The meaning of life.
It’s something survivors of horrific misfortunes are forced to think about, knowing the likelihood that they might not live to see another day is probable. And even after their harrowing journeys— up Everest, down the Amazon or through an urban attack—it’s still on their mind. Every day. Forever.
But these survivors didn’t just come out alive, they came out stronger—in mind, body and spirit. Through willpower, persistence and an ounce of luck, they each lived to tell their heroic tales. What can we learn from cases in which it’s one man against all odds? You’re about to find out, as you embark on a journey through the depths of the human soul.
“I WAS PRAYING TO DIE”
Against All Odds, a Young Man Survives 20 Days Lost in the Amazon, “Finds” Himself in the Process
Yossi Ghinsberg was alone beside the Tuichi River … just as he had been for the previous 19 days.
“The amount of pain and suffering was quite unimaginable” says Ghinsberg. “I was one big open wound that couldn’t heal because I was completely drenched for weeks.”
During his ordeal, his clothes had torn and his skin had broken, and each wound had become infected. He had fallen off a cliff, saved miraculously by a branch, which punctured him, causing agonizing pain. His feet contracted a severe fungal infection, and there was no skin left on his feet—just two chunks of exposed flesh oozing puss.
“I was bitten thousands of times by bees, wasps, mosquitoes, and worst, some bugs that left larva under my skin that hatched and were feeding on my flesh,” he says. “Famine left me nothing but skin hanging on bones. My physical condition was horrific. Thank God that my mental faculty somehow realized that if I lose it there, I will be dead for sure.”
Ghinsberg remained good spirited—focused only on the positive vision of staying alive and making it out to civilization … somehow.
THE JOURNEY BEGINS
In December 1981, Ghinsberg, who was born and raised in Israel, set out as a young explorer into the Bolivian Amazon along with friends Markus Stamm, a Swiss mystic, and Kevin Gale, an American photographer. The three met Karl Ruprechter in La Paz, an Austrian expatriate claiming to be a geologist, who inspired the trip after promising to be their guide down the Tuichi River.
After weeks wandering the Amazon, a river-rafting outing resulted in Markus getting trench foot, a condition that occurs when feet are exposed to unsanitary and chilly water for prolonged periods of time. The group split up after realizing Karl wasn’t fulfilling all he promised for the group, and that they were ill equipped.
Day 17 would bring the lowest point on Ghinsberg’s 20 days in the Amazon. After a huge flood forced him up into the hills, his feet became so raw that could no longer walk. Crawling, he tried to find the riverbank again, for without it he was lost.
Out of nowhere, Ghinsberg heard a plane.
“Knowing it was searching for me, I jumped on my feet and ran amok, screaming my lungs out and waving my hands in despair—the surge of hope that it will be all over in a minute if I am seen,” says Ghinsberg, who had gotten his taste for exploration early when he served in the Israeli navy.
But under the forest’s canopy, he was invisible from above.
“It passed and disappeared, oblivious to my agony,” he says. “That was too much to bear. Something deep inside me snapped. I collapsed into the mud, my feet on fire. From the depth of my heart, I was praying to die. I gave up on life. To my surprise, life did not give up on me.”
During the 20 days, Ghinsberg’s mantra played loudly in his head.
“I’m a man of action,” he repeatedly told himself, which meant no worry, no despair, no speculations, no complaints. “It meant acceptance of the circumstances and taking the right action. In essence, this is the secret of survival in extreme situations. As I learned, it is also the recipe for happiness in life. A man of action accepts reality for what it is and acts upon what the present challenge is, not wasting time to find out why this happened. Not complaining with a ‘why me’ attitude, not worrying about the possible disastrous consequences, but rather focusing on the best-desired outcome and taking the right action toward it.”
Ghinsberg says that in any survival situation, this attitude comes naturally, because it’s the most efficient strategy for survival. He says the mind is quiet and doesn’t waste precious energy on self-doubt and fear.
“All faculties are honed and directed at the task ahead— staying alive,” he says.
Yossi’s best friend, Kevin, is the one who eventually found him. Kevin never gave up the search, though the other two didn’t make it.
Looking back, Ghinsberg doesn’t describe the event as tragic, though the saddest aspect was losing two friends.
“It was never painful,” says Ghinsberg, now a motivational speaker. “Not even days after the rescue. While in the Amazon the experience was one of self-discovery and the discovery of my spiritual connection. A sense of elation is what I felt and still feel when I recall and recount my jungle against-all-odds survival story.
The positive elements of this story inspire me and thousands of others all around the world.”
Though most will never experience anything close to Ghinsberg’s journey, he says most people put in a similar circumstance will endure as well.
“[I want people to know] that there’s providence in life and miracles,” he says. “I also want them to know that adversity is part of life, yet being a victim is our choice; that we are heroes of our life story; that having a clear purpose and being strong is the key to dealing with tough times; that working toward a goal that is larger than us, contributing to others and being of service is the key to discovering our true power; that accepting reality for what it is is the definition of sanity; that nature is our true home and we are part of it; that the company of others is the most precious thing in the world; that if not for the goodness of others we would be dead; that every breath is precious and every day is a blessing; if it can be taken from us it was never ours; that to lose everything may mean to find yourself; that we are here for a reason and we better shine.”
“THROUGH THE ASHES COMES BEAUTY”
A Concrete Blizzard Over Manhattan
Sujo John worked in marketing in the North Tower of the World Trade Center, on the 81st floor.
Sept. 11, 2001 seemed sunny and typical, at least for what John knew since immigrating to New York from India six months prior. Earlier in the morning his wife, Mary, who worked on the 71st floor of the South Tower, was running a few minutes late for work from the couple’s home in Teaneck, New Jersey.
At 8:05 a.m. John sent an e-mail to a friend, telling him of wanting more purpose in his life, as the night before Sujo and Mary discussed their life insurance policy, so the topic of death had been fresh on their minds.
Forty-one minutes later, John heard a piercing explosion, and the office rattled as the room resonated with screams. Debris flew into the building and ignited. John saw a huge crater below and above him of mangled metal with smoke billowing out. He knew it was a plane, and he wondered if it had also hit the South Tower where Mary worked. His adrenaline kicked in.
“This is real,” he thought.
John watched firemen running up the stairwells while hordes of office workers ran in the opposite direction. “There were hundreds of firemen running up the stairways, with fire and smoke, and it gave me such strength to know that they stepped into danger and died trying to save others,” he says. “It made me realize that we’re bigger than this, and that there had to be a way out.”
As he descended down the stairs, he wondered if his wife, carrying their first child, might be alive. John, though somewhat confused about what was happening, knew that every media outlet must have been covering the story already, and he didn’t want his parents worrying—glued to their TV in India seeing such horrific images. They had already dealt with the loss of one of their children, John’s sister, who passed at a young age. He wouldn’t let his parents deal with that again. He knew something was inflicted upon America; that someone was attacking. He would not let the enemy win.
FOLLOWING THE LIGHT
“At a time like that, the most important thing is faith—it’s all you can lean on,” says John. “It gave me the strength while the building was collapsing. But, we all have our stories, and some might be going through something worse right now or fighting cancer.”
On the 53rd floor he took a break to make a phone call, but the landlines were dead. Going toward the exits facing the South Tower, John attempted to get a glimpse of the building. It was then another explosion shook the earth. The South Tower crumbled.
John emerged on the street to find three feet of ashes and soot and a graveyard of dead bodies littering the ground. A man with an FBI jacket and flashlight helped him, and he told John to follow the light in the distance coming from an ambulance.
Huge boulders and rubble pummeled around him, people bunched up on one side of the building, prayed and cried, “Jesus!”
“It was like a blizzard, one caused by all the concrete and ash that had been stirred up into the atmosphere,” John wrote, on the events of that day.
THROUGH THE ASHES
Around noon, John’s cell phone finally linked to Mary’s.
“Babe, are you alive?” she said.
“It was the most amazing experience,” says John, on hearing his wife’s voice. “We both didn’t know if the other was dead. It’s amazing how close we came to death.”
Mary had been running a little late for work, and her train reached the World Trade Center subway stop five minutes after the first building was hit. She never went into either building, and managed to reach 39th Street in Manhattan, shaken by the images of people hurling themselves out of the burning buildings.
ON LIFE AND FAITH
“Life is short,” says John, who has since quit his marketing job and switched to motivational speaking.
“Post 9/11 there was pain and hatred, but there’s still humanity and so much left,” he says. “It drives everything that I do with purpose beyond my wildest dreams.”
John has since founded his own ministry and You Can Free Us, a non-profit that rehabilitates victims of human trafficking in safe houses in New Delhi, India. He wrote his novel “Do You Know Where You Are Going?” and frequently travels to villages in India, where he helps build schools.
“I’ve shared my story so many times, and any 9/11 survivor can tell you that it becomes part of your life,” he says. “Everything changed. I think about it every day. It’s a defining moment for our generation, and it’s great when you change the world by sharing your story. It’s been a launch pad.”
He wouldn’t have done any of it without faith.
“Faith has helped me reach my goals,” he says. “The reality is you can wake up and you never know that on any day, at any moment, your life can change forever. It’s not about what car you drive or what stuff we acquire; it’s about our relationships with one another. You might end up dying with money, but what about the people in your life? I’m not against people having their dream house, but it’s not all about the pursuit. I have God and family and know that we’re put on this earth to love and spread hope. From the slums of India to the White House, there is humanity. We all have our stories and pain, but God is real. Through brokenness He can change our life story around. Through the ashes comes beauty.”
COLD WEATHER SURVIVAL
ABOVE THE HIGHEST PEAK
A Climber Loses His Legs, Gets the Opportunity To “Live Life in a New and Different Way”
Mark Inglis found himself in what he calls a “very unique situation.”
As a search and rescue (SAR) team leader for Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park, he and Philip Doole were on a routine training climb in New Zealand. But this expedition turned out to be anything but routine. A severe blizzard trapped them on a mountain for 13 days.
“Most of the time [during the 13 days] we were constantly thinking about our decisions, our options and continually assessing the situation,” says Inglis. “Much of the time we worried that someone, one of our SAR team members, would get hurt or killed trying to get to us. We survived through knowledge and faith—faith that our team would never stop until they got us.”
To battle the onslaught, the men built a shelter, a snow cave later dubbed “Middle Peak Hotel,” and they waited for the storm to pass, hoping their search and rescue peers would find them soon, as their supply of food and water was running low. Because the men knew their job was dangerous, they were mentally prepared for hardship.
“Initially, we thought we would lose toes … occupational hazard!” says Inglis, with a sense of humor about the situation. “It became clear it would be our legs as it was a gradual process. We had time to understand the inevitability of it.”
By the time Christmas Eve rolled around, Inglis and Doole wanted their legs cut off just below the knees so they could move on and start rehabilitating their new lives.
“It’s not so positive when you wake up on Christmas day to truly understand there is no going back—a very tough few days,” says Inglis, who was 23 at the time. “I always say the best person to lose his legs is a young mountaineer. He is an intensely proactive person, just to be a climber; he has been in life-threatening situations that only work out through his competence. Take that attitude along in life, and you see the double amputation for what it truly is: just an opportunity to live life in a new and different way. Not easier, but just different.”
3 MONTHS LATER
Within three months, Inglis was back on the mountains, though he grew frustrated that he couldn’t climb like he once did. After several years of trying with discouraging results, he ventured into other pursuits—skiing, cycling, his career as a scientist and winemaking.
“It is frustrating that things never go fast enough, but a great lesson in understanding and accepting challenging change— change that you can make,” he says. “But, it’s equally important how you adapt to change that you have no apparent control over. I just had my legs cut off, not my intellect or soul. I’m the same person with new ways to express myself.”
It would take years before he felt the need to conquer mountaineering again.
“It wasn’t until many years later I felt confident enough to climb again,” he says. “I don’t want people helping. In the mountains it is essential you are totally personally responsible. Don’t expect a hand up.”
METAPHOR FOR LIFE
What are some of the things to take away from Inglis’s experience?
“Challenge is the essence of life,” says Inglis, who donates prosthetics to Tibetan Sherpas who lost limbs to frostbite.
“Always dream big, but most importantly, take the first step to that dream. I believe in ‘responsible optimism.’ That is, just think positive thoughts, but do something about making them become a reality.”
Inglis continues to spread his knowledge of wealth as a motivational speaker and is the founding trustee of Limbs4All, which gives prosthetic limbs to disabled people around the world.
“My talks are based around mountaineering as a metaphor for life and business,” he says. “My corporate life dovetails into my mountaineering life and my life as a double amputee. I always ask, ‘Which Mark do you want? Business, mountaineer, cyclist, amputee, scientist?’ Well actually, you get all of them!”
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in a 2013 print issue of American Survival Guide.