We live in a world obsessed with life, sickness, and death. Plausibly, this is because human life is so frail. It is amazing that humans are so delicate; just a few days without water or only a few minutes without air can end us.
Entire television shows are dedicated to people ‘lost’ in the wilderness or tales of unexpected causes of demise, making us all too aware of the possibilities surrounding us.
Another eye-catching plot is that of men, women and children that scraped through unbelievable conditions and “lived to tell the story.”
We readily open our ears (and wallets) to listen to their accounts in awe, feeling shivers run down our spines as we picture ourselves in the same position. In reality, though, that “survivor” could easily be any of us.
Imagine an instance in which an emergency was narrowly avoided. Perhaps your foot barely missed a sunbathing snake during an afternoon hike, or a friendly driver offered a ride when your car would not start in unknown territory. And, as much as we might prepare, there are some situations that catch even the most readied survivalist off guard.
Whether it be through the elements, by animal, humans, or an accident, danger could be lurking around every corner.
When instances such as these present themselves, how far are you willing to go?
Chances are, that you have heard family or friends recount in awe, stories of self-mutilation or cringe-worthy feats in order to escape death. Is survival worth achieving at any cost, or is there a limit? As you read the following situations, consider how you would have responded.
The Story of Aron Ralston
We have all heard the story of Aron Ralston, author of Between a Rock and a Hard Place. During a hike in Utah in 2003 he found his right arm trapped by a boulder, suffering for over five days. Failed attempts to chip away at the rock and pull himself free left him dehydrated, disheartened, and nearly dead.
There was a slim chance that anyone would soon pass through the area and even less chance that saviors would arrive while he was still living. This led him to saw off his arm with a dull knife.
An excerpt from his book states, “You’ll never find your limits until you’ve gone too far.” Today, though, he thrives like never before, and a movie adaptation has even been created about his experience.
How about Yates and Simpson?
Another tale that has left minds reeling is that of Yates and Simpson, two friends and mountaineers who found a terrible fate when they sought shelter during a snowstorm. The pair were exploring the Andes mountains when the fatal flaw occurred; Simpson slipped, fell, and shattered a leg.
Surprisingly, he described the sensation as being “wet” rather than particularly painful (although, he acknowledges, it indeed was). He was connected to his partner by a rope until the prior found himself plummeting further into a precipice. Suspecting that Yates had died, he tugged on the rope only to find a frayed cut at the other end.
Yates, who had struggled to help Simpson for twelve hours, felt that the only option left was to cut off his friend in an effort that at least one of them would survive. However, Simpson did not give up; he dragged himself back to base camp, found help, resulting in the salvation of both.
Simpson holds no grudge against Yates, and explained his point of view in Touching the Void, a book recounting the grueling details. Simpson has stated, “It’s odd that people imagine I think badly of Simon for cutting the rope. There’s a pragmatic side to mountaineering which armchair climbers and the public do not understand.
After I landed in the crevasse I did feel angry, but at the circumstances, not with Simon. I felt no resentment towards him whatsoever. It would have been totally illogical for Simon to die with me. In fact, because of his decision to cut the rope, we both lived.” But many question the extreme to which Yates was willing to go in order to survive his situation.
The Andes Flight Disaster
Another perilous story of survival in the Andes is that of the Uruguayan rugby team, along with family and friends, which occurred over forty years ago. The situation has been dubbed the “Andes Flight Disaster” as well as the “Miracle of the Andes,” and for understandable reasons. The harrowing testimony of heartbreak and pushing the limits of humanity leaves many at
The situation has been dubbed the “Andes Flight Disaster” as well as the “Miracle of the Andes,” and for understandable reasons. The harrowing testimony of heartbreak and pushing the limits of humanity leaves many at loss of a solid opinion of how permissible their actions were.
The small plane that was to carry forty passengers and five crew members to Chile in a relatively routine manner. A cloud disoriented the pilots, causing them to crash into a peak later fittingly entitled the Glacier of Tears. The crash was gruesome; some were burned to death by the engines, others killed on impact, and a few impaled by an assortment of materials.
Even fewer were left unscathed. When the survivors stepped out to observe their surroundings, they were only met with snow and silence. Through the static of the radio the living found that, though teams had attempted to find them, the lack of evidence drove them to nearly give up the search altogether.
After burials, starvation, and yet more deaths, those who were left conscious were driven to eat the remains of the dead.
Eventually, two of the survivors hiked their way to help, and the altogether sixteen survivors were rescued after seventy-two days of torture. One survivor, Nando Parrado, expressed about the mindset in the midst of the situation, “So I would teach myself to live in constant uncertainty, moment by moment, step by step. I would live as if I were dead already. With nothing to lose, nothing could surprise me, nothing could stop me from fighting; my fears would not block me from following my instincts, and no risk would be too great.” No risk, indeed.
Fammine In Russia
The listed cases so far include severing limbs, leaving partners for dead, and feeding on the corpses of lost loved ones, the next story pushes the boundaries even further.
Coincidentally, this account is more widespread and systematic than any of the previously mentioned, which quite possibly makes it even more horrid.
In the aftermath of World War I, Russia experienced a severe famine which lasted from 1921 to 1922. This event, the Russian Famine of 1921, is also known as the Povolzhye Famine. It was caused by economic difficulties combined with an obstinate government, although the drought that ensued during this time may have been the hinging factor.
Families ate seeds rather than planting them and sold everything possible in hopes of receiving food until there were simply no supplies left to be had. Starving citizens reverted to eating pets, birds, and grass, but that was still not enough.
Those still alive began to kill one another (friends, family, strangers) and eat them. One account is as follows, “… in the larder we found two pieces, in the stove there was one piece of boiled human flesh, and in the inner porch there was a pot with jellied minced flesh of the same kind, and near the porch we found a lot of bones.
When we asked the woman where she had taken the flesh from, she confessed that back in February her eight-year-old son Nikita died and then her fifteen-year-old daughter Anna and she took his corpse and cut it into pieces, and as they were starving they ate it together. When there was nothing else left, she decided to kill the daughter for meat and did it in the early April.
While the girl was sleeping, she slaughtered her and cut the corpse into pieces, and started to cook it. She gave the jellied flesh and liver to her neighbors Aculina and Evdokia, saying that it was horse meat. The human flesh, Anna’s thighs and feet were taken to the police as evidence, the boiled meat and bones and the jellied meat have been consigned to the earth.”
Similar tales have arose, including siblings that killed each other or strangers that mysteriously disappeared. The consumption of human flesh became so widespread and accepted that even butchers began to sell it. Many of those who participated in such acts were never punished since it was considered an act of survival.
In fact, acts such as these were even repeated in future instances in the Soviet Union (while it was intact) and other countries, such as reports of cannibalism by Ukrainians during Holomondor, a famine/genocide in which eating human flesh was so common that posters had to be published with the message, “To eat your own children is a barbarian act.”
You will likely never know true starvation
Many people consider it impossible that they themselves would succumb to such unspeakable means, but is it really that far-fetched? It is possible that these actions are not edged on by normal consciousness but inspired by primal survival instincts instead.
The hypothalamus, a vital area of the brain responsible for a range of survival-based activities, has been known to influence a person’s perception when in the face of danger.
The effect this area of the brain has on behavior is as follows:
Hypothalamic control of behavior is mediated in several ways. First, the lateral hypothalamic area and the histaminergic tuberomammillary nucleus play a major role in determining the overall level of wakefulness or arousal.
Second, hypothalamic inputs to various motor pattern generators may increase the probability of specific behaviors. For example when hungry, most animals need to forage for food, then explore it by licking and sniffing, and finally to consume it. The hypothalamus may reduce the threshold for activating motor pattern generators for locomotion, and for sniffing and oral behaviors that are involved in ingestion of food. Thus animals are more likely to encounter food and more likely to explore and consume it.
Third, there are hypothalamic descending outputs to sensory systems that may sensitize them (e.g., when hungry, food tastes better) or desensitize them (e.g., when under threat, pain is not perceived as readily).
Finally, hypothalamic control of autonomic responses may cause signals (stomach grumbling when hungry; dry mouth when thirsty) that reach conscious appreciation in higher cognitive systems as a need to engage in a behavior (in this case, eat or drink).
Similarly, hypothalamic regulation of endocrine systems may feed back on the brain. For example, many neurons in the brain have receptors for steroid hormones involved in reproduction, stress responses, or salt depletion, and changes in these hormones may alter the likelihood of various complex behaviors regulated by those neuronal systems.
This is very useful when considering why one would act in an otherwise unorthodox manner in order to survive. In fact, the previously described circumstances directly correlate with the information quoted here.
For example, Ralston’s shocking act of cutting off his own arm may have been product of the hymothalamus desensitizing his nervous system. It is conceivable that those who partook in eating human flesh did so not because they particularly wanted to but because their brains tricked themselves into considering it less dreadful than it would otherwise be.
In simple terms, desperate times call for desperate measures.
Now, again recall those near-disasters. How much is life worth to you? Is it worth cutting off a limb, risking the life of another, consuming appalling material, or killing family and friends? Maybe the answer varies from person to person.
This may be, in essence, why many preparedness and survival enthusiasts are so committed to their lifestyles. Few, if any, people desire to look into the eyes of death and become so consumed with fear that there are only a few options with which to continue living.
You might not know how far you are willing to go until the situation comes. Until then, we must live as best we can.
I will leave you with another quote from Nando Parrado:
As we used to say in the mountains, ‘Breathe. Breathe again. With every breath, you are alive.’ After all these years, this is still the best advice I can give you: Savor your existence. Live every moment. Do not waste a breath.