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.
Attacked by a Ferocious Leopard Seal
Gareth Wood in Antarctica.
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
"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.
"Bloody hell, it's a leopard seal," Steve shouted breathlessly as he leapt
across the crack to attack the brute from the opposite side.
A leopard seal like the one that clamped down on Gareth Wood's leg.
"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
"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.
Plunging into a Bottomless Crevasse
A young Douglas Mawson, before his tragic Australasian Antarctic Expedition.
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
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
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.
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
Sir Douglas Mawson in the late 1920s, during the second expedition he lead to Antarctica.
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.
Lost Overnight in a Near-Hurricane-Force Blizzard
Keizo Funatsu with sledge dog.
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
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.
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.
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.
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,
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.
Poisoned Slowly by Carbon Monoxide
Richard Byrd in his Antarctic hut by the fateful stove.
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
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
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.
Richard Byrd and Floyd Bennett in Antarctic survival gear of the 1930s.
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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