If you’re lucky, you’ll never be in a position that forces you to tap into your survival instincts. But the truth of the matter is, you never know when an accident will put you in a life-or-death situation where time and critical decision-making are of the essence.
Maybe it’s hitting the slopes to take advantage of freshly fallen powder on a remote mountainside, exploring an underwater cave, or sailing the sea that’ll have you face unthinkable obstacles. From expanses of ocean, the crush of ice, and the unbelievable feeling of being absolutely alone, here are some of the most spectacular survival stories we’ve ever heard.
After soccer practice in June 2018, 12 members of a Thai soccer team and their coach decided to explore the nearby Tham Luang cave, one of Thailand’s longest.
The boys, ages 11 through 16, and their coach, 25, waded into the waters and began exploring the cave. When a flash flood came, they pushed deeper inside, eventually making their way to an elevated platform four kilometers into the cave system. The flood filled the twisted cave system with water, trapping the boys for 17 days. For the first nine days, they had no food, and relied on dripping stalactites for water. But they didn’t sit and wait.
Realizing they were trapped, the boys took turns digging a 16-foot hole into the cave wall, hoping to find a way out. They meditated to save energy and to avoid thinking about foot. Then, British divers who had set out from the cave’s entrance three hours prior happened upon the boys.
Surviving that long was only half the battle, though. Thai Seals entered the cave to help and hang out with the boys as rescuers planned how to extricate them safely. Over the course of a three-day mission, divers retrieved each player and their coach.
The arduous journey to the surface required each boy to wear a full-face diving mask, be tethered between two divers, and swim for hours through turns and exceedingly tight squeezes. Thanks to the efforts of Thai Navy Seals and the international dive community, all survived and were able to quickly return to a normal, healthy life after the rescue.
Tragically, one former Thai Navy Seal died in the rescue effort.
In July 2018, Angela Hernandez was driving near Big Sur down Highway 1, headed to Southern California in her SUV, when a small animal crossed the road. Hernandez swerved to miss it, and in doing so, shot her SUV off the road and off a cliff, tumbling about 200 feet to a desolate, rocky beach.
She had a brain hemorrhage, fractured ribs, broken collar bone, ruptured blood vessels in both eyes, and a collapsed lung, but she didn’t die. When she came to, water lapped over her knees. She broke her window with a multitool, crawled out the window, swam to the beach, and passed out.
When she came to again, she had no shoes and was understandably banged up, but began walking to the shore for help. She used a hose from her car to collect dripping water from moss along the shore. She walked for days. Up above she could see cars pass by atop the cliff, but they couldn’t see her or hear her screams.
It wasn’t until a few hikers scouting the beach for fishing spots stumbled across her wrecked Jeep and scoured the beach until they found Hernandez crumpled up sleeping on some rocks. They gave her water and called for help. Eventually, rescuers used ropes to descend the cliff and evacuate Hernandez to a hospital, ending her seven-day ordeal.
After successfully sailing across the Atlantic solo in his 6.5-meter sloop, Steven Callahan started the trip home in January of 1981. The storm around his boat one evening didn’t concern him, but the hole a whale or shark put in his boat’s hull in the middle of the night amid the storm surely did.
As the boat began to sink, Callahan repeatedly dove back into the sinking ship to grab survival gear. With food and water for a few days, Callahan clambered into his six-foot circular raft, adrift, 800 miles West of the Canaries and heading farther from them at every moment. Callahan fished with a spear gun and made water with a solar still. On day 14, he signaled to a passing ship, but it kept on passing.
After a month, he drifted out of shipping lanes. By day 50, he was covered in sores from the salt water, struggling with dehydration in the tropical waters, and struggling to patch a hole in his raft. Exhausted, and after losing a third of his body weight, Callahan was finally spotted by some fisherman off the coast of Guadeloupe as birds and fish circled his raft, foraging the fish guts he tossed back into the sea. He’d been adrift for 76 days.
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 that 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 of inexperienced crew members 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 Jascon-4 were attempting a triage of the vessel, which sunk 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 he 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 on 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.
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, which was struck by lightning. It began to disintegrate in midair, and Koepcke found herself still strapped to her seat—two miles above the Peruvian rainforest.
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.
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, 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 for a severely dehydrated Hayse.
Aron 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 his 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 more easily 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.
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.