Extreme Travel | Adventure Sports

Real-life desert survival stories

Got what it takes to survive a desert ordeal? Find out how three ordinary people managed to make it in the heat
© NomadTours

People who dare take on the challenge of travelling through a desert should take heed. As beautiful as it may look, it is not a forgiving place. Humans must be prepared physically and mentally: water is scarce, the heat is intense and most resources for food and shelter are generally provided by what a person stores in their backpack. Scientists claim that dying of dehydration is arguably one of the worst ways to perish as all liquids in the body slowly evaporate. Staying hydrated is crucial for overcoming the other big threats out there, like heat exhaustion, sunburn, heatstroke, or sun poisoning. An extreme form of dermatitis, sun poisoning is no joke. It’s the cause of the disorientation, vomiting, unconsciousness, and hallucinations you see in the movie versions of desert survival stories: terrible, soul-crushing conditions that play tricks on the mind. Check out how these three travellers in three very different scenarios managed to make it through.

The Italian Pentathlete

One of the most notorious desert survival stories occurred in the 1990s. Mauro Prosperi, an Italian police officer and pentathlete from Rome, managed to survive the harsh conditions of the Sahara desert alone for nine days. The Sahara is the world’s second largest desert and it is certainly not a place anyone wants to be stranded without means of survival, let alone by yourself. Temperatures can reach up to 50 degrees Celsius, and the entire desert itself is about 9,100,000 square kilometers, covering 10 percent of the African continent.

Prosperi had enrolled in what is widely recognised as one of most extreme competitions on any circuit: the Marathon des Sables (The Marathon of the Sands). The Marathon des Sables is a six to seven-day-long event that trails across the Sahara desert, specifically southern Morocco. The length of the course runs approximately 240 km. As BBC News reported, “competitors have to be self-sufficient, carrying on their backs all the food, clothing, and supplies they need for the week. Only open-ended tents and a daily supply of nine litres of water are provided by the organisers.”

Trekking through intense heat and sand dunes is difficult enough, but many find the climate and terrain unbearable. The climate changes are also very distinct from night to day. Added to this are also sand storms, which are exactly what deprived Prosperi of completing the race. Because as brave as you may be, when a sudden, turbulent storm blows particles of desert everywhere it’s impossible to see. The ground and sky become one and the same, as if you were caught in a tornado. Everyone must take cover during sand storms or else you will find your eyes, mouth, ears, and clothing filled with sand, dust, and other sorts of unpleasantness. Sands being driven by the wind are like razor sharp needles piercing your skin. Being covered in sand and sweat can also attract all sorts of vileness as many deserts are high in minerals and salts.

Before the storm hit Prosperi was ranked 7th place. But after the sand and dirt settled down again the race route was no longer able to be found. Prosperi was lost for nine days, without a compass or means to signal for help. According to BBC, “Mauro Prosperi survived on bats and urine and lost nearly three stone during the ordeal.” He was found in western Algeria bloodied, sickly, and thirty pounds lighter than when he had begun the race. His body suffered severe damage. Everyone was beyond surprised when he returned to compete in the exact same race later in his life. Then again, if you’re tough enough to survive in the Sahara for nine days, alone – off your own lingering fluids and the blood of bats – then you’re probably able to recover from a few injuries and illnesses so that you can get back in the game.

The Carnivorous Canyon

Blue John Canyon is located within the southeastern region of Utah in the United States. In May 2003, an American named Aron Ralston went out to climb these canyons, solo. According to Dateline NBC, “Ralston was pinned to the canyon wall by an 800-pound boulder. He was at the bottom of a hole in a hidden canyon, 100 feet beneath the desert surface, 20 miles from the nearest paved road and surrounded by hundreds more miles of uninhabited desert”.

Unfortunately, Ralston unexpectedly fell into a deep canyon and on his way down a boulder pinned his body to the wall, clenching down on his hand. No matter how much effort or strength he put into removing the boulder, all efforts were useless. The rock was not going anywhere. During the five days he spent hanging there day and night, forearm and hand still crushed beneath the 800 lb. boulder, he used his video camera to record several clips, documenting his daily experiences and leaving final messages to loved ones. He also left carvings on the wall so people would know what happened to him and where his body had fallen as he was starting to believe this was how he was going to die. “Ralston had carved his own epitaph. His gravestone was Bluejohn’s majestic walls. He recorded his last message to his family, asking to be cremated, and instructing them where to spread his ashes. He prayed to God, and found peace. Aron was ready to accept death.”

Finally, when all sensation had been lost in his hand and Ralston realised that part of his limb had become useless, deadened by the boulder, he made the one decision that had been floating around in the back of his mind for days: amputation. A decision he was hoping to avoid. “I pretty well knew that that was at least an option I had to consider. And that I really didn’t want to have to do that.”

Using a tourniquet, pliers, and a blade from a pocket knife, Ralston begin to amputate his arm. After he finished, he began his journey 800 ft. up and out of the canyon to where his truck was sitting. Ralston survived the intense hike despite his severed arm, extreme dehydration, mild starvation, and severe shock from the deeply traumatic experience. Ralston is now a public speaker and continues to mountain climb with his prosthetic arm.

A Cowboy in the Mountains

John F. Campbell Jr., a Texan artist and seasonal cowboy from Midland-Odessa, whom I’ve known for years, recalls the memory of when he was landlocked in the Guadalupe Mountains of west Texas during the summertime, countless miles from any ‘civilized’ area. “We were backpacking when we realised our canteens and water bags had run dry. By late morning, nearing high noon, there was no water left for any one. I knew it was going to be a problem if all of us didn’t access water very soon. That kind of heat out there is dry and will exhaust energy, quickly. And the people I was with weren’t used to the heat. Even I was feeling cramps in my stomach and kidney, as well as a dizzying headache and I’m used to working outside in the sun. A lot of campers don’t realise that they need to take water every hour or so, otherwise they will experience sun poisoning or a heat stroke, which is not good. I think people were just taking giant gulps of water when they felt dehydrated which actually bad for you – fluids sweat out really quickly as opposed to little sips every hour. ”

While the National Park that encapsulates the Guadalupe Mountains is home to a significant amount of lush, beautiful areas that contain diverse scenery, flowers, and wildlife, the mountains themselves are very tall, rocky, and arid. Water is limited and the grounds are fairly desolate. Only a hardy variety of snakes and some reptiles and mammals can sustain intensive heat and isolation. The mountainous terrain and climatic conditions of the Guadalupe Mountains are like any other desert in the summer seasons.

Back then, campers did not really take cell phones on their trips. They usually only had radios and that was solely to check the updates or status of weather reports in the local area. This National Park is at least 65 miles long, and travellers must still be very careful to maintain hydration and shelter even if the environment is not as harsh as the Sahara.

Campbell said that there are a few options when you are in this kind of waterless situation. “First, you could try digging a hole and placing something inside the hole to catch any condensation that may collect as droplets fall into the ground. You then put a piece of plastic over the hole and lay a rock on top of the covering. This takes a long time though to collect any moisture and it really only provides enough for one person or so depending on how moist the environment is. Another option is to take a clear plastic bag and tie it off around the leaves of a plant and leave it in the sun for hours to collect any condensation within the plastic bag. But since we were pressed for time with several people, neither of these strategies were ideal. I decided to use some Yucca plants and cacti in hopes of getting enough water to help everyone out as certain kinds of cactus plants store a lot of water inside.”

Yucca plants are immensely sharp; so sharp in fact that if you fell into one it could easily take your eyeball straight from your socket or cause permanent damage. From tip to tip, they’re very sturdy plants with pointy, sword-like tips. They’re also very long. Campbell said he had a sudden idea and so he stripped a few leaves off a Yucca plant with his knife.

Luckily his planned worked: the Yucca leaves wrung out any moisture within the cacti plants. It was just enough fluid to give everyone a little bit of water to sip on sparingly for the rest of the trip as they trekked back in search of their camp. Sipping beneath a tarpaulin to shield themselves from the hottest time of the day when the sun is at its most excruciating, he and his friends used the plant’s juices to stay on the right side of hydrated. Had it not been for the plants, however, their days in the desert probably would have ended very differently.