Over the past year and a half of producing the Science of Survival series for the Outside Podcast, we’ve spoken to dozens of people who endured life-threatening ordeals. By combining their stories with analysis from experts, we’ve attempted to make sense of what they went through and understand how they were able to come out the other side alive. Our biggest takeaway: the most powerful and mysterious part of any survival tale begins after the bleeding stops and the fire is out. While some survivors wage endless battles with imagined dangers, others are reborn with enhanced strength and purpose. We’ve only begun to comprehend the forces that shape near-death experiences, but just hearing incredible stories like the ones we’ve gathered here can better prepare us to withstand whatever comes our way.
Case Study 1: Struck
Kris Norbraten was leading a group of young women on a climbing expedition in Vedauwoo, Wyoming, in 2014, when a lightning bolt from a fast-approaching storm struck the outcrop they were on and traveled up through the ground beneath them. Everyone survived, but the incident left Norbraten, then 38, traumatized. As time went by, however, her coping mechanism gave way to a creative flowering that has changed her life even more than the strike itself did.
Struck by Lightning
The bizarre science behind Phil Broscovak's lightning strike, and his incredible journey of recovery.Hear the Podcast→
Around two o’clock, we saw a storm brewing in the distance. We decided to head out and were packing up lunches, lowering people down, cleaning up our gear, and so forth. The lightning hit above us, traveled through the rock, and knocked us over like bowling pins. There were kids sitting on the rock, leaning on the rock, gathering up to hike back down. Then they were screaming, freaking out. It’s quite painful having that much electricity move through your body. The most mystifying thing to me was that, at one moment I was standing in one place, and the next moment I was in a completely different place. It was surreal.
A couple of months later, I was at home and heard a garbage can being rolled across gravel. It sounded like thunder, and my body went into that flight response. It wasn’t logical—it was very old-brain, reactive, get-me-the-hell-out-of-here. Everything had become raw. It’s like all your nerves are cooked. The world was this very abrasive place to live in. Lights and sounds were difficult. Crowded rooms. Children crying. They were all terrible to be around.
I holed up for a long time. I also started writing. Originally, it was this tiny project, a short story, cathartic, get some energy out. But I kept going. I’m at 350 pages now. Writing was something I was always good at, but I never had the idea, and I was never committed enough. After getting struck, it all just opened up. I don’t yet know how to explain it very well, because I feel very young in my understanding of what happened. But I do feel it was a birth into the second half of my life—like stepping through a door.
I’m hopeful. Not in some super happy way, but I think it can work. A lightning strike is less than a millisecond. One millisecond redefined my life. I would not go back and undo it and hand over my manuscript. Never. It’s been a tough journey, but I have a novel. I’m a writer now. It’s the work I’ll do for the rest of my life.
Case Study 2: Broken
In the summer of 2010, Joe Stone crashed while paragliding from Mount Jumbo, near Missoula, Montana. He spent almost a month in an induced coma and woke up to learn that he’d lost the use of his legs and most of the fine motor skills in his hands. Initially despondent, he quickly decided that he’d find new ways to chase adventure. Three years after his accident, at age 28, he became the first quadriplegic to complete an Ironman triathlon. Last year he took his first BASE jump off a bridge in Draper, Utah. For Stone, the challenge of finding his way back from his injuries has been deeply gratifying. But for his family, especially his mother, Kim, the process has meant letting go of the impulse to protect Joe from his biggest danger: himself.
After the Crash, Part 1
What do you do when you’re addicted to adrenaline but confined to a wheelchair? So much more than people expect.Hear the Podcast→
Joe Stone: I don’t remember the crash. I launched, flew away from the mountain to gain altitude, then did a barrel roll. I think I might have collapsed part of my wing. I smacked right into the side of the mountain at probably 50 miles per hour. Some hikers called 911, and I was helicoptered to the ER. They had to remove my C7 vertebra; the bone was just completely blown up.
The moment I realized I was never going to fly again was way harder to deal with than not being able to walk. My dreams were in flying. I thought, I’m just this weak little quadriplegic who can’t do anything.
That first year, I made it a goal to handcycle over Logan’s Pass, in Glacier National Park. I had to dig deeper than I’d ever dug before to keep cranking. It took 14 hours for me to go 50 miles, but it opened my whole world up. When I realized that no quad had ever done an Ironman, it was pretty easy to make that my next goal. I had a really awesome eight months of training. At the start of the race, I had to pull up my goggles to wipe away the tears. Three years earlier, I’d been in a hospital bed thinking that I’d spend the rest of my life in a nursing home. Now I’m at an Ironman. I don’t know how to explain how that felt.
After the Crash, Part 2
Once Joe Stone learned to use his paralyzed body, he decided he’d race an Ironman. Then he went even bigger.Hear the Podcast→
After that, I realized that my disability wasn’t truly a limitation. There’s always another way. If it’s something that hasn’t been done before, it just means I’ve got to figure out a way to do it. Once I understood that concept, I was limitless. Soon after I started flying again, we launched off a mountain right next to the one I crashed on. From total devastation to total stoke. Now, seven years after the crash, I have a life full of opportunity and joy, friendship and adventure, thrills and getting scared again. That’s really all I was searching for.
Kim Stone: As a mom, you do so much to raise your kid—to basically hand him his body. You’re healthy, you’re grown, you’re smart, now go make your way. I was like, Joe, how could you break down your body like this? Knowing I couldn’t fix it, the way I’d bandaged him his whole life—that was really hard.
It was a year or so after his accident that he told me, “I’m the happiest in my life that I’ve ever been, more than before my accident.” At that point I began sleeping through the night, because I knew that, deep down inside, he was OK.
Then he started BASE jumping. It was extremely hard to watch that. I’ve gone through phases when I thought he’s just being so selfish. It doesn’t seem like that thrill is worth dying for. But I always go back to: this is who he is. I want him to be safe, but he would not be happy just doing what most of us do. That would be even harder to watch, because he would not be the same person. But God forbid, I wouldn’t want him to get hurt any more than he already is.
Case Study 3: Hunted
In 1970, four young travelers headed to Bolivia for an ambitious adventure: they would paddle a tributary of the Amazon until they met up with the mighty river itself, then continue on through Brazil. And they would hunt and forage for their food. For Ed Welch, the trip was especially daunting—he only went along because his adventurous new girlfriend, Vicki Adcock, had invited him. Then, a couple of weeks in, he and the other man on the trip were chased up a tree by a jaguar, where they spent a sleepless night expecting to be eaten. Living through that and then completing the voyage gave Welch the strength to follow Vicki around the world for decades—and eventually find new courage after her death.
Treed by a Jaguar
The story of two explorers chased down—well, technically up—by a jaguarHear the Podcast→
We were searching for our canoe, which some Bolivian soldiers had “borrowed” and not returned. We came to this big area of eight-foot-tall grass—that’s when we heard it. There was no question it was a jaguar. We ran until we found a tree we could climb. We were probably 35 feet up and had a machete and a .22. We couldn’t see very well, but we heard it pacing around the tree. Just a week before, a guy had been eaten by a jaguar exactly where we were. So we stayed up there the whole night, listening for anything that would signal an attack. Sometime in the early morning the jaguar left. When we got back to camp, the girls were mostly just unhappy that we’d taken both weapons.
I never shied away from anything after that. Vicki and I got married and ran a goat dairy farm in Washington, but we kept traveling. We’d say, “Oh, let’s climb this mountain,” and then we would.
When Vicki died from cancer in 2013, I basically just worked. I didn’t realize I was depressed. I’d get up in the morning, milk the goats, do my chores, take a nap in the afternoon, and then do the evening chores. It was hard for me to figure out who I was, because throughout our life, I’d borrowed her courage and energy to do so many things. She had all this curiosity and not a lot of fear.
Then I went to India and Africa. It was part of the grieving process. I did a safari in the Serengeti. I traveled through some potentially hazardous places. I climbed Kilimanjaro. I was 68 and it was hard, but it rekindled my desire to do more difficult things—to test myself against that fear.
Case Stude 4: Twisted
Weather Channel meteorologist Mike Bettes and his film crew were chasing a tornado in Oklahoma in 2013 when the twister turned and struck their GMC Yukon. The vehicle was hurled 100 yards, across three lanes of traffic, and sent tumbling into a nearby field. The tornado, dubbed El Reno after a town it had passed, was 2.6 miles wide—the largest ever recorded. It also killed eight people, including two well-known stormchasers. Though Bettes escaped with minor injuries, the near miss haunted him. It took another life-changing event for him to fully recover.
The Death Blow
When forecasts called for a massive tornado in central Oklahoma in 2013, storm chasers flocked to the area. Then all hell broke loose.Hear the Podcast→
I’d never seen a tornado like that. It was aquamarine in color, wider than it was tall. A monster—and it was right out our window. I remember telling everybody to duck, and then it hit. It was just the most violent impact, like a giant sledgehammer smashing the vehicle. Everything slowed down, and I felt this weightlessness. I thought, Wow, we’re floating up into the tornado. I wonder if we’re hundreds of feet off the ground. Is this when I die?
I probably suffered through some form of PTSD for months. I had nightmares every night. There was always a different ending, but usually it was me dying. Then it got to the point where I wasn’t thinking about the tornado but had these visions of dying in various ways. Just this constant fear of death. Time wasn’t healing the wounds. Eventually, I started seeing a therapist. Being able to talk to someone helped me get past the worst of it.
A year and a half after the tornado, my wife was pregnant and we were going to the doctor. It was that appointment where you find out whether you’re going to have a boy or a girl. It was also my wife’s birthday. The doctor told us we’re going to have a little boy, and at that moment everything changed. That was the point where I was like, OK, I’ve got this thing licked. All of a sudden, it became more or less an asterisk in my life instead of a moment that controlled me.
El Reno forced me to reevaluate what was really important, whether the rewards of my profession outweighed the risks. It was remarkable to go through the experience, and that whole year really was this circle of life, from near-death to a new beginning. It’s been fabulous ever since.
Case Study 5: Burned
Greg and Julie Welch were a day into a kayaking trip in Minnesota’s Boundary Waters in 2012 when a distant forest fire began burning straight toward their campsite. The Pagami Creek Fire torched 70,000 acres in less than four hours. Thanks to fast thinking and a lucky shift in the weather, the Welches survived. The experience left Greg exhilarated. But Julie continues to battle the fear that overtook her as they raced from the flames.
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Greg Welch: The fire was unreal. The flames were blowing completely horizontal. It sounded like a freight train coming through the woods.
Julie Welch: I started packing gear in drybags. I was scared to death. My hands were shaking so badly I could barely do anything.
Greg: Julie paddled out and disappeared into the smoke. Then flames came shooting out of the forest. That’s when I pushed off.
Julie: I had no idea where Greg was. I was screaming his name until a gust of wind lifted the smoke for a second and I could see that he was maybe 20 feet away.
Greg: The wind pushed Julie sideways and flipped her kayak. I got out of my kayak into the water and started kicking toward her.
Julie: It was just insane. I thought we were going to cross the lake and get the heck out of there. Then all of a sudden it’s 360 degrees of fire. There was nowhere to go.
Greg: The wind ended up pushing us into a large rock, so I jumped on and grabbed the back of Julie’s life jacket and helped her out of the water. That’s when everything changed.
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Julie: Here we are in the middle of a forest fire, and it starts hailing—huge hail the size of nickels. Then it started raining buckets.
Greg: It put the fire out, the whole thing. I was standing on the rock, jumping up and down and screaming at the fire. I thought, Boy, is it good to be alive!
Julie: I was shaking my head at him, because I’m thinking, OK, that was the end of the world. It was Armageddon. I don’t know why he’s so exhilarated. I was in shock.
Greg: The experience just didn’t mess with me much. I’ve always been somebody who likes taking risks. I didn’t lose anything. I didn’t lose anybody. We didn’t even have a burn mark. I’m almost glad I went through it. How many people get to do something like that and walk away?
Julie: If you could see me right now, I’m flushed. I’m shaking. I hate talking about it. Greg, it’s his favorite… whatever. When he starts talking about it with someone, I might leave the room. My stomach gets in knots, and I have huge anxiety. I can go back to the Boundary Waters now, but the whole time I’m on edge. The wind blows and it scares the hell out of me. I get this creepy, eerie feeling. It’s the fear that disaster is going to strike again. I hope someday I can overcome it.