We Are Looking At Some Of The Most Exciting Books About Survival
I recently listened to the audio book of Lost In The Wild and was entranced with the adventure and peril of the two main characters. I read, rather listen to quite a few books (its my daily ritual when running) and after this recent one I wanted to list out some super exciting adventure and survival book. Reading Lost In The Wild also brought back a few memories of my own memories of camping adventures that had unexpected excitement from sickness or injury. So, below you have our top picks for stories about survival.
Life can be fragile and unbelievably tough. There is no end to the terrible situations humans can find their way into, nor a limit to what people are willing to do to get out. With a little bit of skill, a load of determination, and a whole bunch of luck, humans have been able to survive some unbelievable and terrifying challenges.
Lost in the Wild, by Cary J. Griffith, is a book which tells one of these amazing tales. It tells the story of two men facing overwhelming obstacles in a race against time to survive. When he was 18, Griffith was bitten by the writing bug after reading the famous short story “Big Two Hearted River” by Earnest Hemingway. He was dazzled by the story’s sense of place in the deep woods as shown by one of his favorite passages:
“Inside the tent the light came through the brown canvas. It smelled pleasantly of canvas. Already there was something mysterious and homelike. Nick was happy as he crawled inside his tent. He had not been unhappy all day. This was different though. Now all things were done. It had been a hard trip. He was very tired. That was done. He had made his camp. He was settled. Nothing could touch him. It was a good place to camp. He was there in the good place. He was in his home where he made it.”
From that point, Griffith wanted to capture what Hemingway was able to distill from the woods and to give his readers a sense of place that they could accept as true. He decided that writing about the wilderness and the deep woods would be his life’s work. Cary J. Griffith is the author of 5 books, two novels and three nonfiction, all with North Woods Minnesota settings. Lost in the Wild, published in 2006, was his first book.
Griffith made some interesting writing choices in constructing his book. First, he chronicles the narrative in a journalistic manner. Perhaps he’s tipping his hat in his first book to Hemingway, who began his career as a newspaper man, and this had a great influence on his writing style. Secondly, he tells two accounts of two totally independent incidents within one book, and does so by alternating chapters throughout the book. A story teller will try to hook you at once. A journalistic approach will hook you….but it may take a little longer.
I, for one, enjoy Griffith’s ability to simmer before boiling as his pacing built momentum that allowed me to get lost in the book. In the end, isn’t that why we read adventure and survival stories? To be totally immersed in the narrative? The stories of Dan Stephen and Jason Rasmussen will do just that, immerse you. You will become an active participant in a gripping survival story that you never thought possible. Relying on the author’s words and your imagination you will take part in two extraordinary stories. The volleying back and forth of the two individual struggles and successes is, to my thinking, a stroke of genius. Just when a story brings you to unbelievable levels of dread, the author allows you to catch your breath by switching gears and going to the other story.
And once again, when you get to the breaking point in that story, the author again allows a short respite by returning to the other account. I was totally enamored with Griffith’s use of this technique and it adds immeasurably to the dramatic effect of the book.To those readers that might find this disconcerting, you could read each story separately, but to my mind, this would diminish the rhythm and flow of the book. You are better served sticking with the author on this one. Now you might be asking: how did this all happen? So let us set the narrative.
Dan Stephens, a 22-year-old Eagle Scout, was spending the summer of 1998 as a guide in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA, Minnesota,Canada). While leading a group of eight boy scouts and two adults, he stepped into the woods to look for a canoe portage and didn’t return.
In October 2002, Jason Rasmussen, a 3rd-year medical student, decided to do a three day solo hike in the BWCA, Minnesota. On the first day, he took a wrong turn on the unmarked 26 milePOW WOW trail and became hopelessly lost in an area of dense brush, beaver ponds and bogs. That’s the setting, in a nutshell.
As I have indicated, these are gripping and entertaining tales and no paragraphs that I write could do justice to the pain, sufferings, courage and emotional upheaval of the two men, their families, Dan’s guide group and the various search and rescue teams.
I will, though, make some comments, give some takeaways and observations to add some content, but this is a book to be read! Hands down. It is my hope that after reading this article, you will do just that.
What is striking from both stories is how seemingly innocuous decisions can have a ripple effect of unfortunate experiences. To me, the larger lesson is that it is almost absurdly easy to get lost in the woods. Losing a trail can happen to anyone, experienced or not. It is not usually about swerving to get a closer look at a wildflower or to capture a better scenic photo. Even alert, experienced hikers can make a mistake at a “decision point” on a trail. It could be a trail junction or another unused old trail or a water bar that looks like a trail but funnels down into a maze of heavily wooded terrain.
A few years ago, I read a study where scientists from several universities set their test subjects on journeys in two very different environments, the Sahara in southern Tunisia and the Bienwald Forest in western Germany. The subjects were tracked by GPS and were asked to walk in a straight line. When the sun or moon disappeared behind clouds they began to veer.
Many participants began to separate as each believed they were walking in a straight line. Looking at the GPS tracings later the researchers noted something remarkable: the test subjects had begun to walk in circles. Some even returned to the start. Thus, even in the midst of getting lost the test subjects did not realize they were getting lost.
In fact, Jason does the exact same thing. He ventures from the shore of a lake in what he believes is a southerly direction convinced that he will locate the trail or a road. Only after arduous hiking through difficult terrain does he realize that he is back at his starting point. Jason does make crucial mistakes and I could only grit my teeth as they happened knowing that every poor decision could lead to horrific consequences.
He loses a crucial map, abandons his tent, most of his food, and his gloves and hat. Yet, each time he made these decisions, in his conceptual thinking he was doing the right thing. It was not that Jason was inexperienced, but his backpacking experiences had been in friendlier terrain and weather. In my mind, his experiences reinforce the warning to never take Mother Nature lightly.
Dan, in contrast, was a savvy and very experienced guide. However, in that simple trip into the woods to locate a canoe portage, he misstepped on some rocks and fell. Hitting his head, he suffered a concussion and was unconscious for 4 hours. Upon awakening, he was disoriented for a little over a day and had some short term memory loss.
During this time, he wandered aimlessly deeper into the woods without a plan. Upon regaining cognition, he was able to use his considerable skills to his benefit, but suffered under extremely adverse conditions. I was especially intrigued with Dan’s knowledge of hand-dominance.
In short, it means that left handed people have a tendency to go left when walking though they think they are moving in a straight line, and vice versa with right handed people. This is valuable to remember in the woods, especially if lost.
Dan, while seeking safety, was able to use the sun, moon and stars for direction and made compensatory adjustments based on his understanding of hand-dominance. Prior to reading this book, I had no knowledge of the dominant hand effect and neither did Jason.
Cary Griffith enhances and strengthens these stories with his extensively researched knowledge of the history and landscape of the BWCA wilderness. It serves to give further context to this survival tale. I will leave you with some questions that I have asked myself and you might want to ask yourself: What would I do? Would I survive if this happened to me? Could I really eat that? Lost in the Wild makes you ask: What would I do to survive? But I think the answer is always the same….Everything!
If reading Lost in the Wild whet your appetite for more survivor/adventure stories, I prepared a short list of my favorite reads. Especially in these times when planning your own adventure might not be possible, the next best alternative is to grab one of the books on the list and let your imagination take you on a journey while marveling at the tenacity of the human spirit.
Skeletons on the Zahara: A True Story of Survival by Dean King
A captivating, jaw-dropping story. Aggressively researched by King using the memoirs of two survivors and his own travels to Africa to retrace the arduous journey. A cargo ship ran aground on the northwestern shore of Africa in 1815.
Twelve American sailors survived only to be captured by desert nomads and sold into slavery. This begins a diabolic two-month march through the Sahara desert. They became so thirsty that they drank urine (theirs and camels) and it was a comfort. They became so hungry that they ate infected flesh that had been cut from camels. They began eating their own peeling sunburned skin. They lost half their body weight.
Six survived and were ultimately saved when a British official paid a ransom to gain their freedom. Do you have a secret pleasure? Chips? Chocolate? Cookies? Ice cream? You know, the kind of thing that when you start you can’t stop. Watch out, start reading this book and you will not want to put it down or stop. Just like ice cream.
Between a Rock and a Hard Place by Aron Ralston
A searing account of being trapped for six days in one of the most remote spots in America. Aron Ralston was a 27-year-old seasoned mountaineer and outdoorsman. He was spending a day hiking in the Bluejohn Canyon in the Utah desert. In the middle of the afternoon, and eight miles from his truck in a deep and narrow canyon, a falling boulder pinned his right wrist against the canyon wall.
This began six days of hell. Scant water, little food and no jacket, he found himself facing a lingering death trapped by an 800 pound boulder, 100 feet down at the bottom of a canyon. He began recording his final goodbyes on his video camera in his backpack.
Then came the thought….the almost unthinkable way home….to self amputate (yes, he had a knife). While pinned in the valley, a massive search had been instigated by family and friends the detail of which is included in the book. This is an astonishing story where death meets life.
No Way Down: Life and Death on K2 by Graham Bowley
Thirty-one climbers are attempting the summit of the most savage mountain on earth. Located in northern Pakistan, it is considered a sterner test than Kilimanjaro. It is steeper, colder and stormier.
By early afternoon, despite some missteps and two deaths, nineteen climbers decide to carry on. They commit two major mountain climbing sins: a late summit assault and a dark descent. They make the ascent, but before the descent an ice shelf collapses sweeping away their ropes. It is dark. Their lines are gone. They are low on oxygen. And it is getting very, very cold. This read is a gripping, hour-by-hour dissection of the events on K2 over three days.
Eleven lives are lost on the descent. Despite not being a personal narrative, and the contentious conflicting accounts of the survivors, the author is thorough and relates a well-nuanced, suspenseful story.
No Way Down is a portrait of extreme courage, huge folly, and great loss, lightened by a small dose of survival. To my mind, the exact details will always remain with K2.
Blind Descent: The Quest to Discover the Deepest Cave on Earth by James M. Tabor
Long after every other ultimate goal had been achieved: both poles by 1911, Everest in 1953, the challenger Deep in 1960, the moonwalk in 1969, the deepest cave on earth remained an unclaimed prize.
In Blind Descent, the author, James Tabor, chronicles the daring journeys of two explorer/scientists, American Bill Stone and Ukrainian Alexander Klimchouk, and their teams as they make all-out efforts to claim one last worldly prize.
Stone, in Mexico, and Klimchouk, in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia, spend months almost two vertical miles deep contending with 1000 foot drops, raging waterway rivers, monstrous waterfalls, mile long belly crawls and psychological behaviors produced by weeks in absolute darkness beyond all hope of rescue if things go wrong.
The story will hold you to your seat with deadly falls, killer microbes, sudden burial, asphyxiation, claustrophobia and anxiety. This is a completely engrossing and heart pounding read. And surely you don’t think I’m going to tell you who goes deepest.
Minus 148 Degrees by Art Davidson
In 1967, eight men attempted North America’s highest mountain, Mt. McKinley now Denali, but with a twist. Mt. McKinley had been climbed before, but never in winter. Plagued by doubts and cold, group tensions, and a crevasse tragedy that killed one member of the expedition, they climbed the mountain with minimal hours of daylight and through fierce storms.
They spent 42 days on the mountain caught in winds of 130 mph and a wind chill factor of 148 degrees below zero, thus the melodramatic title. Three members made it to the summit but were caught in a six day blizzard on the descent. Taking refuge in a cave, they survived on food that had been left by climbers three years prior.
The other members waited in a camp below weathering the same horrendous conditions. Eventually, all seven are rescued, but not before the reader is taken on a roller coaster ride of hope and despair. The author, a member of the group and one that reached the summit, is brutally honest as to the group’s failings, doubts and disagreements.
The frankness of the narrative made it, for me, a very compelling read. Be warned, you might need to put this book down at some point just to catch your breath.
The Worst Journey In The World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard
As War and Peace is to the novel, The Worst Journey in the World is to the literature of polar travel – the one to beat (New York Review of Books). The author volunteered to go to the Antarctic with the Terra Nova Expedition under the leadership of Robert Falcon Scott in 1910.
The expedition set up base camp on the edge of the continent while Scott waited to get to the South Pole in the spring. But first, Cherry-Garrard and two other men set out on a midwinter trek to collect empire penguin eggs for a study of the penguins’ place in evolution. It was a heartbreaking experience, and the title of the book refers to that journey, and not the ill-fated Scott expedition.
The group hauled 700 pounds of gear through unrelieved darkness with temperatures reaching 70 degrees below zero. Conditions were so adverse that in a single day’s march they might only cover a mile and a half. Clothes were so hard that it took two men to bend them. Sleeping bags froze so stiff that it took one hour to squirm into them. Compasses were of no use that close to the magnetic pole.
The author shattered all his teeth with chattering in the cold. Yet, they did retrieve three eggs that currently reside in the British Museum, and after thirty arduous days they returned to base camp.
In November, Cherry-Garrard was a member of the team that would make the attempt to reach the South Pole. The journey was so brutal that the horses gave out and were slaughtered for food and the dog teams became exhausted.
Scott decided to continue with two other men and sent the remaining team, including Cherry-Gerrard, with the dogs back to base camp to refit and regroup. He chose a rendezvous date with the dog teams but due to miscalculations and human error this never happened. The base camp made an effort to resupply Scott, but adverse weather forced them to return. Not until months later did the weather break to allow a search party, of which the author was a part.
In a heart-wrenching, eloquent description, Cherry-Gerrard writes of finding Scott and his two companions dead from starvation in their tent amongst their diaries. Cherry-Gerrard would fight for Great Britain in World War I, but in its aftermath coupled with his experiences on the worst journey, his life was riddled with mental illness. But as readers, we can be thankful for this spellbinding work.
This is a vivid, moving and unforgettable book. Words do not do justice to this story. The author imbues his tale with humanity, tragedy and even some humor. This is not to be missed. I will warn that it is 600 pages, but the writing is so enthralling it seems like half of that.
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
The Road is the only fiction book on this list, but a masterpiece adventure book. A man and his son walk through a scorched America. We do not know who they are and what happened to them, but they are trying to survive and doing the best they can to keep hope alive.
A plotless pilgrimage, but racing with tension with every human sighting, killing weather, huddling under blankets and tarps, always gathering firewood, always looking for water, searching for food in deserted houses, barns and boats. A visually stunning picture of how it looks at the end: two pilgrims on the road to nowhere. Stark and dark, but nonetheless a poignant survival story for our globally-warmed, pandemic-riddled world.
Survival stories engage us on a primal level. It’s a way to strip back the complexity of the world to the most basic of human needs: food, water, shelter, heat. All these stories take us away from comfort and into isolation and danger where life and death looks us squarely in our eyes.
Blair Witkowski is an avid watch nut, loves pocket knives and flashlights and when he is not trying to be a good dad to his nine kids, you will find him running or posting pics on Instagram. Besides writing articles for Tech Writer EDC he is also the founder of Lowcountry Style & Living. In addition to writing, he is focused on improving his clients websites for his other passion, Search Engine Optimization. His wife Jennifer and he live in coastal South Carolina.