World Travel

Unbelievable tales of survival

Aron Ralston
Aron Ralston, the climber who cut off his own arm
"Forty days after the tragic accident, surviving on a few days' rations of food and water, she sailed into harbour weighing only 45kg. Sadly her fiancé was never found."

RememberVictorian Government Minister Tim Holding's 2009 rescue, after two nights atop the super-chilly Mount Feathertop in his home state? We check out some other trips that have gone disastrously wrong, and their amazing tales of survival:

Man amputates his own arm

In April 2003, Aron Ralston was on a canyoning trip in Utah's Bluejohn Canyon when a 360kg boulder shifted, crushing his arm and pinning him to a canyon wall. He'd made the grave mistake of not telling anyone of his trip, so after six days he carved his name, date of birth, and presumed date of death into the sandstone canyon wall, and videotaped his last goodbyes.

Desperate moves: Following days of fruitless attempts to break the boulder, a delirious Ralston decided to free himself by cutting through the soft tissue of his arm with a dull blade, and used pliers to tear at the tendons.

When talking to National Geographic about the ordeal, he described the act as, "a hundred times worse than any pain I've felt before. It re-calibrated what I'd understood pain to be". He was eventually discovered hiking back and has since made a complete recovery, minus one arm.

Climber descends mountain with broken leg

When Brits Joe Simpson and Simon Yates climbed the Peruvian Andes in 1985, they were greeted by two disasters. Firstly, on the descent through a zero-visibility storm Simpson slipped, shattering his leg. Then Yates unknowingly lowered Simpson over an overhang, unable to either see nor hear him.

Yates had two choices, stay in the same position in which the crumbling belay seat would eventually break leading to both their deaths, or cut the rope and climb down to find out if Simpson had hopefully been close to safe ground.

Desperate moves: In a move some climbers consider controversial, Yates cut the rope, which led to Simpson plummeting down the cliff. When Yates descended he was able to see what would have happened and could only assume Simpson had died from the fall and returned to pack up base camp and prepare to leave.

However, Simpson miraculously survived a 30m drop and was on a ledge inside the crevasse with a badly broken leg. He spent three days without food, crawling and hopping back to base camp at the last minute before Yates left.

Woman survives 41 days at sea

In 1983, an idyllic 30-day sailing trip from Tahiti to San Diego turned into a living nightmare for one American woman and her British fiancé. Twenty-seven hours after Hurricane Raymond hit their craft Hazana, Tami Oldham Ashcraft awoke from unconsciousness severely injured, with her fiancé Richard Sharp gone.

The boat had taken on almost a metre of water, the mast had snapped off taking the sails with it, while the motor, electronics and radio were also damaged beyond repair.

Desperate moves: In a classic tale of human endurance, Ashcraft battled despondency by fixing up a makeshift mast and sail, rationing her food and water, then plotting a course for Hawaii, which was an astounding 2414km away. Forty days later she sailed into Hilo Harbor, by then weighing only 45kg. Sadly her fiancé was never found.

Plane crash turns rugby players into cannibals

In October 1972, a plane full of Uruguayan rugby players slammed into the Andes Mountains and led to one of the most unbelievable stories humanity has ever known. Of the 45 passengers heading to Chile onboard, 29 died or eventually died from the initial accident, injuries, or an avalanche that swept over their shelter.

The remaining 16 battled -30°C temperatures with unsuitable clothing, meagre food rations and the disheartening news from radio reports that the search for them had been called off.

Desperate moves: Sensationally, the survivors resorted to feeding off already dead passengers after their food rations ran out. And with little hope of being rescued, two of the passengers trekked for 12 days across the Andes, leading to the rescue of the remaining survivors on December 22 and 23 — 75 days after the initial crash.

Backpacker found after 12 days lost in the bush

Every year many backpackers in Australia underestimate the dangers and distances of the Australian bushland. With reckless temerity they attempt to cross great stretches of deserts or mountains completely under-prepared. Nineteen-year-old Londoner Jamie Neale was no different, and was reported missing after going for a walk in Sydney's nearby Blue Mountains.

Desperate moves: In temperatures that dropped to -3°C and rain and winds gusting to more than 80km an hour, Neale was dressed only in light clothing, and forced to live off berries and geebung weed, while drinking water from nearby streams. He made makeshift shelter and blankets from bark and branches. After almost two weeks he was discovered by bushwalkers at Narrow Neck Plateau, about 15km from Katoomba, in July 2009.

History's most famous boat sinking: the Titanic

Of course we had to include the story of Britain's RMS Titanic, for her time the world's largest and most technologically advanced passenger steamship. In 1912, this opulent ship began her maiden voyage, and on April 14, four days into the journey to New York, brushed against a huge iceberg, causing substantial damage to the boat and eventually leading to her sinking.

Of the 2223 people aboard the Titanic, only 706 survived, with 1517 perishing, qualifying it as one of the deadliest peacetime maritime disasters in history. The high casualty rate can be attributed, in part, to the fact that the ship did not carry enough lifeboats for everyone aboard.

Monica Tan is a freelance travel writer, and writes her own blog.

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