There are survival stories, and there are legendary survival stories. In this article, we feature three near-unbelievable stories of men who, despite seemingly impossible odds, lived to tell the tale of their survival rivaling even Hollywood.
1. Lorenz Peter Elfred Freuchen (February 2, 1886 – September 2, 1957)
Not many people have heard of the exploits of one Peter Freuchen, whose biography reads more like that of an action star than that of a mild-mannered author, journalist, anthropologist and explorer. Standing a towering 6 feet, 7 inches tall and wearing a coat of polar bear fur, Freuchen embarked on several expeditions to Greenland, even assisting in establishing the Thule Trading Station there. One of Freuchen’s notable achievements wasn’t just trekking to and from Greenland by dogsled to a place with an average daily temperature of 12 degrees below zero (F), it was what he did to survive in a terrible snowstorm.
Sometime in 1910, after being snowed in during a blizzard for 30 hours, Freuchen was practically buried alive in a veritable cocoon of frost, almost completely unable to move. He would’ve been a goner had he not learned some survival tricks from the Inuit tribes he lived with for almost 10 years. He escaped being entombed in ice by fashioning a knife out of his own solidified feces, and using it to carve his way out of solid ice. Once he got free using his own poop-tool, he crawled for another three hours, in the midst of a blizzard, to get to his base camp.
Sixteen years later, he’d perform other notable achievements like amputating three of his own frostbitten toes with nothing more than a pair of pliers, and amputating one of his frostbitten legs below the knee– both without the benefit of anesthesia. He’s also said to have killed a wolf with his bare hands, joined the Danish resistance in WW2– narrowly avoiding a Nazi firing squad by getting his peg-legged self over a barbed-wire fence, and escaping to Sweden.
If you’re wondering if they ever made a movie about him, MGM did – sometime in 1933, he co-starred in a film loosely based on his exploits, a movie called Eskimo, which won an Oscar. A prolific author with 30 books to his credit, Freuchen also wrote of his adventures in his book, Vagrant Viking.
2. Hugh Glass (1783-1833)
Hugh Glass’s unbelievable tale of survival enjoyed renewed interest with the 2015 Oscar-winning film based on his experience (albeit with some fictional embellishments), The Revenant. Glass’s amazing story began with his participation in General Ashley’s Rocky Mountain Fur Company expedition of 1823.
Under the command of Major Andrew Henry, the expedition began with around 40 or so armed fur company men (including Glass), soldiers and allied Indians conscripted to pacify the Arikara or Ree Indians along the Missouri River. After an unsuccessful campaign and suffering many casualties, what remained of the force was split into two groups—one led by Henry and another by Jedediah Smith. Since the group could ill-afford any more encounters along the Missouri River, Smith’s group would go west, traveling along the White and Cheyenne rivers, while Henry’s group would traverse the Rockies to reach Fort Henry at Yellowstone.
According to historical accounts, it was late August or early September when Glass scouted ahead of his group, and unluckily stumbled upon a female Grizzly bear and her two cubs. To protect her cubs, the bear charged Glass; the bear mauled him into a bloody mess despite Glass’s efforts to fight her off. With her 3-inch claws, the bear relentlessly shredded his scalp, face, chest, and arms. Glass also sustained a deep puncture on his throat, causing blood to bubble up from it. The grizzly seemingly relented its attack, only to chew into his shoulder and back. Some time passed before his fellow explorers responded to his screams and killed the bear. Certain that Glass would soon succumb, Henry and the rest of the group were surprised to find Glass still alive the following day.
With a tribe of hostile Indians on their heels, Henry decided their chances would be better if they kept moving, so he had a litter built to carry Glass for the next couple of days. Worried that their ill-fated companion only slowed the group down, Henry asked for two volunteers to stay with Glass until he died, then bury his body and proceed to Yellowstone. After the added incentive of an $80 bonus, veteran woodsman John Fitzgerald and neophyte Jim Bridger opted to stay with Glass until he expired. Unfortunately for the two volunteers, a full five days had passed and Glass was still alive. Anxious that Indians were closing in on them, Fitzgerald convinced the young Bridger to abandon Glass, since their obligation had been more than fulfilled, and Glass would die anytime soon. The two men left Glass next to a flowing spring, taking his gun, knife, tomahawk and tinder, things that a “dead man” would no longer need.
Realizing that he’d been left to die, Glass summoned the strength to begin the long, slow crawl back towards the Missouri River. Driven by both the will to survive and a burning desire for revenge upon his two deserters, Glass knew he’d have to recuperate and resupply. He set his sights on Fort Kiowa, a trading post located a few miles above the mouth of the White River, but well enough away from any hostile Indians. Glass’s recovery and travel speed were both excruciatingly painful and slow, as he’d subsist only on insects, snakes, and whatever edibles he could find in the wild.
A week or so into his painful journey, Glass came upon a pack of wolves that pounced on a buffalo calf. After waiting for the pack to finish their meal, Glass was able to scavenge half a carcass’ worth of meat and encamped, a move that would enable him to regain more strength and allow his body to heal. With a bit more strength, Glass made better travel time and eventually reached the Missouri River, where he obtained a hide boat from friendly Lakota Indians. He then floated downriver to Fort Kiowa.
All in all, Hugh Glass survived alone in the wilderness despite his terrible wounds, and completed an arduous trip that spanned over 250 miles.
3. Simo Hayha (December 17, 1905 – April 1, 2002)
Simo Hayha was a humble Finnish hunter and farmer who lived in Karelia, near the border with Russia. In the winter of 1939, Finland entered a short war with Russia to defend its recently-acquired independence. It’s during that conflict, now known as the “Winter War”, that Simo Hayha would rise to national hero status.
Then 33 years old and standing a mere 5 feet, 2 inches tall, Simo Hayha would rack up an astonishing 505 confirmed kills during his comparatively short stint as a sniper in the Finnish army. His issued rifle was the Sako M/28-30 – a rifle ironically similar to the Mosin-Nagant, the standard-issue rifle of the Russian army. Hayha would venture out alone, wearing a white snowsuit, mitts and a mask over his warmest uniform, take along a few days’ worth of food, 50 to 70 bullets for his rifle, and a submachine gun. Positioning himself in view of established roads (the Russians were likely too confident of their numbers and strength), Hayha would sometimes wait for days for a target of opportunity, picking off officers and men – without using a scope, as he believed the speck of light reflected off its lens would give him away.
Hayha’s deadly marksmanship and extreme patience earned him as many as 25 kills in one day, and garnered him both the reputation and the moniker of Belaya Smert or “White Death” among the Russians. So feared and despised was Hayha that the Russians would devote entire artillery barrages and send out their own snipers in an effort to eliminate “The White Death.”
Hayha’s “survival stories” would be comprised of his 98 days of service, as he and other Finnish soldiers braved average daily temperatures of 20 to 40 degrees below zero (F), while facing an army that outgunned and outnumbered them a hundred to one. Hayha’s real, personal survival story would come on March 3, 1940; a Russian marksman got a lucky hit on Hayha with an explosive bullet that hit the lower left side of his face. This was when Hayha cemented his name as “The White Death” in the history books, as he killed the Russian who shot him despite being badly wounded. “The White Death” would have himself died of blood loss, but the frigid temperatures cauterized his wound and kept him from bleeding out. Hayha would lie comatose in a hospital for 10 days, missing the final days of the conflict until a peace treaty was signed on March 13, 1940.
After coming out of his coma, he was promoted to Second Lieutenant and honorably discharged. Although Finland would resume hostilities against Russia in 1941 to 1944, then go to war in 1944 to 1945 against Nazi Germany, “The White Death” opted not to reenter military service, instead choosing to go back to farming, moose-hunting and dog-training until his death in 2002 at the ripe old age of 96.
The above stories are true accounts of men who beat the odds, and survived to live relatively long lives. Their tales remain as undisputable proof that determination and tenacity are vital elements to survive. Should you ever find yourself in similar SHTF situations or worse, grit your teeth, toughen up and tell yourself that “you’ll get out of this”. After all, if a peg-legged man, a half-starving bear-mauled trapper, and a sniper with half his face blown away can, then so could you.