There is something about a survival story that thrills and entertains us as readers. The human body, and sometimes more importantly, the human mind pushed beyond the limits of what we believe possible. I’ve put together a list of some of the best. A few I’ve read and loved, and a few that are on my list to read. You’ll notice a common theme with most of these selections – oceans and mountains are two of my favorite places to be.
Be sure to add any of your favorites in the comments section!
#1 – Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage, by Alfred Lansing
After reading this book, I tried to describe it to my wife (who shockingly hand’t managed to read it before me). “Imagine that a Hollywood producer played God with a group of men trying to reach the South Pole” – that’s exactly what this is. A true story of extraordinary leadership that will have you exclaiming out loud “You’ve got to be shitting me” time and time again.
The qualities Shackleton displays will leave you feeling either inspired or unworthy. Regardless, I can guarantee you’ll be learning a few lessons on what it is to be a leader of men.
#2 – Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, by Laura Hillenbrand
Whenever a superstar author releases a new book to great fanfare, my cynical mind automatically puts up defenses. When (or if) I decide to go and read it, I feel that the author must somehow prove it to me. Laura Hillenbrand had me hooked in 5 minutes.
This story twists and turns from juvenile delinquency to Olympic running, from being shot down over the Pacific to being interred at a Japanese POW camp. Thrown into the middle of all this is Louis Zamperini, and by God you can’t help but root for him.
Zamperini is a like a real life Forrest Gump, and his journey through life is punctuated with such extremes that by the end of the book you’re begging God to let off him a bit. Pushed beyond all normal human limits, Louis’ story is both heart-wrenching and hopeful at the same time. Hillenbrand’s narrative is fantastically done, and you need to read it.
#3 – Miracle in the Andes, by Nando Parrado
This book has all of the elements of a hard-fought survival story. Airplane crash in the glacier covered Andes: check. Survivors reduced to cannibalism to survive: double check. Parrado’s first hand account of the intense struggle to survive and bring his fellow help is filled with emotion and inspiration.
This one has been on my must read list for a while, and is one I plan to tackle soon.
#4 – In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, by Nathaniel Philbrick
I’ve got two words for you – Moby Dick. Being a whaler in the early part of the nineteenth century would have been a terrifying endeavor, especially after hearing this tale. It’s one of the most well known survival stories of all time, popularized by the novel. Philbrick’s account is painstakingly researched and very highly reviewed. Definitely on my to be read list.
#5 – Into Thin Air, by Jon Krakauer
When I was about 13 or 14, I watched the IMAX film “Everest” for the first time, and became instantly hooked on all things mountaineering. This book was released shortly before the film, and covers some of the same ground in more detail.
As humans we are always pushing our limits, to go higher and faster and farther than ever before. Sometimes though, we hit our limits, and nature pushes back. This story chronicles one of the worst mountaineering disasters of our time. Krakauer’s deeply personal recollections of what went wrong is a must read for any adventurer.
#6 – No Shortcuts to the Top: Climbing the World’s 14 Highest Peaks, by Ed Viesturs
I’ve added this book to the list not for its drama of high altitude survival, but rather for Viesturs’ approach to a potentially very dangerous obsession. As he says, “Reaching the summit is optional. Getting down is mandatory”. He was a part of the expedition described in great detail in Jon Krakaeur’s “Into Thin Air”, and talks about his role in that as well.
Viesturs would not allow himself to be put into unmanageable situations, and perhaps the greatest part of this survival story is that he accomplished his goal without being conquered by it.
#7 – Adrift: Seventy-six Days Lost at Sea, by Steven Callahan
If spending 76 days alone, drifting across the Atlantic won’t make you crazy, I don’t know what will. If nothing else, this book will reinforce the need to prepare for the worst, and make sure you know what the hell you’re doing before taking on something like sailing across the ocean.
There is a lot to learn on the human condition, and the ingenuity one can find when you have no other choice.