Back From the Dead: 5 Incredible Stories of Winter Survival

'Every morning he had to reattach the soles of his feet, which had become separated from the overlying flesh'

Beck Weathers suffered horrendous frostbite during the 1996 Mt Everest disaster, yet lived to tell the tale. Photo:

Whether it’s skiing, climbing mountains or trekking across the Arctic, extreme winter weather is one of the greatest dangers that adventurers face, having claimed thousands of lives over the years.

But for every Captain Oates, who perished in an Antarctic blizzard, there’s an Ernest Shackleton, who survived against all the odds. And he’s not the only one.

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While people might be familiar with the story of Joe Simpson (of Touching the Void fame) these lesser-known – though no less incredible – survival stories show that people from all ages are capable of coming back from the dead.


1) Douglas Mawson – The Man Whose Skin Fell Off

In 1912, Australian geologist and explorer Douglas Mawson set off with two companions – dog handler Belgrave Ninnis and world champion skier Xavier Mertz – to explore an uncharted area of Antarctica.

It proved to be slow going with antarctic storms hindering progress, but they’d still managed to get 1,200 miles out from base when disaster struck.

Out of nowhere a massive crevasse opened up underneath the party, swallowing up the sledge carrying most of the food, six of the strongest dogs and Ninnis.

The remaining pair apparently spotted two injured dogs on a ledge 165 feet below them, but of Ninnis there was no sign.

With only a week’s supply of food remaining and a five week journey back to base, Mawson and Mertz decided to turn back right away, shooting the weakest dogs for meat as they went.

Little did they know that huskies’ livers contain toxic levels of vitamin A, which slowly poisoned them, causing strips of their skin to fall off.

“Every morning he had to reattach the soles of his feet, which had become separated from the overlying flesh”

Mertz began to go mad biting off his own finger and attempting to destroy their tent in a fit of rage. Three weeks after Ninnis’ accident, he too was dead of starvation, exposure and vitamin A poisoning.

Mawson stumbled on alone, his physical condition now so bad that (according to America’s PBS news): “Every morning before he rose he had to reattach the soles of his feet, which had become separated from the overlying flesh.”

Mawson on a later expedition in the ship Discovery. Photo:

After falling down a crevasse himself and barely managing to climb out alive, he finally made it back to camp – only to find that the ship had left six hours before, assuming he and his companions were dead.

Thankfully a small group from the expedition had been left behind in the unlikely event of their return, but it was 10 long months before the ship came back to pick them up.


2) Jean Hilliard – The Medical Mystery

Jean Hilliard was found frozen solid, like an icicle. Photo: tumblr

Jean Hilliard was found in a friend’s driveway literally frozen stiff, “like a piece of meat out of the deep freeze”.

She’d spent the night spent outside in minus 30 degrees C and her skin and muscles were frozen solid – like an icicle. Doctors described her recovery as “a miracle”, and its one that still hasn’t been adequately explained 35 years later.

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Jean’s ordeal began when her car skidded off a remote stretch of road as she was driving home to her parents’ house late on the night of December 20th 1981.

This being the 80s she didn’t have a phone to call for help. So Jean started walking to her friend Wally Nelson’s, a couple of miles down the road.

Miraculously, Hilliard made a full recovery, losing not so much as a fingernail to frostbite. Photo:

Unfortunately Nelson’s was further away than she remembered and Jean’s strength faded as she got to his driveway. She collapsed about 15 feet from his front door, at 1am in the morning.

When Nelson found her the following day, six hours later, he “thought she was dead. Her face was ghost-like.” He loaded what he could only assume was her body into his car “diagonally”.

Wally Nelson loaded what he thought was her body into his car “diagonally”.

When she arrived at the hospital, doctors found her temperature too low to register on a thermometer and found they couldn’t do anything intravenous as her skin too frozen to penetrate with a hypodermic needle.

Her heart was still beating, but at about 12 beats per minute as opposed to its normal 60-100bpm. And yet somehow, after thawing out with warm packs around her body, Jean made a full recovery – and somehow didn’t lose so much as a finger to frostbite.

Jean Hilliard’s body immediately after it was found

As the Doctor told the New York Times later: “I’ve seen a lot of people frozen like that, but I’ve never seen a case where major amputation wasn’t required and I had levelled with Jean and her parents and told them she would probably lose her both legs.

“I can’t believe she’s alive.”


3) Colby Coombs – Left Hanging

Colby Coombs. Photo: Alaska Mountaineering School

In 1992, 25-year-old Colby Coombs and two friends, Ritt Kellogg and Tom Walter, decided to attempt to climb the 5,303 metre Mount Foraker in Alaska.

As they neared the summit the weather closed in and they quickly abandoned their plans to get to the top. However the way out was still perilous, involving a 50-degree face that they’d have to climb across without anchors.

As they moved across the face, tied to nothing but each other, an avalanche struck. “I remember sliding really fast and trying to self-arrest,” Coombs told Backpacker magazine, “then hitting something and going airborne. That’s when I passed out.”

Coombs on a climb Denali, America’s highest mountain, in better conditions. Photo: Alaska Mountaineering School

When he came to, six hours later, Coombs found himself dangling near a rock buttress 800 feet below where the slide had struck. The only reason he hadn’t slipped further was that Tom Walter was dangling on the other side, acting as a counterweight.

But as he looked around for his third companion, he saw the rope hanging limply off in the distance. Kellogg, his college room-mate, had fallen to his death.

Working his way over to Walter, Colby was appalled to find that he too had perished, and when he checked himself he realised he’d broken his ankle, his shoulder blade and two of his vertebrae.

“I remember thinking ‘I don’t care if my foot falls off.’”

Somehow over the course of the next 36 hours the distraught and injured Coombs managed to salvage gear, eat some of the party’s remaining food and melt snow to drink.

He then set off on what would be a 6 day descent, his broken ankle crunching with every excruciating step.

Coombs’ story featured on the cover of Reader’s Digest in 1998. Photo: Reader’s Digest

“I remember thinking ‘I don’t care if my foot falls off,’” he told Backpacker, “I had to get into an unstoppable mentality.”

Coombs eventually made a full recovery and now runs the Alaska Mountaineering School in his hometown of Talkeetna. But although search parties were launched, the bodies of his two friends were never found.


4) Anna Bågenholm – The Woman With Ice In Her Veins

Anna Bagenholm in an interview about her ordeal for CBS news. Photo: CBS News

Like Jean Hilliard, Anna Bågenholm is something of a medical mystery.

Following an accident in 1999, her core body temperature plummeted from its normal 37 degrees to just 13 degrees celsius – colder than any patient had ever survived in recorded medical history.

Yet somehow Anna lived through it. So what happened?

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The young Norwegian and two friends, all of whom were junior doctors, had been out skiing together when Anna lost control and plunged head first through the ice of a frozen stream.

As her heavy ski gear became soaked, Anna began to be dragged further and further under. Luckily her friends arrived just in time to grab her boots and stop her disappearing completely and she found herself lying face up with her mouth in an air pocket under the ice.

Anna Bagenholm. Photo:

Try as they might though, her friends couldn’t break the icy encasing her. They called for help using a mobile phone, but the first rescue team to arrive didn’t have a strong enough shovel to break through either.

It was 40 minutes before a second team arrived in a helicopter, by which time Anna had stopped struggling. When her blue and lifeless body was finally pulled out of the stream she had stopped breathing and had no pulse.

By the time the helicopter landed, Anna’s heart hadn’t beaten for more than two hours.

By the time the helicopter landed at Tromso university hospital, Anna’s heart hadn’t beaten for more than two hours. The desperate medical team had been artificially compressing her chest and hoping that the onset of hypothermia might have shut down her brain enough to prevent permanent damage.

But before they could get her heart going, the doctors would have to raise her core temperature – to melt the icy cold that had gripped her veins.

To do so they ventured into uncharted medical territory, hooking Anna up to a heart and lung bypass machine of the kind usually used for open heart surgery.

Anna Bagenholm at a medical conference. Photo:

As her blood pumped round the machine it warmed up slowly and eventually her heart stuttered back into life – nearly three hours after it had stopped beating independently.

It was 12 long days before Anna would eventually open her eyes, and damage caused to her nerves meant she was paraplegic for a period. But she did eventually make a full recovery, returning to her medical career as a bona-fide medical miracle case.


5) Beck Weathers – The Man Who Was Left for Dead

Beck Weathers photographed immediately after the 1996 Mt Everest disaster. Photo:

The infamous Mount Everest disaster of 1996 has been the subject of much controversy. But on a day when 8 climbers died, what’s perhaps most remarkable is that Seaborne Beck Weathers wasn’t one of them.

A pathologist from Texas, Beck was one of the paying clients who made up the Adventure Consultants expedition of about 18 individuals led by experienced guide Rob Hall.

Two other expeditions, all with similar numbers of people, were also attempting to summit via the South Col route on the same day – May 10th.

Whether over-crowding, wilful ignorance of the weather warnings, or the over-ambition of expedition leaders driven by commercial imperatives was to blame is up for debate.

But when a storm rolled in early in the evening of May 10th, a lot of climbers were caught near the summit. They were exposed and in danger – well above the 8,000 metre line known as the “death zone”, in which the human body and brain slowly start to shut down, even with supplemental oxygen.

Weathers had previously had eye surgery which affected his vision at altitude, so he couldn’t see properly as he climbed up from Camp IV in the early hours of the morning. But he was unwilling to give up his attempt on the summit, so waited to see if his vision would improve when the sun rose.

He never made it to the top, but the delay meant he was one of those still stuck high up on the mountain when the storm struck.

They were exposed and in danger – well above the 8,000 metre line known as the “death zone”, in which the human body and brain slowly start to shut down.

Already disorientated, he and a group of climbers became completely lost as the visibility plummeted. Confused and weakened by the lack of oxygen to the brain, they staggered round the South Col for several hours, searching vainly for Camp IV.

A rescue effort led by the Kazakh guide Anatoli Boukreev saved several climbers during a lull in the storm, but by the time Boukreev arrived, Beck was nowhere to be found.

The following day another rescue effort found Beck and fellow climber Yasuko Namba but turned back, believing the two were so weak that they were beyond help.

Although Namba never made it, Beck somehow staggered back into Camp IV under his own steam. He was suffering so badly from frostbite and the effects of oxygen deprivation that once again his fellow climbers judged that he wouldn’t make it. The best they could do, they thought, was to make him comfortable until he died.

Beck Weathers now has a career as a motivational speaker. Photo:

Yet despite not being able to drink or eat by himself, Weathers survived another night and woke up alive and coherent. He was helped down to a lower camp, from where a helicopter evacuated him in one of the highest altitude medi-vacs ever attempted.

In the years since the recriminations about those disastrous days (which until last year’s Khumbu icefall disaster were the most deadly in the mountain’s history) have raged in a series of books and interviews by survivors.

But while the whys and wherefores will probably always be disputed, what cannot be disputed is that Beck Weathers is a very, very lucky man.

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