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Survival Stories

Attacked by a ferocious leopard seal, plunging into a bottomless crevasse, lost overnight in a near-hurricane-force blizzard, poisoned slowly by carbon moxonide. These four dizzying tales of survival in the Antarctic wastes will leave you shivering with fright, aching with sympathy, and above all, thanking Providence it was them and not you.


Gareth Wood Gareth Wood in Antarctica.
Attacked by a Ferocious Leopard Seal
In the supremest of all ironies, it was the moment that Gareth Wood successfully finished his 1984-85 "In the Footsteps of Scott Antarctic Expedition" to the South Pole with Roger Mear and Robert Swan that his troubles began. For that very day, the support ship that would take him home succumbed to crushing pack ice and sank, leaving him and his fellow team members stranded in Antarctica for a second winter in a row. It was during these dark months, while hiking across frozen Backdoor Bay with companions Steve Broni and Tim Lovejoy, that Wood experienced the most harrowing few minutes of his life.



The going was easy and as I moved over the ice I had no idea that I was being stalked from beneath its surface.

Ahead was a working crack which was slightly more than one stride in width - too far to comfortably cross without jumping. It was covered with a very thin layer of unblemished ice. Innocently, I stepped closer. Would it hold my weight, I wondered, or would I have to jump? Stretching one foot down, I probed it with the tip of my crampon, much as I'd done with dozens of other working cracks in similar circumstances. Suddenly, the surface erupted as the massive head and shoulders of a mature leopard seal, mouth gaping in expectation, crashed through the eggshell covering. It closed its powerful jaws about my right leg, and I fell backward, shocked and helpless in its vise-like grip. Feeling myself being dragged toward a watery grave, I locked my left crampon onto the opposing edge. I knew that once I was in the water, it would be all over.

"Help, help, Steve, Tim, help," I screamed repeatedly. It seemed an age before I finally caught sight of their running figures.

"Kick it, kick it, kick it, get the bloody thing off me, hurry, hurry for Christ's sake, you bastard, you bastard," I yelled hysterically, my gloved hands scrabbling fruitlessly for purchase on the smooth ice behind me as I strained against the seal's prodigious weight.

For one tiny fraction of a second our eyes met. These were not the pleading eyes of a Weddell seal nor the shy glance of a crabeater seal - they were cold and evil with intent. What fear the seal must have recognized in my own during this brief moment of communication, I can only imagine.

Leopard seal A leopard seal like the one that clamped down on Gareth Wood's leg.

"Bloody hell, it's a leopard seal," Steve shouted breathlessly as he leapt across the crack to attack the brute from the opposite side.

"Get the bloody thing off me, kick it, for Christ's sake," I screamed again.

"Aim for its eye, its eye," Tim shouted, his voice verging on panic.

"Bastard! Bastard! Bastard!" Steve chanted in rhythm to his swinging boot.

"Get its eye, blind it," Tim shouted again.

I watched, dazed, as the front tines of Steve's cramponed boot made small, fleshy wounds in the side of the beast's head near its eye. Fifteen or 20 times his foot swung with crushing impact. Blood streamed from the wounds and spattered to the ice with each sickening smack of the boot. The impact of the violent attack vibrated through my body. Stubbornly, the beast continued to grip my leg, which appeared tiny in its jaw. I felt as powerless as a mouse caught by a cat.

"It's backing off," Tim shouted triumphantly as the seal suddenly released its hold and slipped slowly back beneath the surface.

Numbed, confused, and mesmerized by the concentric ripples slapping the edge of the bloodstained hole, I stared entranced at the spot where the frightening beast had disappeared.

"Quick, get him back from the edge," Tim gasped.

Arms had just grabbed me when the seal's monstrous form leapt once more from its watery lair. Lunging at me, it crossed the ice with an awkward gait, streams of bloody water cascading to the ice around it. Its large, interlocking teeth crushed down on my plastic boot.

"My God, we've blown it," I gasped. "Kick it, kick it, for Christ's sake, kick it," I shouted, the fear in my throat threatening to choke me.

"Its eye, get its eye," Steve shouted as he and Tim again booted its head with the lance-like front tines of their crampons.

Irrational thoughts carreered madly about my brain. What would the ice look like from beneath the surface? What would death be like? As if divorced from life already, I pictured the seal swimming down with my limp, red-coated body in its jaws. I could see pale, green sunlight filtering down through the ice as I descended into the gloom of certain oblivion. It all seemed so real, so peaceful - a silent movie with myself as the reluctant hero.

Tim's tugging at my shoulders pulled me swiftly back to reality - finally vanquished, the animal had retreated to its nether world. They skidded me quickly over the ice a safe distance from the crack. I stood up shakily.

"Lie down, let's have a look," Steve implored, motioning me down.

"No, I'm all right. Thank God it's not broken," I gasped, as I tested my wounded leg by stumbling backward, away from the terror I had just experienced. Glancing down at my torn clothing I saw blood on my leg - whether it was mine or the seal's I was not sure. I unzipped my outer Gore-Tex and fiber-pile pant.

"Oh my God," I trembled, horrified at the blood and puncture wounds on the front and back of my leg just below my knee.

Excerpted from South Pole: 900 Miles on Foot, by Gareth Wood with Eric Jamieson (Victoria, B.C., Canada: Horsdal & Schubart Publishers, 1996), pp. 178-180. For more information, see www.garethwood.com.




Mawson A young Douglas Mawson, before his tragic Australasian Antarctic Expedition.
Plunging into a Bottomless Crevasse
By January 17, 1913, Douglas Mawson, leader of a three-person exploratory party that was one of several elements of his Australasian Antarctic Expedition, had already lost one companion down a crevasse and the other to exhaustion. He had killed and eaten the last of the sledge dogs that had been his means of transport and was slowly starving to death. He was over 100 miles from help, he was desperately alone, and his body had wasted to such a degree that, every morning before he rose to stumble on, he had to reattach the soles of his feet, which had become separated from the overlying flesh. Though one would think his circumstances could hardly have gotten worse, they did - suddenly and frighteningly - as this passage from Lennard Bickel's book Mawson's Will attests.



He toiled up a long, rising slope, heavily covered with snow. The sun was hidden, but its light and warmth filtered through the low cloud. He took off his waterproof jacket for easier movement and, along with his gloves, tied it on the back of the sledge. He strained his eyes to find the safest path in the horrible, deceptive glare. Several times he stopped short of open-mouthed crevasses; twice he actually scraped past gaping cracks he had not seen. He then came on smooth snow, and the sledge was running well when without any sign - he went through to his thighs. He clambered out with some effort and resumed his climb up the slope. Peering out from under his goggles, he made out the line of the crevasse on the edge of which he had just fallen through. It went to the south beyond vision; he turned to the north, and, 50 yards farther on, all trace had vanished into a field of flat, clear snow that offered him a path back to his westering course.

In the next instant, he felt himself falling, his stomach a plummeting lead weight. Then the rope yanked viciously, cutting the harness into his body, bringing a sea of bright-colored pain. He was suspended over a black, bottomless chasm. Now he could feel the sledge, pulled by his weight, sliding across the snow toward the edge of this icy pit - nearer and nearer. In seconds the bulk of the sledge would rush over the broken snow bridge, and then he would fall into the abyss. The thought flashed to his mind: "So - this is the end!"

The movement stopped. Against some unseen ridge or roll of snowdrift, the sledge halted; and now he swung 14 feet down between sheer walls of steely-blue ice, six feet apart.

Slowly he spun in the crevasse, drooping with despair, at the end of the rope. Above, the lowering sky was a narrow band of light; below him were unseen black depths. Cautiously lifting his arms, he could just touch the crevasse walls. Smooth and cold, they offered no fingerhold. Overhead the light showed the line of the rope cutting deep into the broken snow bridge, and he was fearful that sudden movement could again start the sledge sliding toward the edge. He held his position; the sledge did not move when he swung his legs in a wide arc. Gratitude filled his heart: "God has given me another chance...." A small, slim chance. Yet, how could he haul his weight directly upward on 14 feet of rope with his bare hands, his clothing full of snow, his body weak from starvation? Despairing, he turned his mind to the sledge propped in the snow above. How much did it weigh? Would it hold his weight if he tried to climb? He pictured his possessions on the abbreviated sledge, and instantly he saw the bag of food stacked on the mid-platform, and in the fear that clouded his brain he knew that he must make every effort to reach the bag.

Mawson Sir Douglas Mawson in the late 1920s, during the second expedition he lead to Antarctica.

The thought of wasted food galvanized him to action, and he was reaching a long skinny arm above his head, closing his bare fingers around the first knot in the rope. Shutting his mind against pain and stress, he lunged upward with his other hand and pulled his chin level. Again the reach - and he was six feet nearer the ledge; once more, and then again, holding the rope between his knees, feeling for the knots with his feet now - and he was level with the broken snow bridge. The treacherous, compacted snow was crumbling. Several times he tried to crawl to safety, and he was halfway to solid ice when the whole ledge fragmented under him. Again he crashed to the full length of the rope.

Once more the sledge held its grip in the snow. Once more he dangled, limp, drained, suspended in the chill half light. His hands were bleeding, all the skin of his palms had gone, his fingertips were black, and his body was freezing fast from the snow clogging his clothing, the deep cold of the ice walls shutting him in. He asked - why just hang here waiting for a frozen death? Why not end it all quickly, be done with the pain, the suffering, the struggle? Later he would write: "It was a moment of rare temptation. To quit small things for great, to pass from petty exploration of this world to vaster worlds beyond...." At the back of his belt was the razor-sharp sheath-knife. A good slash, a moment or two of breathless rush, and then, final peace - and no one would ever know how it ended, what had happened to him. He could see the sorrowing face of his beloved Paquita, the faces of his comrades - and he pictured again the food waiting on the surface - and Robert Service - Buck up! Do your damndest and fight. Try again!

His strength was draining fast, he was growing deadly cold. Soon it would be all over and done with. But Providence still had him at the end of the rope that was a way back to the surface. By what he later called a "supreme effort," he scaled the rope, knot after knot, and, with a wild, flailing kick, thrust himself into the snow above the solid ice. He fell into a faint and lay unconscious, his face toward the sky, his hands bleeding into the snow.

Excerpted from Mawson's Will: The Greatest Survival Story Ever Written, by Lennard Bickel (New York: Stein & Day, 1977), pp. 174-176.



Keizo Funatsu with sledge dog.
Lost Overnight in a Near-Hurricane-Force Blizzard
The six-member International Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1989-1990 had successfully dog-sledded 3,725 miles across Antarctica and were just 16 miles from their destination at Russia's Mirnyy base when Keizo Funatsu, its Japanese member, vanished in a raging blizzard. Though visibility was perilously low, expedition leader Will Steger quickly organized a search, spacing his fellow team members along a 340-foot rope, which the group then "walked" in a giant circle, calling frantically all the while for Funatsu. After a night and a morning of searching, with hope draining away, Funatsu suddenly stumbled out of the whiteness. Here's his tale of the night from hell.



I went outside, about four-thirty, to feed the dogs. Then I could not find my tent.

When I went out, the blizzard was not so bad - only about -25°F. I didn't wear mukluks [seal- or reindeer-skin boots], only Gore-Tex boots, my wind parka and wind pants, long underwear and wool socks. Very fast the visibility became very bad. When I tried to go back to the tent I found the first ski, no problem. [Skipoles planted upright in the snow served as guideposts.] But I could not find the second ski.

I stayed between the skis for a while, maybe ten minutes, waiting for the visibility to break. But it didn't. Then I tried to move back toward the first ski, but it was very difficult to walk straight ahead, into the wind. I went left, I went right, I tried to go straight, but I could not find the first ski. I could not find anything.

I stopped many times, and shouted, "I am here. I am here. Come on." The most frustrating thing was I knew I wasn't far from camp, that's why I kept walking. Most, I was upset with myself. I did not want to make trouble and cause people to look for me. I thought about that a lot.

At that time I was not cold; the adrenaline, the excitement was keeping me warm. But I was very worried about my toes; they were getting very cold. Fortunately, I found some dog shit and the faint trail of a sled, which I tried to follow, but it disappeared. But that meant I was close to camp, behind it actually, which was a good sign, so I decided to stop.

I always carry pliers in my pocket, to help unfreeze dog collars and fix broken ones, and now I used them to dig into the icy surface, which was very hard. I scooped out a shallow ditch, about two and a half feet deep, and a hole to put my feet into, because it was my toes that were the coldest.

sledge dog buried in snow Funatsu allowed the storm to bury him in snow for protection from the elements, just as one of his sledge dogs is seen doing here.

Once I was in my snow ditch, blowing snow covered me in five seconds. I was completely covered, like the dogs. I could breathe through a cavity close to my body, but the snow was blowing inside my clothes and I was getting wet. I thought under the snow I would be warm, but I was cold because I didn't wear much. The snow was heavy and packed down on my wind jacket, so my clothes were touching my skin and there was no layer for warm air to gather. I knew my teammates would be looking for me, I believed I would be found, it was just a matter of time. I had to believe that. But I knew I would have to stay one night, because I knew [my teammates] could not find me in the dark.

When I was digging it was warm, but once inside it was cold. I worried about losing energy. I didn't know which was better: to move around to keep my body warm, or to lie still to conserve my energy. In the hole I curled up and kicked my feet to keep them warm. Every 20 or 30 minutes I would jump out of my snow ditch and jump up and down, rub my arms and shout, to warm up. After a while I stopped the shouting. It was too windy to be heard, very noisy.

When I jumped up, the wind would push me away from my snow ditch, sometimes so far I would have to crawl on my stomach looking for it. That happened many times. But I always found it, helped by the fact that I'd spread everything in my pockets around it as guides - my pliers, my headband, lip cream, compass, pocket knife.

When I was in my snow ditch I tried to enjoy the opportunity . . . .

I thought to myself, "Very few people have this kind of experience, lost in the blizzard; settle down, try and enjoy this." When I did I truly felt Antarctica. With the snow and quiet covering me I felt as if I was in my mother's womb. I could hear my heart beat - boom . . . boom . . . boom - like a small baby. My life seemed very small in comparison to nature, to Antarctica.

I thought many, many things while I was lost, especially that I could not die at that place, only 16 miles from Mirnyy. I had big responsibility. If I died there, everybody would have big trouble - I simply could not die. If I died there, it would be a real shame for me, big shame, deep shame.

About five o'clock it started to get light and I tried to find the sled trail again, but I could not. I thought maybe I would have to stay lost one more night, and I thought I could survive that. But I was worried about my feet. They weren't really cold, but they felt very strange, like they were swelling, like my socks were broken [torn], because I'd kicked my feet all night. It was a sign of frostbite, but I could not take off my socks to rub my feet, because then they would get wet. Now at least they were dry.

I was in the ditch when I thought I heard somebody yelling. The storm hadn't let up at all and I thought I heard, faintly, "Keizo! Keizo!" But I thought it was wind noise. I'd been hearing things all night long; the wind can sound very much like the human voice. But I jumped out of the ditch to look and heard the voice again. "Keizo. Keizo. Keizo." Two or three times more I went out to look, to see if I could see anyone. I yelled, "I am here. I am here."

Fiinally I heard a voice just outside the ditch and I knew you were close to me. But I could not see anything. I shouted again, "I am here." Finally I saw Will and I just ran toward him, because I knew I might not see him again, it was so whiteout. I left everything behind. If it had been my imagination, a mirage, I'd have been lost again and in big trouble. I was very happy to see the people looking for me in the blizzard. I felt the human love - everybody had watering eyes, crying and wet. I cried, yes, I cried too.

Excerpted from Crossing Antarctica, by Will Steger and Jon Bowermaster (New York: Knopf, 1992), pp. 282-284. Used with permission of the Stuart Krichevsky Literary Agency, Inc.




Byrd with pipe Richard Byrd in his Antarctic hut by the fateful stove.
Poisoned Slowly by Carbon Monoxide
Adm. Richard E. Byrd was the first man to overwinter alone in Antarctica, manning the Bolling Advance Weather Base on the Ross Ice Barrier for four and a half months in 1934. But he very nearly perished for the distinction. Locked in a snowbound hut blasted by hurricane-force winds, with outside temperatures plummeting to -83°F and with no hope of rescue until the spring thaw, Byrd had little choice but to inhale the fumes from the stove he lit for heat and cooking - fumes suffused with dangerously high levels of carbon monoxide. As he relates here with brutal honesty, the degree of physical debility he suffered during this period was only eclipsed by his severe mental anguish.



As I saw the situation, the necessities were these: To survive I must continue to husband my strength, doing whatever had to be done in the simplest manner possible and without strain. I must sleep and eat and build up strength. To avoid further poisoning from the fumes, I must use the stove sparingly and the gasoline pressure lantern not at all. Giving up the lantern meant surrendering its bright light, which was one of my few luxuries; but I could do without luxuries for a while. As to the stove, the choice there lay between freezing and inevitable poisoning. Cold I could feel, but carbon monoxide was invisible and tasteless. So I chose the cold, knowing that the sleeping bag provided a retreat. From now on, I decided, I would make a strict rule of doing without the fire for two or three hours every afternoon.

So much for the practical procedure. If I depended on this alone, I should go mad from the hourly reminders of my own futility. Something more - the will and desire to endure these hardships - was necessary. They must come from deep inside me. But how? By taking control of my thought. By extirpating all lugubrious ideas the instant they appeared and dwelling only on those conceptions which would make for peace. A discordant mind, black with confusion and despair, would finish me off as thoroughly as the cold. Discipline of this sort is not easy. Even in April's and May's serenity I had failed to master it entirely.

That evening I made a desperate effort to make these conclusions work for me. Although my stomach was rebellious, I forced down a big bowl of thin soup, plus some vegetables and milk. Then I put the fire out; afterwards, propped up in the sleeping bag, I tried to play Canfield. But the games, I remember, went against me; and this made me profoundly irritable. I tried to read Ben Ames Williams' All the Brothers Were Valiant; but, after a page or two, the letters became indistinct; and my eyes ached - in fact, they had never stopped aching. I cursed inwardly, telling myself that the way the cards fell and the state of my eyes were typical of my wretched luck. The truth is that the dim light from the lantern was beginning to get on my nerves. In spite of my earlier resolve to dispense with it, I would have lighted the pressure lantern, except that I wasn't able to pump up the pressure. Only when you've been through something like that do you begin to appreciate how utterly precious light is.

Byrd and Bennett Richard Byrd and Floyd Bennett in Antarctic survival gear of the 1930s.

Something persuaded me to take down the shaving mirror from its nail near the shelf. The face that looked back at me was that of an old and feeble man. The cheeks were sunken and scabrous from frostbite, and the bloodshot eyes were those of a man who has been on a prolonged debauch. Something broke inside me then. What was to be gained by struggling? No matter what happened, if I survived at all, I should always be a physical wreck, a burden upon my family. It was a dreadful business. All the fine conceptions of the afternoon dissolved in black despair.

The dark side of a man's mind seems to be a sort of antenna turned to catch gloomy thoughts from all directions. I found it so with mine. That was an evil night. It was as if all the world's vindictiveness were concentrated upon me as upon a personal enemy. I sank to depths of disillusionment which I had not believed possible. It would be tedious to discuss them. Misery, after all, is the tritest of emotions. All that need be said is that eventually my faith began to make itself felt; and by concentrating on it and reaffirming the truth about the universe as I saw it, I was able again to fill my mind with the fine and comforting things of the world that had seemed irretrievably lost. I surrounded myself with my family and my friends; I projected myself into the sunlight, into the midst of green, growing things. I thought of all the things I would do when I got home; and a thousand matters which had never been more than casual now became surpassingly attractive and important. But time after time I slipped back into despond. Concentration was difficult, and only by the utmost persistence could I bring myself out of it. But ultimately the disorder left my mind; and, when I blew out the candles and the lantern, I was living in the world of the imagination - a simple, uncomplicated world made up of people who wished each other well, who were peaceful and easy-going and kindly.

The aches and pains had not subsided; and it took me several hours to fall asleep; but that night I slept better than on any night since May 31st [several days earlier]; and in the morning was better in mind and body both.

Excerpted from Alone, by Adm. Richard E. Byrd (London: MacDonald & Co., 1987), pp. 190-193.

Photos: (1) Gareth Wood; (2) Corbis/Peter Johnson; (5,6) Adventure Photo and Film; (7) Corbis/Hulton-Deutsch collection; (8) Corbis.

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