Defying nature, outliving odds are stories that never get old

Author and subject of the film Aron Ralston attends the “127 Hours” film premiere at Chelsea Clearview Cinema on Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2010 in New York.



• “Touching the Void” by Joe Simpson is a first-person account of a climbing accident involving Simpson and his climbing partner, Simon Yates.

Simpson broke his foot while climbing in the Andes, and as Yates was trying to lower both of them down a 21,000-foot peak, the men got into trouble. Yates was forced to cut the rope that connected them, sending Simpson to what was almost certain death. But Simpson survived the fall and crawled to safety, despite being crippled, frostbitten and starving.

The story also is told in a movie by the same name as the book.

• “Alive” by Piers Paul Read is about the 1972 South American plane crash involving an Uruguayan rugby team, their family and friends.

The plane crashed high in the Andes, and 16 of the 45 people on board lived. They lived for 10 weeks in some of the harshest conditions on earth and resorted to cannibalism to survive.

The story also is told in the 1993 feature film “Alive” starring Ethan Hawke and Josh Hamilton and the documentary “Stranded” directed by Gonzalo Arijon and includes the survivors retelling the story.

• “Adrift: Seventy Six Days Lost at Sea” by Steven Callahan is an accounting of what happened to Callahan when he spent nearly three months adrift in a lifeboat in the Atlantic Ocean, living off the sea and drinking rainwater.

• “Storm Over Everest” is a 2008 documentary with David Breashears, an avid climber.

For the documentary, Breashears interviewed survivors of three climbing teams caught in a famous May 1996 storm on Mount Everest.

The storm claimed eight lives and led to the release of several books with stories of survival, including “Into Thin Air” by Jon Krakauer and “The Climb” by Anatoli Boukreev.

• “Soul Surfer” by Bethany Hamilton, Sheryl Berk and Rick Bundschuh is about Hamilton, who survived a tiger shark attack while she was surfing off the coast of Kauai, Hawaii. She was 13 at the time.

The shark took her left arm but not her life or faith. The book details the shark attack, how Hamilton survived and why she got back on a surfboard.

Hamilton’s story also is told in the 2007 documentary “Heart of a Soul Surfer” directed by Becky Baumgartner.

• “Disaster in the Mountains: Colby Coombs’ Story of Survival” by Tim O’Shei tells Coombs’ story of breaking his neck in an avalanche and 1,000-foot fall down a mountain, then hiking out five days to safety.

The book details the skills Coombs used to survive the 1992 accident in Alaska that killed two of his friends.

• “Capsized” by Steven Callahan and James Nalepka is the story of four men adrift for 119 days off the coast of New Zealand.

The book considers at how the men survived, changed and worked as a team to live.

• “Over the Edge” by Greg Child is the tale of four American climbers kidnapped in the mountainous Pamir-Alai region of Kyrgyzstan by extremists linked to Al Qaeda.

The book details what the men lived through and how they escaped.

• “I Shouldn’t Be Alive” is a Discovery Channel TV series about surviving death-defying ordeals.

Some shows feature extreme sports professionals while others feature ordinary people stuck in extraordinary situations.

Love. Peace. Faith. Luck.

Many survivors of near-death experiences in the outdoors attribute their ability to endure harsh conditions to the aforementioned things.

But no matter the reason given for surviving unthinkable conditions, the stories that detail the human will to live are so unbelievable the dozens of books, movies or TV shows have been made, bring the extraordinary into everyday life.

One of the more recent of those extraordinary tales of survival, and one particularly well-known in this area of the high desert, is told in “127 Hours.” The film was limitedly released Friday, Nov. 5, and currently is not showing in Grand Junction. Starring James Franco and directed by Danny Boyle, “127 Hours” captures the harrowing six days that then-Aspen resident Aron Ralston endured while trapped in Blue John Canyon in Utah’s Canyonlands National Park southwest of Moab in 2003.

Ralston, who survived on minimal food and water, amputated his lower right arm with a dull blade to escape a boulder that trapped him in a remote slot canyon.

Ralston’s story, also detailed in his book “Between a Rock and a Hard Place,” is inspiring, but it isn’t the only survival story for this region.

Seth Anderson, 36, would rather not have a combined 21 screws in his legs, but the Grand Junction man knows how lucky he is to be walking on crutches nearly nine months after an avalanche swept him 500 feet down Grand Mesa, shattering bones in both legs.

Anderson, co-founder of the outdoor-apparel company Loki, remembers thinking about two people while his body was plummeting down the mountain and buried in snow: his wife and their son.

“Love,” he says, is why he lived.

Anderson has heard or read many a story about the human will to survive for such reasons as love or faith. And if anyone knows the power a human can muster when faced with death, it is Anderson. He hasn’t survived just one near-death experience. He has survived two.

In June 2003, Anderson was climbing 14,000-foot Polemonium Peak in California when a boulder he was holding began to shift. Certain that if he fell with the rock he would careen into his brother below and kill them both, Anderson shifted the rock and moved his body so only he would die.

Certain he was about to plummet hundreds of feet, Anderson remembers images of everyone he loved flashing through his mind. Between the images and the plan to avoid hitting his brother, Anderson estimated less than 2 seconds elapsed.

In the next blink of an eye, he fell 30 feet before his brother, Dirk Anderson, caught him by his gear pack and saved his life.

Seth Anderson’s ankle was broken in the fall, but he was alive. The Anderson brothers then rappelled 2,000 feet down the mountain and a mile across a glacier and waited overnight for a helicopter to fly them to safety.

In both of Seth Anderson’s situations, as well as Ralston’s, there is a marked calm despite circumstances that could have led other people to panic.

A clear head, staying positive and focusing on the motivation to survive are all worthwhile ways to avoid death in a seemingly fatal situation, according to two members of Mesa County Search and Rescue.

“In a nutshell, it’s all psychological, but it really comes down to the person,” said Robb Reece, a Search and Rescue member.

Reece and Ben Lawrence have a combined 19 years on Search and Rescue teams, and each has seen people survive in unlikely circumstances. They have read or seen movies detailing other harrowing tales.

The men don’t get much follow-up time with the people they rescue, but they said it is memorable to go on a mission that results in people found alive in spite of dire situations.

Lawrence remembered two such searches. One was in August four or five years ago when a teenage boy had been missing in the desert for several days. The teen had no food and got water from sucking the roots of desert plants. The boy hunkered down in a drainage ditch with just enough shade to hide him from the summer sun.

In the other search, which took place four or five years ago in the Kannah Creek area and involved a man, probably in his mid-20s, who accidentally got shot in the upper thigh, Lawrence said. Despite obvious pain and severe bleeding, the man and his friends walked 2 miles before they were found. Lawrence remembers the man telling emergency personnel that he just wanted to see his daughter.

“The human body is super resilient,” Reece said. “People have drank the worst water, eaten sagebrush… If you are an optimistic person, and have something to live for, just one thing,” it matters.

In the movie trailer for “127 Hours,” the following saying is flashed on a screen: “There is no force on earth more powerful than the will to live.”

No natural disaster can hold up to a person’s unique ability in the natural world to endure, argues Brian Parry, Mesa State College psychologist.

And the notion that extreme survival stories are linked by common bonds of optimism, focus, resourcefulness and motivation is no coincidence, Parry said.

Natural forces have predictable, measurable characteristics. However, when basic needs such as food, water or shelter are stripped away, there is no telling what a person will do, Parry said.

Some people use their brains to adapt, think, problem solve and discover in the singular purpose of survival, he said.

In turn, those people survive avalanches, as Anderson did, or they survive mountaineering accidents, as Ralston did.

And the stories they create are unique, rather terrifying and incredibly memorable.


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