees bending. He was airlifted from camp and survived severe hypothermia. His hands were both amputated, as were his nose and parts of his feet. Mountaineering expert Jim Wickwire has stated that his survival is “beyond belief.”
8. Shin Dong-hyuk
Shin is the only person known to have been born in a North Korean prison camp who successfully escaped. He lived for 22 years in Camp 14 in Kaechon, North Korea, where prisoners are tortured, executed, and worked to death by the thousands. Shin saw over 30 people executed, and when he accidentally broke a sewing machine he was punished by a guard who chopped off the first joint of his right middle finger.
He was starved to the point that he hated his own mother and brother because they competed with him for food. His meals were always cabbage soup with corn, which he supplemented with raw rats and insects. When he overheard his mother and brother planning to escape, he informed on them as instructed. He expected a reward of food, but the guards tortured him for four days to extract more information.
Then they executed his mother and brother in front of him, and spat in his face. He claims that he didn’t understand how to love his family, nor did he even really know what a family was. He had no knowledge of the outside world until 2005, when a prisoner told Shin that the outside he could eat as much as he wanted. That’s how Shin defines freedom today.
The two hatched an escape plan that entailed waiting for work duty on top of a mountain ridge where fewer guards patrolled. Once the guards were out of sight, the other prisoner tried to pass over the bottom wire of the electrified fence but was electrocuted. Shin crawled over his grounded body and escaped, although his feet caught the wire and were badly burned.
He broke into a farm and stole a 10 pound bag of rice which he traded for cigarettes, then travelled 80 miles to the Chinese border where the guards accepted his bribe of cigarettes to let him into China. There he worked various menial jobs until a South Korean journalist learned of his plight and brought him to South Korea. Shin says that he now understands the value of family and regrets how he treated his mother and brother. He currently works as an anti-North Korean activist.
7. Joseph Simpson
In 1985, Simpson and his friend Simon Yates attempted to be the first to climb the West Face of Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes. They made the ascent successfully but descended via the perilous North Ridge. Simpson lost his footing on an ice cliff and slid off onto a ledge of bare rock. This caused his right shin bone to split his kneecap.
They still needed to descend another 3,000 feet before camping, because they had no more fuel for their stove and would freeze otherwise. Yates tied two ropes together to reach Simpson so he could pull himself back up the cliff, but Simpson’s hands were so frostbitten that he couldn’t hold onto the ropes. The ice under Yates was melting, and rather than both men being dragged to their death Yates cut the rope to save himself.
Simpson plummeted into a crevasse. Yates descended the mountain the next day assuming Simpson was dead, but he wasn’t — although he couldn’t climb out of the crevasse with a broken leg and no rope. So he decided to jump deeper into the crevasse and pray for an exit. He found a small hole in the glacier, and he then crawled down the glacier for three days with no food and only chunks of ice for water. He had to navigate around other crevasses and fields of ice blocks the size of houses before reaching dirt. From there he hopped five miles back to base camp where Yates was almost ready to leave. Simpson made a full recovery.
6. John Colter
Colter was possibly the very first mountain man, an explorer of the pioneer days of the American West during a time when Natives were still abundant and often hostile to white settlers. Colter, an excellent hunter, scout and trader, was an indispensable member of Lewis and Clark’s Expedition to the Pacific.
In March of 1809 Colter went off to explore the Yellowstone area. He was accompanied by members of the Crow Nation when they were attacked by some 400 men of the Blackfoot tribe, which shot at them with flintlocks while Colter and company were navigating the Jefferson tributary of the Missouri.
Colter’s canoe was filled with so many holes that it sank. Colter rolled out of the boat and swam to shore, throwing down his arms and making a show of giving up. Since he han’t shown any aggression, the Blackfoot didn’t kill him. Instead they stripped him naked and told him to run away.
So he ran, and when he looked back he saw a dozen men chasing him with bows and spears. Colter turned out to be swift-footed and in fine shape, outpacing them for four miles over uneven grassland. When he looked back a second time only one Blackfoot was still close, so Colter decided to face the man and spun around to fight.
This surprised the Native, who was too exhausted to stop and take careful aim with his spear. He tried to throw it, but stuck the spear in the ground and fell over it, snapping the shaft. Colter snatched up the spearhead, stabbed the man, yanked a blanket out of his satchel and resumed running before the rest of the party could catch up.
One mile later he reached the Madison River, ran in and ducked underwater into a beaver lodge. The Blackfoot passed him by. He then walked 11 days in temperatures below -20 Fahrenheit until he found the Little Big Horn River and a trading post. He had drunk from rivers and eaten nothing in that time.
5. Hiroo Onoda
Onoda was a Japanese Army Intelligence officer who refused to believe that Japan had surrendered at the end of World War II. He had been assigned to Lubang Island, Philippines as a saboteur to blow up airstrips, sink ships and hamper the enemy however possible. Per his orders, he refused to commit suicide or to surrender except to his immediate commander.
News of the war’s end was distributed to the jungle in which he hid via air-dropped leaflets with General Yamashita’s signature. Onoda believed they were forgeries. He was accompanied by three other soldiers who continued for years to believe the war was on, and waged it via the sporadic killing of livestock, shootouts with Filipino police, and arson against rice farms.
Onoda was eventually left alone as his band of men were killed or deserted and gave themselves up. An explorer named Norio Suzuki discovered Onoda on February 20, 1974 after four days wandering through the jungle. They became friends, but Onoda refused to surrender to anyone but his commanding officer, Major Yoshimi Taniguchi.
Taniguchi was notified, and he flew to Lubang, found Onoda, told him that the war had ended and asked him to surrender. Onoda did so, surrendering his rifle, ammunition and seven hand grenades. Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos pardoned him, and Onoda turned to raising livestock. He also became an international celebrity, before passing away in January, 2014.
4. Alexander Selkirk
Selkirk was a Scottish sailor and small-time brigand who, in 1703, served as sailing master under Captain Thomas Stradling of the Cinque Ports. Their orders were to hunt down and sink Spanish merchant ships during the War of the Spanish Succession. They carried the war around Cape Horn and north along Chile, to an island called Mas a Tierra (“More Ground”).
Selkirk was terrified that the Cinque Ports would sink. He deemed it woefully unseaworthy and requested to be let off on the uninhabited island rather than risk going down with the ship. Stradling complied, and Selkirk spent the next four years by himself waiting for another ship. His provisions were a musket with gunpowder and balls, one knife, extra clothes, carpentry tools and a Bible.
He lived along the beach for a few weeks, but was aggravated by the noise of mating sea lions and so moved in the interior. He found wild goats, cabbage, turnips and coconuts more than sufficient for a balanced diet. However, his solitude nearly drove him to suicide, and he maintained his sanity by reading the Bible and singing Psalms.
His knife broke, so he made another out of some old iron. He thatched two huts out of pimento trees and chased down goats after he ran out of gunpowder. His father had been a tanner, and Selkirk had the know-how to make new clothing out of goatskin.
Two ships landed on the island, but both were Spanish and they would probably have killed him, so he hid. In 1709 Captain William Dampier of the Duke landed, and Selkirk was beside himself with glee to see the flags of England and Scotland. Campier’s men were so ridden with scurvy that they could pull their teeth out, but Selkirk saved them with his coconut stash.
His story became instantly popular throughout Europe and inspired Daniel Defoe to write Robinson Crusoe. Selkirk’s island is today called Robinson Crusoe Island. The Cinque Ports did indeed sink, with the survivors being taken prisoner by the Spanish.
3. Sir Douglas Mawson
Mawson was an Australian expedition leader who led a team of scientists to explore King George V Land, a slender section of the continent few people had seen. The party landed at Cape Denison, Antarctica on January 8, 1912. Roald Amundsen had been the first person to reach the South Pole only a month earlier.
While the scientists did experiments at the main base, Mawson led two men, Xavier Mertz and Belgrave Ninnis, on a dogsled expedition to map the coast and collect soil and rock samples. After five weeks they crossed a glacier some 290 miles from the main base, when Ninnis, jogging next to Mawson’s sledge, plunged through the ice into a crevasse. Mawson and Mertz never saw him again, and Ninnis took an entire team of six dogs down with him, along with a first aid kit, most of the food and the only tent.
The two men set out on the return trip with only a week’s worth of food, and drove the dogs non-stop for 27 hours to reach a makeshift tent. They had to slaughter some of their dogs for food for themselves and the remaining dogs. The best runners were spared, but the meat was almost completely devoid of desperately needed fat.
They resorted to eating the dogs’ livers which, like polar bear liver, is so high in Vitamin A it will kill you if you eat too much of it. Mertz couldn’t stomach the gristly meat, ate too much of the liver and suffered a marked psychological change. One day, after a few hours of sleep, Mertz simply refused to get up and said, “Let me die. I don’t care.” Mawson forced him to get up and continue.
Mertz started suffering from severe diarrhea and subsequent dehydration, and attempted to prove that he did not have frostbite by biting off the first joint of his left middle finger — he didn’t feel it and didn’t bleed. He then started flailing and Mawson had to sit on him to protect the tent. Mertz slipped into a coma and died.
Mawson was experiencing severe dizziness, abdominal cramps and an onset of jaundice. He briefly considered whether his chances would be better if he ate Mertz, but vowed to live off the dogs or die a civilized man. Mawson set out on the last 100 miles with only three dogs to pull his sled, finally killing and eating all of them. He later fell into a crevasse himself, and would have plummeted to his death if his sled hadn’t cut into the ice above him. He spent four and a half hours climbing out via his lead rope, then abandoned his sled and walked all the way back to the main base. The ship that would have taken him back to Tasmania had left four hours earlier. He and six men who remained to look for his team were forced to wait a full year for another ship to return. Mawson lost 50 pounds, but no appendages.
2. The Crew of the Commerce
The Commerce was an American merchant ship that wrecked off the coast of Western Sahara in August 1815. When Captain James Riley and his 11 men ventured inland, a Sahrawi tribe killed one of them. The rest fled to their dinghy and attempted to row to the Cape Verde Islands, but had to return to the African coast due to a lack of supplies.
They resolved that rather than die of dehydration they would offer themselves as slaves to the first tribe they encountered. That tribe was the Oulad Bou Sbaa, or “Children of the Father of the Lions.” The nomads took the men they wanted then went their separate ways, breaking the party up. Riley wrote in his memoirs that the tribesmen beat him and his men daily, starved them and forced them to drink urine.
Riley managed to learn their language well enough to request more water in return for better work, a request they granted. A year and a half into their travails the tribe was approached by Egyptian Arabs, one of whom was named Seti Hamet. He spoke French, and Riley told him that if he would buy Riley and his three companions Riley knew a good friend in Essaouira, Morocco who would pay Hamet’s price and give him an American revolver.
Hamet agreed, stating that if Riley was lying, which he was, Hamet would cut his throat. Riley wrote a letter explaining his situation and begging the reader to pay the money. On the trip north the Arabs treated the men much better, and together they fought off marauding bands of hostile tribes. The Arabs didn’t know the area well either, and the whole party nearly died of thirst before reaching Essaouira.
Hamet took the note into town and an American consul named William Willshire read it and agreed to pay, riding out to meet Hamet and pretending to be Riley’s long-lost friend. Hamet promised to go in search of Riley’s other men, but was never heard from again. Riley returned to Connecticut and his wife and five children.
1. Hugh Glass
Glass was one of the first American mountain men, a frontiersman who explored the Midwest via the Missouri River at the turn of the 1800s. He’s something of a Paul Bunyan figure, and many of the stories told of him are tall tales. But one event really happened, although you’ll find it difficult to believe. In 1822, an American Army General hired him and 100 other men to accompany him up the Missouri to gather furs. Glass was already a renowned scout and trapper, and during this expedition he and 13 others diverted to Fort Henry to bring food and supplies to fur traders there.
The party traveled up the Grand River Valley into Yellowstone Valley, and there Glass stumbled on a mother grizzly bear with two cubs. He had a rifle but couldn’t raise it before the bear was upon him. She bit his left thigh and threw him 20 feet, snapping his femur. He got to his feet and fought back with his knife, but she threw him down again and clawed the front and back of his torso so severely that his ribs were exposed.
Two trapping partners, Jim Bridger and John Fitzgerald, arrived and shot the bear dead. Glass fell unconscious and wasn’t expected to survive. Fitzgerald and Bridger, who would both become famous mountain men in their own rights, elected to stay with him until he died. They eventually left with his gun and equipment, thinking him dead.
He was not dead. He woke up and found himself alone in the middle of nowhere, well inside hostile Native country, terribly wounded, and without any supplies. The nearest white settlement was Fort Kiowa, 200 miles southeast across the center of South Dakota. Glass set his own thigh bone, splinted it, pulled his bear hide burial shroud around him and started crawling through the wilderness. He rolled over the first rotten log he came to, found maggots, and lay on them so they’d eat his dead flesh and clean his wounds.
He ate berries and plant roots, drank rainwater from leaves and animal tracks and crawled for six weeks through the prairie, navigating by memory until he reached the Cheyenne River. On the way he threw rocks and branches at two wolves to scare them from a bison kill and ate the rest of the bison raw. At the banks of the Cheyenne he lashed two logs together with vines and floated downstream another eight weeks to reach Fort Kiowa.
Along the way he received food and a spear from some friendly Lakota Sioux, who sewed a bear skin over his back. He recovered for eight months in Fort Kiowa, then tracked down Bridger and Fitzgerald to get his rifle back. He died in 1833 in Yellowstone Valley in an Arikara Indian raid.