Having successfully topped-out on Everest in May 1976, Bronco Lane and his Special Air Service (SAS) colleague Brummie Stokes found themselves caught out overnight on their descent in rapidly deteriorating weather conditions. The pair bivouacked in a snow hole near the South Summit, pummeling and pinching each other to prevent sleep and the certainty of death. The following morning they stumbled and crawled their way off the mountain and were eventually rescued by a back-up team. Both lost fingers and toes to frostbite. Lane lost all ten toes, had them preserved in formaldehyde, and then donated them to the SAS Sergeant’s Mess – where they remained on display for many years. Both men continued their Special Forces careers with distinction, and remained highly active in the arena of expedition mountaineering.
When Tony Bullimore’s yacht capsized deep in the Southern Ocean 900 miles from Antarctica and 1400 miles off the Australian coast, he had no reason to think that he might survive. Bullimore, a 57 year-old former British Marine, was sailing solo in the 1997 Vendee Globe non-stop around the world yacht race at the time. A catastrophic failure of the keel in mountainous waves had rotated his yacht through 180 degrees… and that’s how it remained. Diving in and out of the swamped hull, Bullimore finally settled into a forward compartment slung in a hammock to keep himself out of the freezing Antarctic waters. As frostbite and hypothermia set-in, he contemplated his life and tended to various injuries including a severed finger. Four days later and very close to death, he was startled to hear a banging on the upturned hull. Diving once more through the length of the near-sunken boat, he emerged into bright daylight and unexpected rescue by the Royal Australian Navy.
In 2000, former SAS soldier Pete Bray attempted to become the first man in recorded history to kayak alone and unsupported across the Atlantic Ocean from Canada to Europe. Halfway across he capsized and ended up more than 30 hours adrift on the ocean before being picked up by a passing Ukrainian freighter. He returned to his task the following year, completing the 3000-mile crossing in just 76 days. This was not Bray’s first survival epic, as I can readily testify. During a Special Ops deployment in the mid-80’s, I was paired with him for a parachute insertion into enemy-held territory. The following night we capsized a two-man kayak on a freezing river whilst negotiating a white water rapid. Within minutes I was within a few heartbeats of death, badly hypothermic and desperately clinging to the hull of the upturned boat. No such weakness in Pete. Having clambered onto the kayak, he paddled us ashore, dragged me from the river and secured my corpse-like body into a dry sleeping bag. We lived to fight another day.
The common theme here is not the survival of the fittest, or that special techniques learned by Special Operators can save you in a pinch. It is simply that none of these men (myself included) felt the need to give in and die.
The single most important principle of survival is MAINTAINING THE WILL TO LIVE. It would have been so easy for Bullimore to succumb to the unforgiving Southern Ocean; for Lane and Stokes to pass into oblivion in the high Himalaya as so many before (and since) have done; for Bray to disappear without trace beneath the waves of the North Atlantic; for Parr to slip away amidst white water fury in the back end of beyond. But we didn’t. We didn’t want to die. We were determined to survive.
If you are ever unfortunate enough to find yourself in a genuine survival situation, MAINTAIN YOUR WILL TO LIVE. If it’s your destiny to lose that battle, ensure you depart this life with fingers, toes and teeth gouging deep furrows to the very edge of mortality. That attitude will serve you better than any number of Boy Scout manuals, Special Ops courses or Bear Grylls survival knives.
Trust me. I know.
About the Author
Bob Parr is a 25-year veteran of the Special Air Service (SAS), Royal Marines and various UK National Intelligence Agencies. A qualified Combat Survival Instructor, he has worked in more than 130 countries worldwide including just about any environment the planet has to offer. Appointed to the Order of the British Empire for outstanding service with UK Special Forces and decorated at a national level for Gallantry on operations, he is also a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and a singlehanded transatlantic yachtsman. Bob is currently circumnavigating the world aboard his self-built sailing yacht along with his wife, flying occasionally to his home in New Zealand’s beautiful South Island. Bob is the owner of SO3 Projects, a company specializing in Risk Management support to the film and television industry.