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Disaster packing: how to survive an avalanche, falling overboard and being kidnapped

Men who stared death in the face reveal how they survived, and the life-saving gear they wish they’d had with them

Disaster packing: how to survive an avalanche, falling overboard and being kidnapped
10 September 2018

How to survive: An avalanche

In 2015, climber Jules Mountain was fast asleep at Everest Base Camp when his tent was struck by a wall of ice and snow

I was awoken by the ground shifting beneath me. I ripped open my tent: the sky was a wall of white, filled with snow. It was hurtling towards me. I thought, “This is it – I’m going to die.” My choice was either running in my socks or diving into the tent for the merest of protection. The ropes were held down by rocks. Had I pitched with ice screws [1], it would’ve helped counteract the blast, which was triggered by a 7.8-magnitude earthquake.

I crashed down into the sleeping bag, and felt the bang.

There’s an eerie calm after an avalanche hits. I was buried head-to-toe in a shallow grave of snow.

I got on all fours. I was OK. At that point, I wished I had a satellite phone: news of the quake would’ve travelled quickly and I wanted to tell my daughters I was alive. I wish I’d have brought a photo of them with me – all I had were pictures on my laptop.

I went to our meeting point and set up the mess tent as a makeshift hospital. It was horrific: there were injuries you wish you’d never had to see. All we had for painkillers was paracetamol. We needed to replenish fluids for the wounded – hot soup and sugary tea were good for that. Instant noodles contain plenty of carbohydrates – that might’ve helped, too. We were stocked up on warm clothing for the injured – I had 10 pairs of thermal socks with me. But we really needed bandages. It was rudimentary stuff: we had to break cardboard for splints. We did what we could; medical helicopters arrived the next day.

On that trip, I took a Paul McCartney biography and a sudoku book – you have lots of downtime on expeditions.

I always have playing cards in my backpack – they’re the best thing to take your mind off the cold. Before the avalanche, we were freezing one night, despite wearing three pairs of gloves, balaclavas and down suits – we played for 11 hours.

Aftershock: One Man’s Quest And The Quake On Everest is out now (Eye Books)

How to survive: Falling overboard

One night in 2013, Brett Archibald found himself adrift in choppy seas, 50 miles from land. he was in the water for almost 29 hours

As our boat left to cross the Mentawai Strait, Indonesia, I fell violently sick. It was at 2am and a large storm had set in. I went to the railing, then experienced the dreamlike sensation that I was tumbling in a washing machine.

My head popped up, I came round and realised I’d fallen in. My advice? If you go overboard, do it with a flare gun strapped to your ankle: I saw the boat 50 yards ahead of me and there was nothing I could do. I thought, “Is this where I die?” It was a 110-mile crossing and we were about halfway across. There was nothing around me but water – no point of reference, no map.

I was only wearing a T-shirt and shorts, but the water was mercifully warm. My first thought was, “If only I had plastic bags I could shove under my shirt to keep me afloat, or rubber flip-flops  – they could be a buoy.” The best thing, though, would’ve been a life raft with a packet of Hobnobs and a can of beer. Bottled water would’ve been better than salt water.

I’d have loved a waterproof iPod for the 28-and-a-half hours I was in the water before my rescuers found me. Instead, I sang to myself: Rod Stewart, Elton John… I wish I’d had a pen, paper and a glass bottle to leave my wife a message.

My extremities cramped – an energy bar would’ve been handy. That was the worst pain, until I was stung by jellyfish. A reef shark swam past, too. But the adrenaline and pain kept me awake, stopping me drowning.

The only thing I had in my pocket was a piece of card. I threw it, then saw the current take it along. I realised that if I swam that way, I’d save energy and be heading towards land. Every time I grew tired, I moved the card and saw which way to swim – it kept me going. I wish I’d have had a picture of my family, I could’ve used that in the water instead. I have one in my wallet now, just in case.

Alone: Lost Overboard In The Indian Ocean is out now (Robinson)

How to survive: Being kidnapped

War photographer Jonathan Alpeyrie was preparing to come home from Syria in 2013 when he was captured by rebels. He was held for 81 days

It was my last two days in Syria.

I was travelling with a rebel group close to Damascus when we were ambushed by men with AK-47s. They pushed me to my knees and mock-executed me.

I was gagged and handcuffed. I’d been double-crossed. They were looking to kidnap a Westerner to get money. Everything was taken from me, so I couldn’t have packed anything to help.

I travel light in war zones: I had two T-shirts, four pairs of pants and jeans for my clothing. For equipment, I took two Nikons, plus lenses. But looking back now, I’d take a Fujifilm X-T10, a discreet camera that doesn’t draw attention. It makes you look like a tourist – a journalist in the field is a target nowadays. I carry my cameras in my Newswear bag. It’s military-style and you tie it around your waist, making it practical for being on the go. I took a MacBook Pro with me, too – also small and light.

During the first month, I was tortured, blindfolded and chained. They insisted I was a spy. All they had to do was fetch my ID and search my name to see I was a photographer. I was later moved to a house where I had more freedom. I would cook, pray and learn Arabic with my captors. That way, they’d think of me more as a human being. Cigarettes were one of the few comforts I had.

I was released after my ransom was paid by a Syrian businessman. He thought it would get him struck off a US and EU blacklist.

I’d have loved to have books with me: I’m a Tolkien fan and I like reading military history. I had a book on the Thirty Years War, but it was taken from me. As mementos, I had two pictures of Ukrainian saints – handed to me by pro-Russian separatists in Crimea – plus an empty bullet casing. That wasn’t taken by my kidnappers – it was confiscated at the airport.

The Shattered Lens is out now (Atria);

(Illustration: Timothy Durand)