There are a lot of harsh places to find yourself in the world. The desert can kill you just as surely as being in Hurricane Alley. There are parts of the world where it rains almost constantly, and others prone to earthquakes and mudslides. But few places are as consistently inhospitable as the Arctic. Just a massive, frozen expanse of snow and ice at the top of the world, where only the heartiest of humans manage to beat the odds and survive.
10. The Poop Knife
No proper curation of tales of Arctic survival can exist without referencing the most infamous tale of Arctic survival ever told. We’re, of course, referring to the tale of the poop knife.
According to a widely circulated story, sometime in the 1950s, there was an isolated Inuit man who lived alone and whose family wanted him to join them in town. To avoid the fate they had planned for him, he made a great escape into the frozen tundra with the most baffling bit of improvisation you can imagine. Under the cover of night, and with no tools since they’d been confiscated by his family, it’s said the man let loose a bowel movement into the freezing world and then set about fashioning it into a blade. Using nothing but his own saliva to help hone a sharp, icy edge, he sacrificed a sled dog and then made a sled out of its ribcage before attaching it to a second dog and escaping into the night.
The story was allegedly told by the missing man’s grandson, and it so fascinated people that several researchers and morbidly curious readers attempted to recreate the feet. So yes, scientists have tried to make frozen poop knives.
Their findings were that the knives were not effective and would melt again upon use. Still, there is a contemporaneous report from another Arctic explorer who said he fashioned his own chisel to dig his way out of a snowy prison.
In lab conditions, no poop knife has ever been successful, but they have yet to try it in fully freezing conditions to get an accurate reproduction. The ones they did make were able to cut subcutaneous fat in a pig before they melted, so there’s always a chance.
9. Douglas Mawson’s Deadly Trek
Douglas Mawson didn’t survive the Arctic. He chose the opposite side of the world and took on Antarctica. The problem here was that he chose to do it in 1912 with no knowledge of where he was going, no real technology or gear to manage the continent, and only two companions. Only Mawson survived.
Understanding how cold it gets in Antarctica is hard to describe. For some perspective, in May 1912 in the place where Mawson was, the velocity of the wind every day, 24 hours a day, for the entire month averaged over 60 miles per hour. Sometimes they got over 200 miles per hour. Temperatures get as low as -77 Fahrenheit. A year before Mawson went there, in 1911, another explorer’s teeth got so cold they shattered. So that’s about as cold as cold gets.
Mawson’s companions were a dog handler and a lawyer who was a champion cross-country skier. They traveled 300 miles in just over a month, and things seemed to be going well. It was only a short time later when the first of his companions fell into a hidden crevasse in the ice, taking a dog sled with him. The hole was so deep the other men could not see the bottom.
Most of their food was on the lost sled, so the two survivors were in a precarious position. They were forced to eat the weakest of their sled dogs as they backtracked. Mawson went snow blind at one point and by January, he wrote in his journal that his partner’s skin was peeling from his legs. The next day, the man had become delirious and developed a fever before dying in the night. Mawson was alone.
He had 100 miles left to go. His face was frostbitten and in agony, as were his feet. At one point, he removed his boots and the soles of his feet came off in them. He bandaged the loose skin back on and kept going.
Days later, in so much pain he could barely make five miles a day, Mawson fell into a crevasse himself. He managed to catch himself on the edge of his sled, dangling above a pit with no bottom. But there was a rope attached to the sled, and it held long enough for him to pull himself up. The same thing happened again the next day, but he had crafted a rope ladder for himself the night before as a safety measure, and it proved its worth.
By the end of January, he was making barely four miles a day. He was in severe agony and suffering numerous wounds from the cold. His hair had even begun to fall out. Amazingly, he then found a cave near his base camp where other members of the original landing party had left food, including oranges and a pineapple.
On February 8, he found a shore party that had been left to wait for him and, though their ship had already left, he stayed with his party and supplies and survived another winter before returning home.
8. Guðlaugur Friðþórsson
There’s an Icelandic fisherman named Guðlaugur Friðþórsson who has proven that Viking roots are stronger than you might think. Back in 1984, Friðþórsson was fishing with four companions near the Westman Islands. Sometime in the evening, their boat suffered an accident and capsized. It was -2 Celsius outside and the ocean waters were a deadly five to six degrees Celsius. The average human can withstand between 10 and 20 minutes in 5-degree water before their muscles begin to weaken and they lose coordination.
Two of the men drowned right away, but Friðþórsson and two others got onto the boat’s keel. Their respite was short-lived as the boat fully sank and the three lost each other in the rough, dark seas. The other two men were never seen alive again, but Friðþórsson swam alone for five hours in those waters. Apparently an Arctic fulmar, a kind of bird, kept him company on his journey.
When he finally made it to land after swimming nearly 4 miles he realized he’d come ashore in an impossible location. Waves were battering him against a rocky, unclimbable shore, so he had to go back into the water and swim further around the island for a better location.
When he found a suitable place, he had to walk, wearing soaking jeans and a sweater and no shoes, for another 2 miles in sub-zero temperatures until he found a town. Despite his ordeal, and a body temperature of 93 F, he survived with no sign of hypothermia, which doctors chalked up to the fact he weighed just shy of 300 lbs and was well insulated.
7. Pauloosie Keyootak
Pauloosie Keyootak is a politician from the territory of Nunavut, one of Canada’s least populated and coldest regions. A man who was raised on the land and an avid hunter and fisherman, he was well aware of what kind of environment he was heading into when he headed out on a snowmobile trip back in 2016. But even then he knew his trip was not going to be an easy one, considering the plan was to cover just shy of 500 kilometers, or about 310 miles.
The trip should have been easier than it sounded since it was an established trail Keyootak was going to travel with his son and nephew. There were cabins along the way for shelter, and the trio had supplies to get them through the 15-hour journey. It likely would have gone smoothly if not for a brutal snowstorm that disoriented them and caused them to lose the trail.
It was March 22 when the three went missing. By the time they realized they were well off the trail, they didn’t have enough fuel to go back or make their destination, so they did what any reasonable person stranded in the snowy plains of Nunavut would do. Keyootak used his pocketknife to carve out a snow shelter while the other two hunted down a caribou. And then they waited.
The Canadian military joined the rescue effort and despite only having a sleeping bag and some water, sugar, and tea packed, the men survived fairly comfortably until they were rescued on March 31st.
Not everything that survives in the frigid north is necessarily human. Or even sentient. Possibly the greatest tale of Arctic survival comes from the frozen wastes of Siberia where scientists revived the 30,000-year-old pithovirus from the frost. Because honestly, doesn’t the world need more giant, prehistoric viruses?
In all fairness, the pithovirus is not a danger to humans or animals, though it is still somehow infectious after so many thousands of years on ice. It’s also a giant, at least in terms of viruses. You can use a normal microscope to see it. It clocks in at 1.5 micrometers. The average virus cell is anywhere from 20 nanometers to 400 nanometers. Pithovirus is 1,500 nanometers. It’s a hefty fella.
The virus attacks amoebas, so we multicellular life forms are mostly safe for now. But that’s not to say there aren’t other, more dangerous viruses trapped in the ice that won’t appear as the Arctic begins to thaw out.
5. Bob Gauchie
Pilot Bob Gauchie was making what should have been a pretty unremarkable flight across the Northwest Territories in Canada back in 1967. The northern territory is very sparsely populated and you can travel hundreds of miles seeing nothing but forest and moose.
It was early February, a brutal time of year to be so far north, and Gauchie hit a bad storm. He lost his bearings and was almost out of fuel when he decided to save his own life with an emergency landing. He had not packed anything for survival – the plane had emergency flares and a box of frozen fish on board. Temperatures dropped to -60 C, which is about -76 F.
The search began soon after Bob went missing, but the problem is that the Northwest Territories are about 442,000 square miles. For all that space, only about 45,000 people live there, and almost half of them are in Yellowknife, where Bob was headed. The rest is all forest. Gauchie had landed so far away from civilization that he was even out of radio contact.
Rescuers searched for three weeks with no luck. With brutal cold and high winds, people assumed that, after so long, there was no way the man had survived. The search was called off. Friends even put money together to continue a private search, but it could only last for so long. The big problem? Bob had landed on a frozen lake in a white plane. He was invisible to search parties.
Wolves circled his plane frequently, and he talked to them to stave off his loneliness, but after 58 days, a plane on a routine flight noticed something unusual on the ice and landed to check it out. Bob surprised the pilot and passenger by both being alive and approaching with his suitcase, asking if they had room for another passenger. He holds a record for the longest solo survival in the Arctic for a downed pilot.
4. Bob Bartlett
Bob Bartlett was arguably the greatest Arctic explorer of all time. He led over 40 missions to map and explore the region, more than anyone else had or has ever undertaken. This despite the fact he managed to shipwreck 12 different times and nearly die several more.
His passion and obsession were exploring the Arctic and finding the North Pole. He was a member of numerous failed missions, including one where his explorer friend Robert Peary lost eight toes to frostbite. In 1908, the Pole was in sight on their third try when Peary sent Bartlett back home, claiming he wasn’t as good a sledge driver as the other man on the expedition.
In 1913, as part of a scientific expedition, Barlett’s ship got trapped in the ice and stayed there for a staggering 5 months. Anticipating the worst, he had the crew build igloos on the ice and transfer supplies over. When the ice finally pierced the hull and sank the ship, they were at least prepared.
The crew left camp and traveled hundreds of miles by sled. He left his crew on Wrangel Island and then traveled the last 700 miles to Alaska with just one guide and reached it by the end of May. A rescue vessel made it to the island crew by September, a full eight months after their own ship had sunk, which, as you’ll recall, was stranded for five months before sinking.
3. Marten Hartwell
Marten Hartwell was a pilot who was taking the exact same journey that Bob Gauchie had taken some years earlier. Hartwell was flying three passengers – a pregnant Inuit woman, a nurse, and a boy named David Pisurayak Kootook to Yellowknife to get to a hospital. Kootook had appendicitis and needed treatment.
A storm blew the plane off course, and it hit a hill, crashing near a lake. The woman and nurse died, but Hartwell and the boy survived for 23 days together.
Kootook, despite being only 14 and gravely ill, managed to build a shelter for himself and the pilot to help endure the -40C temperatures. He also made fire and hunted for food, but it was not enough.
Eventually, Hartwell was forced to eat the flesh of the passengers who died. Kootook, despite his condition and the fact there was nothing else to eat, refused. He died of starvation after 23 days, while Marten survived another week until rescuers arrived. Doctors later determined Kootook would have survived had he not expended so much energy building the shelter and trying to keep both he and Hartwell alive. He was posthumously awarded the Meritorious Service Cross.
2. Bruce Gordon
The harsh climate is one of the most terrifying things to survive in the Arctic, but it’s not all you need to overcome. Polar bears call that land home, and they are not to be taken lightly. So what happens when you run afoul of North America’s largest land predator? If you’re Bruce Gordon, you make friends.
Gordon was on a whaling ship in 1757, and word is the captain had a little too much liquid courage in him to be sailing. The vessel was between Greenland and Iceland when it was crushed between ice floes. Gordon was on lookout high in a mast and was knocked off the ship onto the ice just as the ship went down.
The boat had capsized and Gordon was able to gain entry to the now upside-down vessel and ransack the dry portions for food and supplies. That’s when the bears came.
According to the tale, a bear made its way onto the ship and he was able to kill it by wielding a torch and knife. He skinned it and harvested its meat and then, sometime later, a cub appeared. He had killed its mother.
Taking pity on it, he fed the cub and she became his companion. She grew bigger and followed him like a dog, even fighting off other polar bears that came around later. They lived and hunted together for a long while until Gordon finally found a small settlement of natives.
The bear left in time and never returned, and Gordon was able to track down another ship that rescued him. On board, he learned he had been gone for seven years.
Is the story true? Well, who’s to say? But, that’s how it’s been told.
1. Ada Blackjack
Wrangel Island is where Bob Bartlett left his crew, an Arctic island near the East Siberian Sea. It’s also the place where Ada Blackjack’s amazing story of survival took place as well.
Blackjack was an Inupiat, a native Alaskan, and not a survival expert by any means. In September 1921 she was hired on a one-year contract to join an Arctic expedition as a seamstress since her expertise was in sewing clothing made from fur, nothing more. All food, shelter, and survival gear were guaranteed as part of her terms of employment, so she accepted.
The plan was to claim Wrangel Island for the British Empire for no particular reason. Four men and Blackjack headed out with a lack of experience in Arctic survival and six months’ worth of supplies. Remember, this was a year-long mission. The plan was that the Arctic would provide all they needed for the other six months.
They managed to last a year, but the ship sent to retrieve them had to turn back, unable to break through the ice. One man came down with scurvy and the other three opted to head out to find help, leaving Blackjack to care for the sick man. No one saw those men again.
Blackjack cared for the sick man for six months. She had to learn to hunt and to survive while facing constant criticism from her patient. Then he died.
Alone, Blackjack continued her efforts at survival. She learned to trap foxes and shoot birds. In August 1923, a boat finally arrived to find Blackjack as one of two survivors on the island. The expedition had left with a cat named Vic that she had also managed to keep alive.
When she returned, she was not paid nearly what she was owed, and people criticized her for not being able to keep the dying man alive. Others profited off of her story though she did not, but at least now her name and her amazing perseverance can be known more widely.