- Ernest Shackleton
- Douglas Mawson
- Salomon Andrée
- Sebastian Snow
- Ed Drummond
- Edmund Hillary
- Maurice Herzog
- Lewis and Clark
- Thor Heyerdahl
- Theodore Roosevelt
- Jacques Cousteau
- Sven Hedin
- Norbert Casteret
- Jim Corbett
- Charles A. Lindbergh
The Best Survival Stories Ever Told recounts stories of ordinary mortals who achieved extraordinary things. Spanning the ice-locked Poles and the endless deserts of Arabia to the storm-tossed South Atlantic, the rain forests of the Amazon, and sheer peaks of the Himalayas, it charts the dangerous relationship between men and nature.
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LAST MAN WALKING
SIR DOUGLAS MAWSON (1882–1958)
Australian geologist and Antarctic explorer. In September 1912 he set off with Dr Xavier Mertz, a Swiss mountaineer, and Lieutenant B.E.S. Ninnis, a British army officer, to explore King George V Land.
14 December 1912 When next I looked back, it was in response to the anxious gaze of Mertz who had turned round and halted in his tracks. Behind me nothing met the eye except my own sledge tracks running back in the distance. Where were Ninnis and his sledge?
I hastened back along the trail thinking that a rise in the ground obscured the view. There was no such good fortune, however, for I came to a gaping hole in the surface about eleven feet wide. The lid of the crevasse that had caused me so little thought had broken in; two sledge tracks led up to it on the far side — only one continued beyond.
Frantically waving to Mertz to bring up my sledge, upon which there was some alpine rope, I leaned over and shouted into the dark depths below. No sound came back but the moaning of a dog, caught on a shelf just visible one hundred and fifty feet below. The poor creature appeared to have a broken back, for it was attempting to sit up with the front part of its body, while the hinder portion lay limp. Another dog lay motionless by its side. Close by was what appeared in the gloom to be the remains of the tent and a canvas food tank containing a fortnight's supply.
We broke back the edge of the hard snow lid and, secured by a rope, took turns leaning over, calling into the darkness in the hope that our companion might be still alive. For three hours we called unceasingly but no answering sound came back. The dog had ceased to moan and lay without a movement. A chill draught rose out of the abyss. We felt that there was no hope.
It was difficult to realize that Ninnis, who was a young giant in build, so jovial and so real but a few minutes before, should thus have vanished without even a sound. It seemed so incredible that we half expected, on turning round, to find him standing there.
Why had the first sledge escaped? It seemed that I had been fortunate, as my sledge had crossed diagonally, with a greater chance of breaking the lid. The sledges were within thirty pounds of the same weight. The explanation appeared to be that Ninnis had walked by the side of his sledge, whereas I had crossed it sitting on the sledge. The whole weight of a man's body bearing on his foot is a formidable load, and no doubt was sufficient to smash the arch of the roof.
By means of a fishing line we ascertained that it was one hundred and fifty feet sheer to the ledge upon which the remains were seen; on either side the crevasse descended into blackness. It seemed so very far down there and the dogs looked so small that we got out the field-glass to complete the scrutiny of the depths.
All our available rope was tied together but the total length was insufficient to reach the ledge, and any idea of going below to investigate and to secure some of the food had to be abandoned.
Later in the afternoon Mertz and I went on to a higher point in order to obtain a better view of our surroundings and to see if anything helpful lay ahead. In that direction, however, the prospect of reaching the sea, where lay chances of obtaining seal and penguin meat, was hopeless on account of the appalling manner in which the coastal slopes were shattered. At a point two thousand four hundred feet above sea-level and three hundred and fifteen and three-quarter miles eastward from the Hut, a complete set of observations was taken.
We returned to the crevasse to consider what was to be done and prepare for the future. At regular intervals we called down into those dark depths in case our companion might not have been killed outright, and, in the meantime, have become unconscious. There was no reply.
A weight was lowered on the fishing line as far as the dog which had earlier shown some signs of life, but there was no response. All were dead, swallowed up in an instant ...
At 9 p.m. we stood by the side of the crevasse and I read the burial service. Then Mertz shook me by the hand with a short 'Thank you!' and we turned away to harness up the dogs ...
The night of the 6th [January 1913] was long and wearisome as I tossed about sleeplessly, mindful that for both of us our chances of reaching succour were now slipping silently and relentlessly away. I was aching to get on, but there could be no question of abandoning my companion whose condition now set the pace.
The morning of 7 January opened with better weather, for there was little wind and no snow falling; even the sun appeared gleaming through the clouds.
In view of the seriousness of the position it had been agreed overnight that at all costs we would go on in the morning, sledgesailing with Mertz in his bag strapped on the sledge. It was therefore a doubly sad blow that morning to find that my companion was again touched with dysentery and so weak as to be quite helpless. After tucking him into the bag again, I slid into my own in order to kill time and keep warm, for the cold had a new sting about it in those days of want.
At 10 a.m. hearing a rustle from my companion's bag I rose to find him in a fit. Shortly afterwards he became normal and exchanged a few words, but did not appear to realize that anything out of the way had happened.
The information that this incident conveyed fell upon me like a thunderbolt, for it was certain that my companion was in a very serious state with little hope of any alleviation, for he was already unable to assimilate the meagre foods available.
There was no prospect of proceeding so I settled myself to stand by my stricken comrade and ease his sufferings as far as possible. It would require a miracle to bring him round to a fit travelling condition, but I prayed that it might be granted.
After noon he improved and drank some thick cocoa and soup.
Later in the afternoon he had several more fits and then, becoming delirious, talked incoherently until midnight. Most of that time his strength returned and he struggled to climb out of the sleeping-bag, keeping me very busy tucking him in again. About midnight he appeared to doze off to sleep and with a feeling of relief I slid down into my own bag, not to sleep, though weary enough, but to get warm again and to think matters over. After a couple of hours, having felt no movement, I stretched out my arm and found that my comrade was stiff in death. He had been accepted into 'the peace that passeth all understanding'.
It was unutterably sad that he should have perished thus, after the splendid work he had accomplished not only on that particular sledging journey but throughout the expedition. No one could have done better. Favoured with a generous and lovable character, he had been a general favourite amongst all the members of the expedition. Now all was over, he had done his duty and passed on. All that remained was his mortal frame which, toggled up in his sleeping-bag, still offered some sense of companionship as I threw myself down for the remainder of the night, revolving in my mind all that lay behind and the chances of the future.
Outside the bowl of chaos was brimming with drift-snow and as I lay in the sleeping-bag beside my dead companion I wondered how, in such conditions, I would manage to break and pitch camp single-handed. There appeared to be little hope of reaching the Hut, still one hundred miles away. It was easy to sleep in the bag, and the weather was cruel outside. But inaction is hard to bear and I braced myself together determined to put up a good fight.
Failing to reach the Hut it would be something done if I managed to get to some prominent point likely to catch the eye of a search-party, where a cairn might be erected and our diaries cached. So I commenced to modify the sledge and camping gear to meet fresh requirements.
The sky remained clouded, but the wind fell off to a calm which lasted several hours. I took the opportunity to set to work on the sledge, sawing it in halves with a pocket tool and discarding the rear section. A mast was made out of one of the rails no longer required, and a spar was cut from the other. Finally, the load was cut down to a minimum by the elimination of all but the barest necessities, the abandoned articles including, sad to relate, all that remained of the exposed photographic films.
Late that evening, the 8th, I took the body of Mertz, still toggled up in his bag, outside the tent, piled snow blocks around it and raised a rough cross made of the two discarded halves of the sledge runners.
On 9 January the weather was overcast and fairly thick drift was flying in a gale of wind, reaching about fifty miles an hour. As certain matters still required attention and my chances of re-erecting the tent were rather doubtful ... the start was delayed.
Part of the time that day was occupied with cutting up a waterproof clothes-bag and Mertz's Burberry jacket and sewing them together to form a sail. Before retiring to rest in the evening I read through the burial service and put the finishing touches on the grave.
10 January arrived in a turmoil of wind and thick drift. The start was still further delayed. I spent part of the time in reckoning up the food remaining and in cooking the rest of the dog meat, this latter operation serving the good object of lightening the load, in that the kerosene for the purpose was consumed there and then and had not to be dragged forward for subsequent use. Late in the afternoon the wind fell and the sun peered amongst the clouds just as I was in the middle of a long job riveting and lashing the broken shovel.
The next day, 11 January, a beautiful, calm day of sunshine, I set out over a good surface with a slight down grade.
From the start my feet felt curiously lumpy and sore. They had become so painful after a mile of walking that I decided to examine them on the spot, sitting in the lee of the sledge in brilliant sunshine. I had not had my socks off for some days for, while lying in camp, it had not seemed necessary. On taking off the third and inner pair of socks the sight of my feet gave me quite a shock, for the thickened skin of the soles had separated in each case as a complete layer, and abundant watery fluid had escaped saturating the sock. The new skin beneath was very much abraded and raw. Several of my toes had commenced to blacken and fester near the tips and the nails were puffed and loose.
I began to wonder if there was ever to be a day without some special disappointment. However, there was nothing to be done but make the best of it. I smeared the new skin and the raw surfaces with lanoline, of which there was fortunately a good store, and then with the aid of bandages bound the old skin casts back in place, for these were comfortable and soft in contact with the abraded surface. Over the bandages were slipped six pairs of thick woollen socks, then fur boots and finally crampon over-shoes. The latter, having large stiff soles, spread the weight nicely and saved my feet from the jagged ice encountered shortly afterwards.
So glorious was it to feel the sun on one's skin after being without it for so long that I next removed most of my clothing and bathed my body in the rays until my flesh fairly tingled — a wonderful sensation which spread throughout my whole person, and made me feel stronger and happier ...
17 January A start was made at 8 a.m. and the pulling proved more easy than on the previous day. Some two miles had been negotiated in safety when an event occurred which, but for a miracle, would have terminated the story then and there. Never have I come so near to an end; never has anyone more miraculously escaped.
I was hauling the sledge through deep snow up a fairly steep sloop when my feet broke through into a crevasse. Fortunately as I fell I caught my weight with my arms on the edge and did not plunge in further than the thighs. The outline of the crevasse did not show through the blanket of snow on the surface, but an idea of the trend was obtained with a stick. I decided to try a crossing about fifty yards further along, hoping that there it would be better bridged. Alas! it took an unexpected turn catching me unawares. This time I shot through the centre of the bridge in a flash, but the latter part of the fall was decelerated by the friction of the harness ropes which, as the sledge ran up, sawed back into the thick compact snow forming the margin of the lid. Having seen my comrades perish in diverse ways and having lost hope of ever reaching the Hut, I had already many times speculated on what the end would be like. So it happened that as I fell through into the crevasse the thought 'so this is the end' blazed up in my mind, for it was to be expected that the next moment the sledge would follow through, crash on my head and all go to the unseen bottom. But the unexpected happened and the sledge held, the deep snow acting as a brake.
In the moment that elapsed before the rope ceased to descend, delaying the issue, a great regret swept through my mind, namely, that after having stinted myself so assiduously in order to save food, I should pass on now to eternity without the satisfaction of what remained — to such an extent does food take possession of one under such circumstances. Realizing that the sledge was holding I began to look around. The crevasse was somewhat over six feet wide and sheer walled, descending into blue depths below. My clothes, which, with a view to ventilation, had been but loosely secured, were now stuffed with snow broken from the roof, and very chilly it was. Above at the other end of the fourteen-foot rope, was the daylight seen through the hole in the lid.
In my weak condition, the prospect of climbing out seemed very poor indeed, but in a few moments the struggle was begun. A great effort brought a knot in the rope within my grasp, and, after a moment's rest, I was able to draw myself up and reach another, and, at length, hauled my body on to the overhanging snow-lid. Then, when all appeared to be well and before I could get to quite solid ground, a further section of the lid gave way, precipitating me once more to the full length of the rope.
There, exhausted, weak and chilled, hanging freely in space and slowly turning round as the rope twisted one way and the other, I felt that I had done my utmost and failed, that I had no more strength to try again and that all was over except the passing. It was to be a miserable and slow end and I reflected with disappointment that there was in my pocket no antidote to speed matters; but there always remained the alternative of slipping from the harness. There on the brink of the great Beyond I well remember how I looked forward to the peace of the great release — how almost excited I was at the prospect of the unknown to be unveiled. From those flights of mind I came back to earth, and remembering how Providence had miraculously brought me so far, felt that nothing was impossible and determined to act up to Service's lines:
Just have one more try — it's dead easy to die, It's the keeping-on-living that's hard.
My strength was fast ebbing; in a few minutes it would be too late. It was the occasion for a supreme attempt. Fired by the passion that burns the blood in the act of strife, new power seemed to come as I applied myself to one last tremendous effort. The struggle occupied some time, but I slowly worked upward to the surface. This time emerging feet first, still clinging to the rope, I pushed myself out extended at full length on the lid and then shuffled safely on to the solid ground at the side. Then came the reaction from the great nerve strain and lying there alongside the sledge my mind faded into a blank.
When consciousness returned it was a full hour or two later, for I was partly covered with newly fallen snow and numb with the cold. I took at least three hours to erect the tent, get things snugly inside and clear the snow from my clothes. Between each movement, almost, I had to rest. Then reclining in luxury in the sleeping-bag I ate a little food and thought matters over. It was a time when the mood of the Persian philosopher appealed to me:
Unborn To-morrow and dead Yesterday, Why fret about them if To-day be sweet?
I was confronted with this problem: whether it was better to enjoy life for a few days, sleeping and eating my fill until the provisions gave out, or to 'plug on' again in hunger with the prospect of plunging at any moment into eternity without the supreme satisfaction and pleasure of the food. While thus cogitating an idea presented itself which greatly improved the prospects and clinched the decision to go ahead. It was to construct a ladder from a length of alpine rope that remained; one end was to be secured to the bow of the sledge and the other carried over my left shoulder and loosely attached to the sledge harness. Thus if I fell into a crevasse again, provided the sledge was not also engulfed, it would be easy for me, even though weakened by starvation, to scramble out by the ladder.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Best Survival Stories Ever Told"
Copyright © 2000 J. Lewis-Stempel.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Sir Douglas Mawson Last Man Walking,
Richard Evelyn Byrd The Blow,
Salomon Andrée Adrift on the Ice,
Sir Ernest Shackleton 88° South,
Sir John Franklin The March to Fort Enterprise,
W. Elmer Ekblaw Thin Ice,
Robert Falcon Scott The End,
Walter Bonatti Death Zone,
Sebastian Snow Cotopaxi,
Ed Drummond Mirror, Mirror,
Sir Edmund Hillary The Long Grind,
Maurice Herzog Extreme Danger,
A. J. Barrington Dog Days,
Meriwether Lewis & William Clark Across the Great Divide,
Sir Laurens Van der Post Deluge,
Oceans & Rivers,
Sir Ernest Shackleton The Boat Journey,
Thor Heyerdahl The Reef,
Alain Bombard Atlantic Ordeal,
John Blashford-Snell The Cataracts of the Zaïre,
Sir Ranulph Fiennes Race Against Time,
Charles Waterton Riding a Guianese Cayman,
Theodore Roosevelt River of Doubt,
Steven Callahan Holed,
John Ridgway & Chay Blyth Storm,
Under the Ground,
Norbert Casteret The Abyss,
Jacques-Yves Cousteau Rapture,
Sven Hedin Dying of Thirst,
Bertram Thomas Crossing the Empty Quarter,
William John Wills Slow Death at Cooper's Creek,
Nick Danziger The Crossing,
Nikolai Nikhailovich Przhevalski The Sands of the Gobi,
Ernest Giles Escape from the Outback,
Peter Fleming The Pitiless Sun,
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry Prisoners of the Sand,
Henry Savage Landor Amazonia Extremis,
Colonel Jim Corbett Man-Eater,
Charles A. Lindbergh The Spirit of St Louis,
Sources & Acknowledgements,