Climbing relies in no small part on self-management and mental strength; and keeping anxiety in check and having the confidence to reach one’s goals may also be key. Taking on the world’s highest peaks is an adrenaline-filled activity fraught with danger, and the lure of the summit can drive mountaineers to push themselves and achieve great things.
Sometimes, however, events go terribly wrong, and unfortunate adventurers find themselves caught in serious life-or-death situations, forced to dig deeper than ever before and dredge the will to survive. Climbers have been forced to witness the deaths of companions and friends, have lost body parts to frostbite, and have even experienced the so-called Third Man factor, which has been described by scientists as a kind of coping mechanism.
Take a look at the traumatic circumstances these ten climbers endured to survive – physically, mentally and emotionally – against the odds. All ten stories are inspirational and a testament to the resilience and determination of the human spirit.
10. Beck Weathers
From May 10 to May 11, 1996, nine people died during an attempt to scale the world’s tallest mountain in an event that is now referred to as the Mount Everest disaster. Writer and mountaineer Jon Krakauer was one of the 34 people trying to ascend the frozen peak – and the large number of climbers is said to have been one of the factors behind the tragedy. This high traffic led to delays, with the majority of those who reached the top doing so after the advised turnaround time.
Unusual weather conditions are believed to have sent oxygen levels plummeting by 14 percent, and a blizzard on Everest’s southwest face also reduced visibility for the descending climbers, several of whom got lost and disoriented in the worsening storm. Between them, the mountaineers suffered exhaustion, hypothermia, frostbite and hypoxia.
Beck Weathers, who was part of Krakauer’s expedition, had been discovered by a team member badly frostbitten and unable to move or even properly respond. Yet after being left for dead, and despite serious hypothermia, Weathers somehow came to, walking under his own power to catch up the other survivors at Camp IV. After a storm, Weathers was again believed dead and nearly abandoned, but he was found to be conscious by Krakauer. In spite of his deteriorating condition, Weathers managed to make it down the mountain. Frostbite claimed his nose, one hand, and five digits, but he recovered.
Following his own experience of the grueling ordeal, Krakauer has said he feels remorse for the others who died, and he wrote the bestselling book Into Thin Air as what he has described as “an act of catharsis.” Krakauer added, “I thought that writing the book might purge Everest from my life. It hasn’t, of course.”
9. Chris Bonington and Doug Scott
On July 13, 1977, Chris Bonington and Doug Scott became the first climbers to summit Baintha Brakk in Pakistan, a peak known as The Ogre. However, the descent turned disastrous when Scott slipped while rappelling and broke both his legs. Bonington then also had an accident while coming down the mountain, breaking several ribs and later contracting suspected pneumonia.
Both men were helped by their team members but still had to maintain mental control in the face of many setbacks and the pain of their injuries. Scott, who crawled for 12 whole days, said he persevered by focusing on “one feature at a time. A nub of rock, a pinnacle. Get there and then think about the next bit. Because to think about the whole thing was a bit mind-boggling.” The team eventually made it to base camp where rescuers came to their aid.
Although these experiences are incredibly intense and potentially traumatizing for the climbers, their families are likely to suffer too – and even in cases where there are no fatal accidents, partners and children must cope with having a husband and father who constantly puts his life at risk. Bonington’s wife Wendy has found a perspective on the situation that works for her. “Love to me is the whole plant. Once we put conditions on something, that is cutting off one branch of growth,” she says. “There are very often things about another person that you cannot understand, but to me that does not change whether you love them or not.”
8. Lincoln Hall
While broken bones may heal and pneumonia can be recovered from with time, some people have paid an even higher price for their survival. Australian climber Lincoln Hall is a prime example. Hall managed to summit Everest on 25 May 2006, but not long after reaching the peak, he came down with a serious case of cerebral edema, which swells the brain and causes extreme lethargy and hallucinations. Several Sherpa guides attempted to assist Hall and struggled to get him down the mountain, but eventually they were forced to abandon him, and he was assumed dead.
Miraculously, though, Hall survived the night without oxygen or proper equipment at a height of around 28,000 feet (8,600 meters). He lost a toe and the tips of eight fingers to frostbite but made it down the mountain the next day with the help of a team trying for the summit that found him.
Hall, who recently passed away, said the experience gave him a new perspective, explaining, “I really have a different relationship with death now. So it really has changed my understanding of the world. And it was just extraordinary to experience how much I meant to people.” He added, “When something goes wrong, that’s it usually, so it was just an extraordinary thankfulness to be back, and every day’s a bonus really.”
7. Aron Ralston
On April 26, 2003, climber Aron Ralston was negotiating a slot canyon in Utah when an 800-pound (360-kilogram) boulder fell and crushed his right hand, trapping him. He tried to shift the rock using ropes and chipped away at it with his blunt multi-tool, but nothing worked. By day four, Ralston had run out of water, so he saw only one option: to amputate his own arm. First, he broke both bones in his arm; then he sawed through the soft tissue, arteries, tendons and, most painfully, the nerves.
“All the desires, joys, and euphorias of a future life came rushing into me,” Ralston said of the experience. “Maybe this is how I handled the pain. I was so happy to be taking action.” Speaking in 2011, after his memoir of the ordeal was turned into the Oscar-nominated film 127 Hours, Ralston also reflected, “It was the relationships in my life that carried me through; all those loving connections with my family and my friends.”
6. Arlene Blum
American climber, feminist and scientist Arlene Blum is no stranger to tense mountaineering situations. In 1970, with her expedition having just reached the peak of Denali in Alaska, team leader Grace Hoeman collapsed, and the 25-year-old Blum assumed command, steering the all-female group through a rescue operation at high altitude. Yet far from it being traumatizing, Blum states that dealing with the life-or-death situation launched her to a new level. “I felt a whole new burst of courage and strength on the mountain, and a much greater self-confidence after we all got safely back down.”
Not all of Blum’s mountaineering endeavors have ended so happily, though. In 1978, she led an all-woman team on an expedition to scale Annapurna in Nepal. This was marred by tragedy when two climbers fell to their deaths. While in the Pamir Mountains in 1974, Blum also became acquainted with Soviet mountaineer Elvira Shateava, shortly before Shateava and her seven-strong team perished one by one on the descent from Lenin Peak.
Although Blum gave up mountain climbing after the birth of her daughter, she credits her tough childhood with giving her the wherewithal to succeed in the risky pursuit – proving her doubters wrong and showing the world what women can achieve in the process.
5. Jim Davidson
On June 21, 1992, Jim Davidson and friend Mike Price were descending Mount Rainier near Seattle, Washington. Davidson was in front when he left the trail to dodge a crevasse but fell into a deep chasm hidden in the snow. Price managed to slow Davidson’s fall but ended up plummeting 80 feet to his own death.
Davidson explains, “Everybody deals with sadness and difficulties and grief in their own way. I don’t have a prescription for others and how to deal with their grief. Mine changed with time. At first there was a lot of sadness and I had to struggle to accept it and then there was some doubt about – why am I still here and what am I supposed to do with my life now? And it took, you know, the better part of a decade, eleven years really till I got to the position where I could feel comfortable enough to share with other people.”
Davidson, whom it took over five hours to climb to safety, says he often feels close to Price during expeditions he has been on since the tragedy, both when things are going well and in difficult situations.
4. James Sevigny
While some climbers faced with life-or-death situations may make it through with sheer steely will to survive, others claim to have been aided by a seemingly external and mysterious force. After he was swept away by an avalanche, mountaineer James Sevigny experienced what has been called the Third Man factor.
On April 1, 1983, Sevigny and friend Richard Whitmire were climbing Deltaform in the Canadian Rockies when an avalanche carried the pair almost 2,000 feet down the mountain. Sevigny eventually regained consciousness, but he had suffered an extensive catalog of injuries. His back was broken in two places, and he had torn the ligaments in both knees. One of his arms was fractured, and the other had severe nerve damage thanks to a broken scapula. Several of his ribs were also cracked, his teeth and nose were broken, and he was bleeding internally.
After discovering that Whitmire had perished, Sevigny decided to lie down next to his friend and wait for death – when he heard a voice behind his right shoulder telling him not to give up. The voice continued to give the desperate climber instructions and only left him moments before his discovery and subsequent rescue by skiers. The Third Man factor is a strange, but not uncommon, phenomenon that has been compared to a guardian angel and described as a way to cope in extreme circumstances.
3. Charles Houston
In 1953, disaster struck a team of mountaineers attempting to summit the legendary mountain K2 in Pakistan. On August 7, after a series of challenging incidents, expedition member Art Gilkey collapsed, thought to be suffering from thrombophlebitis, or blood clots. Leader Charles Houston and the other climbers made a heroic effort to rescue Gilkey, attempting to descend the mountain in potentially dangerous conditions.
A group fall down a treacherous ice sheet nearly led to the death of almost all of the team members, but incredibly, climber Pete Schoening single-handedly managed to stop six of them plummeting by using an ice axe to quickly set and hold the rope, allowing his colleagues to scrambled back up. Gilkey was subsequently lost in what was assumed to be an avalanche, although the rest of the team made it to safety.
Some people have suggested that Gilkey worked himself free and ended his own life when he realized the peril in which he was putting the expedition. Others have countered this theory, saying that it would have been impossible or was simply not the case. Either way, Houston felt guilty about the turmoil he had put his family through and all but abandoned mountain climbing. Instead, he focused on research into altitude sickness, the results of which may have helped save many climbers’ (and pilots’) lives.
2. Tony Streather and John Emery
Climbers Tony Streather and John Emery were the only two surviving members of a failed four-man Oxford University team’s attempt to summit Haramosh Peak in Pakistan in 1957. And both survivors, particularly Streather, seem to have experienced the Third Man factor during the harrowing ordeal, which included avalanches, multiple falls and exposure to the elements.
According to John Geiger, author of The Third Man Factor: Surviving the Impossible, the phenomenon can occur at low to moderate altitudes as well. Factors like solitude, monotony and isolation may contribute to the appearance of what some see as a supernatural external force, or divine intervention. However, the stress of losing a team member, the so-called “widow effect,” could also play a part.
One of Streather and Emery’s colleagues fell to his death and the other was incapacitated by frostbite and later perished. During the dramatic, failed climb, Streather sensed “a being of some sort” helping him to continue, while at one point Emery felt as though he “had two minds… or was two people.” In both cases, the men’s experiences helped them to survive.
1. Joe Simpson
In 1985, Joe Simpson and climbing mate Simon Yates successfully scaled the west face of Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes, which up until then had not been ascended. All seemed well until Simpson broke his leg during the descent, and because both men were traveling light, they felt they had no choice but to continue in darkness.
Yates lowered Simpson down the mountain, but when the knot connecting the two men snagged, Yates made the decision to cut the rope, to save himself from being pulled off the face. This sent Simpson falling 150 feet into a crevasse – and yet he did not die. Left alone, Simpson was sure he was finished, but in what he assumed would be “a form of suicide,” he took action by rappelling further into the deep crack in the ice and was able to exit via a ledge. For the next three and a half days, Simpson crawled the agonizing five miles to base camp.
Simpson, like other survivors on this list, wrote about his traumatic experience, and his award-winning 1988 memoir Touching the Void was turned into a documentary film in 2003. While retelling such stories might bring up potentially distressing memories, Susan Pease Banitt, author of The Trauma Toolkit: Healing PTSD From the Inside Out, thinks that it could also have a beneficial effect. “Disclosure promotes physical health and well-being. It does not seem to matter whether the traumas are told in therapy, among friends, or in writing; what does make a difference is the telling,” she says.