Two classic tales of survival
by George Patrick
The enormous success of Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, the true story of an ill‑fated expedition up Mount Everest, has led to a succession of books dealing with real human beings locked in a deadly struggle with the forces of nature.
Twenty‑six years ago, the equivalent book was Alive : The Story of the Andes Survivors by Piers Paul Read. This was one of those books that I really meant to read but never quite get around to at the time. So when I saw a hardback copy of Alive in the thrift store for a loonie I knew it was time to splurge.
Older readers will no doubt remember this extraordinary story which captured the headlines at the time.
In 1972, a rugby team of former students at a Uruguayan Catholic school was flying westwards over the Andes to play a match in Chile. There were forty‑five people aboard the twin prop plane. Somehow the two pilots seriously miscalculated their position. Thinking that they were descending to land in Chile, they crashed high up in the Andes mountains. Many were killed outright in the crash, others died agonizing deaths from their injuries. For the twenty‑seven survivors of the crash, mostly young men aged about twenty, an ordeal of almost unimaginable horror began. Ten weeks later, only fifteen would emerge from the mountains.
High above the treeline, there was no vegetation or animal life to sustain them when their meagre supply of food ran out. The air was so thin that any exertion was exhausting, and the snows so deep that they sank up to their waists. It was desperately cold. All around loomed great peaks: there was no way of knowing whether the best way out lay to the east (Argentina), or to the west (Chile).
Gradually, hope of rescue faded. The pilots, both dead, had radioed such an inaccurate last position that the air search had little hope of success. In any case, the searchers were looking for a white plane in a desert of white.
Soon all the food was gone, and famished eyes slowly turned to the frozen corpses of their friends and family members. The unthinkable became thinkable. Before their long agony was over, all would have eaten human flesh, including hearts , livers and brains. Like latter day Australopithicenes, they learned to crack bones to get at the energy rich marrow of former teammates. Calling upon Catholic theology, they compared it to the eucharist, when Catholics eat the flesh of Jesus.
This tale of cannibalism was, of course, the thing that would capture the attention of the world a few days after the miraculous survival of the fifteen was announced. Inevitably, that is what everyone remembers about the Andes survivors. But there is so much more to this story.
Alive is ultimately a portrait of a small society pushed to the very limit of its endurance. In such extremes, individual character is pared to the essence. The strong tend to walk over the weak ‑ literally, in the cramped, fetid fuselage where they huddled for warmth at night. The weak tend to become whining, cadging dependents. Some, strong to begin, crumble under the stress. And in one case, a young man, hitherto a nondescript also‑ran, emerges as a hero of Homeric proportions.
Alive is an unforgettable story.
Reading this classic got me to thinking about other stories of human survival in the face of Nature’s impersonal cruelty. Growing up in Britain after World War II, I read dozens of such stories. Most famous of these was Thor Heyerdahl’s The Kon Tiki Expedition (1950), that sublime tale of a bunch of modern day Vikings sailing westwards from Peru to Easter Island on a raft. But it was not typical of this genre. Although the Kon Tiki lads faced great danger, it all worked out for the best. The whole affair is a bit of a joyous lark.
Most of the stories I read were grimmer — about soldiers fleeing from Japanese POW camps, stricken with dysentery and beri beri; or torpedoed seamen drifting for weeks on rafts in the middle of the ocean, tortured by thirst. And so on. Of all these stories, however, one has haunted my imagination over the forty‑five years since I read it.
In 1955, David Howarth wrote We Die Alone, the incredible story of Jan Baalsrud.
On a whim, I tootled down to my local public library and two‑fingered the title into their computer. I really didn’t expect to find it. But there (bless our underfunded public library system) it was.
Jan Baalsrud was a young Norwegian. When The Germans invaded Norway in 1940, he fought against them until resistance was futile. He then escaped over the border to neutral Sweden, and made his way, via Russia, Bulgaria, Egypt, Aden, Bombay, South Africa, the USA and Newfoundland, to Britain. There, in the Scottish Highlands, he trained as a freedom fighter.
In March 1943, Jan and eleven other patriots landed on the very northern shore of Norway just north of Tromso, well above the Arctic Circle. Their mission was to disrupt the Nazi air reconnaissance that was playing merry hell with the convoys carrying supplies into Murmansk, our Soviet ally’s icefree port in the north. (It is worth consulting an atlas for this story.)
The twelve men were unlucky from the first. The Germans were waiting for them. Detonating the eight tons of explosives in the hold of their disguised fishing boat, the twelve tried to make it to shore and flee. Only Jan made it into the snow‑ covered hills. One foot was bare, and a German bullet had shot off half the big toe. Jan’s only hope now was to elude the Germans who were hunting him down, cross the mountains in Arctic winter, and escape once again to Sweden. We Die Alone is the epic tale of Jan’s journey, a classic of human fortitude.
Before his ordeal was over, Jan would suffer as few have suffered. He was entombed in snow more than once; swept downhill by an avalanche; wandered for days snowblind until he walked into the wall of a cabin; and was reduced by starvation and suffering to half his body weight. Yet he never lost the indomitable will to survive. Finally, entombed once more in the snows of the high mountain wilderness, he examined his gangrenous, frostbitten toes, and made a decision. Taking out his pocketknife, he severed nine of them. This is the scene that has remained with me over a lifetime.
What I had largely forgotten was how hundreds of Norwegians, finally given an opportunity to do something against the Nazi invaders, worked together, at enormous personal risk, to help their crippled young hero over the mountains to freedom. Like Alive, this is a story about individual survival in a wasteland of snow and perishing cold. But it is also, like Alive, a story of community, of human beings coming together to meet a challenge that few of us are ever likely to face.
David Howarth, in his introduction to We Die Alone, admits that Jan’s story defies belief. But the author retraced the steps of Jan’s agonizing odyssey, speaking to all the Norwegians who helped him, or who, for example, found Jan’s smashed skis where he was swept down the mountain by the avalanche. In every detail, Jan’s story held up.
Alive and We Die Alone are two extraordinary testaments to the human spirit.
There are several editions of both these stories, some with modified titles. The same is true of Kon Tiki.
Piers Paul Read. Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors (Lippincott) 1974. 352 pages. Also a revised edition by Adventure Library 1996.
David Howarth. We Die Alone (Collins) 1955. 256 pages. Also in Adventure Library 1996.