Six Greatest Acts of Human Endurance

The adventurer and extreme television presenter Bear Grylls shares some of his favorite tales of survival, taken from the new book True Grit. He explains what makes a hero.


Bear Grylls’ first brush with death came early. At the age of eight he and his father became disorientated up a mountain in Cyprus during a storm; they spent a day and a night exposed to the elements before finding a path to safety. “It scared me to the core but also there was a magic, the simplicity that this was a battle,” he told the Daily Beast.

The battle against the elements would continue for the next two decades which saw Grylls crush three vertebrae in a parachute accident in Africa, lead an expedition through the Northwest Passage, and become one of the youngest people to scale Mount Everest. “I’ve come a lot closer than I would ever want to come to not coming home. Whether it’s the freefall accident or down crevasses on Everest or in little boats in the Arctic. I’m not proud of them but they’ve all taught me the same lesson, when the times are tough you’ve really got to dig deep,” he said.

The Man vs Wild star, now 39, knows more than most about near-death experiences but his own experiences pale into insignificance compared to the most extraordinary tales of human survival in the last 200 years. From 19th century American sailors captured as slaves in the Sahara desert to Second World War heroism and survival in the frozen wildness of Antarctica, Grylls has collected his favorite stories of endurance and escape in a new book, True Grit. “I get a kick out of introducing people to incredible stories, he said. “I think it’s great to celebrate human triumph.”

Here are six of the most remarkable tales, with an explanation of their greatness by Grylls.

1. Louis Zamperini. The Italian-American Second World War officer was shot down over the Pacific Ocean, but that was just the start of a remarkable ordeal. His life raft was attacked by sharks and shot at by Japanese aircraft during 47 days adrift at sea. When the boat reached land after a 2,000 mile journey – he was captured by the Japanese and tortured in a brutal prisoner of war camp.

“Not only was he shot down in the Pacific, had the longest journey in a life-raft ever recorded but then, instead of salvation, gets washed up on the verge of death on the worst torture island that the Japanese had in the middle of nowhere,” Grylls said.

2. Nando Parrado One of the Uruguayan rugby players who were immortalized in the movie Alive, which told the story of the desperate decision to resort to cannibalism when a plane carrying the team crashed high in the Andes. Parrado was one of the men who set out without any mountaineering equipment to find help and save the other survivors.

“The survivors of Flight 571 showed remarkable courage, ingenuity and, I think, dignity. They demonstrated a fact as old as life itself: that when death seems almost certain, one of the most human reactions is a refusal to lie down and let it win.”

3. Captain James Riley. After a shipwreck on the coast of Africa in 1815, a band of American sailors were captured as slaves by nomads in the Sahara desert. Some of them survived in the searing heat by drinking camel’s urine as their white skin and flesh burned and fell from their bodies. Riley eventually secured freedom for his men by tricking a slave-owner.

“When Captain Riley returned to America he published his memoirs. It became a bestseller, even in a land where slavery was commonplace… young Abraham Lincoln read Sufferings in Africa, and later said that Riley’s story had a great influence on him.”

4. Juliane Koepcke. The German schoolgirl was 17 when her plane came apart in mid-air over Peru and she plunged 10,000ft into the jungle still strapped into her seat. With a broken collar-bone and maggot invested wounds, she walked and swam through the jungle without food for 10 days until she found help, vultures circling overhead throughout.

“She survived the horrific ordeal of the next ten days by using the little knowledge she had to very good effect. Despite the terrifying situation she found herself in, she stayed calm and adapted her mindset to survive the jungle terrain around her. She trusted her instinct and refused to give in, despite the often hopeless outlook of her situation...She kept her cool and she kept moving. She ignored the pain, and she stuck to her plan. And, ultimately, it was that indomitable survivor spirit that saved her life. Now there’s a girl with some real grit.”

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5. Tommy Macpherson. The Scotsman escaped from a Nazi prisoner of war camp in 1943 after almost two years of hellish incarceration. He was soon recaptured by the Gestapo but he escaped again. After making his way back to Scotland, he immediately re-enlisted and joined a commando unit that parachuted in behind enemy lines. He became a leader of the French Resistance, culminating a brazen bluff that saw him convince 23,000 Nazi soldiers to surrender by falsely claiming the RAF would otherwise be called in to wipe them out from the air.

“Without doubt, Tommy had pitted himself against some of the most ruthless and violent men of the modern era. That he came out on top is a testament to his remarkable persistence, his refusal to bow down in the face of superior numbers and firepower. Above all, Tommy Macpherson showed an almost superhuman amount of sheer old-fashioned bottle, and, to me, he embodies everything that is best about the courageous men and women who fought for our liberty during the Second World War.”

6. Douglas Mawson. A contemporary, and colleague of Ernest Shackleton and Captain Scott, Mawson was even tougher. During a scientific expedition in the Antarctic he lost his colleagues 300 miles from safety. Frostbite and starvation meant his hair, nails, skin and the entire soles of his feet fell off during a grueling two month trek back to camp. At one point he fell down a crevasse and was left dangling in the abyss from a rope, up which he dragged his disintegrating body.

“Mawson arrived back at base only hours after the ship which could have taken him back to civilization, had set sail. Killer timing. He was, however, able to send a message back to his fiancée in Australia. A short message, but one so understated it could only have been written by one of those epic heroes of the age of Antarctic exploration. There was no complaint or self-pity. No mention of the horrors he’d just been through. ‘Deeply regret delay,’ it read. ‘Only just managed to reach hut.’ Now there’s a quiet, humble, grit-filled hero.”

True Grit was published in the UK on October 24.