7 Brutal (Yet True) Stories of Winter Survival

Just about every outdoorsy individual has at least one good survival story, but most of them don’t hold a candle to this list of harrowing, death-defying tales.

Colby Coombs
In 1992, Coombs and two friends were attempting a climb of Alaska’s 17,400-foot Mount Foraker, via the infamous Pink Panther route. The trio was overtaken by an avalanche near the summit; Coombs plummeted more than 800 feet down the face, and his two companions were killed. The experienced climber took four days to slowly descend the face, and another five days to complete the five-mile hike across Kahiltna Glacier, a dangerous area with many crevasses. “If you do get in trouble, anything that gets in the way of success has to be eliminated—emotion, fear, pain.” Coombs told Outside. “It’s the mental things that will impede your survival.”

Phil Doole and Mark Inglis
What’s the longest period of time you’ve spent in an ice cave? It probably doesn’t come close to the two weeks this pair of climbers endured in 1982 after a blizzard overtook them on Mount Cook in New Zealand. According to Matador BNT, hey fashioned the ice cave as a temporary solution to the weather problem, but it took rescuers 13 days to reach them. They managed to divvy up what little food they had in order to stave off starvation, but both men lost all circulation in their legs. When they returned to warm land, Doole and Inglis each lost both of their legs – but the amputation has not hindered them in the slightest. Both men eventually reached the top of Mount Cook, and Inglis became the first double amputee to summit Mount Everest in 2006 – though he lost a few fingers and more of his legs in the process.

Kasudluak Kasudluak and Isajah “Willie” Nastapoka
Hunting for polar bears seems like an inherently dangerous activity, but these two teenagers definitely upped the ante in February 2011 when they became lost in the harsh Canadian tundra for four days. When their snowmobile broke down 30 kilometers from their home village, neither boy was especially prepared to face the elements – namely, the temperature that reached -31 degrees Fahrenheit/-35 degrees Celsius. As if the cold wasn’t enough, Kasudluak at one point staved off a hungry pack of wolves with his rifle. Miraculously, CBC News reported that both youngsters were found by a bush pilot and eventually made a full recovery – though Nastapoka had several of his toes amputated due to frostbite.

Eric LeMarque
In 2003, LeMarque – formerly an Olympic hockey player, according to How Stuff Works – was snowboarding at Mammoth Mountain in the Sierra Nevada range. As the sun went down, he somehow veered off-course and became lost. While he was somewhat unprepared (he only planned to be out for the day), he did have one handy item: an MP3 player, which he used as a compass to navigate through the strange terrain. Even so, his trek lasted a week, during which time he fell into freezing water and nearly starved. He made it, but at a serious cost: both of his feet and most of his legs were amputated due to frostbite damage.

Tracy Ross
There are a lot of prime swimming areas in the world, but – as Ms. Ross found firsthand – Alaska’s McKinley River is not one of them. According to Backpacker Magazine, three other climbers joined the 27-year-old mountaineer during a 1998 attempt to summit Mount Brooks, in Denali National Park. As the team navigated a network of stream braids that stretched nearly a mile, Ross and one of the other climbers, Joel Geisendorfer, stumbled and broke loose from the line. Geisendorfer, who had not been wearing his pack as a precaution, was able to essentially ride his gear to safety. Ross, who left her pack on her back, was not so lucky, and was dragged downstream by the quick-moving current until her foot became caught on the riverbed. As the water engorged Ross, she made a “last-ditch effort” and opened her pack buckle, whereupon she “exploded” out of the water and floated to the nearest bank. Despite deep shivers that lasted hours and a few bruises, she emerged from her ordeal unharmed.

Sir Ernest Shackleton and crew
The mother of all snowy survival tales occurred nearly a century ago off the coast of Antarctica. Already an established explorer, Shackleton initially intended to lead a six-man trek across the Antarctic landmass. His vessel, Endurance, would deposit the six-man exploratory party on the coast of the Weddell Sea, while another ship, Aurora, would circumnavigate the continent and establish a post to welcome the hikers. Only Shackleton and his crew never made it; after Endurance became stuck in heavy ice and began to sink, the party abandoned ship and camped on a large ice floe – for almost two months. When they were unable to set foot on land, Shackleton set up a permanent settlement on the floe, leaving the fate of his crew up to nautical drift. When the floe broke in half, the men boarded lifeboats left over from Endurance and paddled 346 miles from the ship’s wreckage.

Unfortunately, the crew landed on Elephant Island, a rather inhospitable place as far as weather and food were concerned. With little choice – and even less hope – Shackleton and his men hopped aboard the strongest lifeboat (christened James Caird, an irreverent nod to the expedition’s primary sponsor) and paddled more than 800 miles to South Georgia, an island off the coast of South America that served as a major jumping-off point for Antarctic travels at that time. Not only did the boat make it, but so did all the men – against all odds, none of Shackleton’s party perished during the disastrous expedition that ultimately lasted six months. In terms of exploring Antarctica, the mission was a failure – but as far as human survival is concerned, Shackleton and his men were highly successful.

Peter Skyllberg
When police discovered a car buried under snow in the Swedish wilderness in February 2012, the last thing they expected to find inside was a living person. According to BBC News, the 44-year old Skyllberg subsisted on candy and handfuls of snow for as long as 60 days – a duration many experts have characterized as the absolute limit before starvation sets in. During his impromptu car-camping trip, the local temperatures dropped as low as -22 degrees Fahrenheit/-30 degrees Celsius. Doctors say that his lack of mobility may have been what saved his life; by being confined to the car, Skyllberg was able to conserve precious calories.

By Brad Nehring