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The story includes an escape on foot over 4,000 miles in length, crossing through five countries. World War II era convicts (including an American) escape from a Soviet forced labor camp deep in Siberia. How they survived is worth taking a close look at.
In the book, “The Way Back” (later becoming a movie with actor Colin Farrell), men from multiple backgrounds and cultures are taken by the Soviets during the time leading up to World War II and sent to a forced labor camp (called a Gulag) deep in the cold, snowy wilderness of Siberia.
It’s a prison with minimal walls surrounded though by vast amounts of unforgiving and treacherous wilderness. In Siberia the wilderness will kill you — not because of dangerous animals in the forest — but because of the deep cold and endless snow, mountains, forests, and barren wastelands.
Together a small number of convicts plan an escape. The prison camp is just too dangerous; most of the dangers come from the work conditions that take place outside the camp in the freezing cold of the forest or down in the mines.
Bounty On The Head Of Fugitives
There is a second danger though, the convicts have to watch out for: There is a bounty on the head of any fugitive that escapes, which the locals are said to willingly kill for.
At this point most convicts accept their fate — escape seems like a quick way to die, even if the work camp itself is harsh and has it’s own dangers.
Yet an escape plan comes together and includes a recent group of arrivals to the work camp.
The men agree that it’s worth risking being shot by guards rather than losing their lives to the harsh work conditions of prison labor in the mines and forest.
Survival In Extreme Conditions
What can we learn about survival from The Way Back?
These men escape the work camp and survive dangerously cold temperatures with very little resources through sheer determination and by simply not giving up.
What We Can Learn About Survival From
The Way Back
When Trekking Through The Deep Cold Don’t Stop To Rest
In the initial escape dogs are set loose but the men manage to escape the dogs by having a head start and by not stopping to rest — at least not for a while. The guards stay back and don’t pursue the convicts far into the forest — the cold temperatures and snowfall were simply too dangerous.
Cold temperatures and snowfall created ideal escape conditions — but only ideal because the guards were unwilling to risk their lives in a pursuit into the Siberian wilderness.
Falling Snow Hides Tracks
The falling snow offered the convicts a little security — they knew that the snowfall would help cover their tracks, thus the reason they decided to make the escape when the snow was coming down.
For these men who had escaped, the temperatures and cold were a constant threat — but because the men moved fast during the escape into the freezing cold, the physical work of walking fast / running through the snow warmed them up enough to keep them from falling dead to hypothermia.
Survival Tip: Physical exertion raises body temperature.
Word of warning though: Physical exertion can be a killer if you’re wearing the wrong kind of clothing. Physical exertion causes sweat; in the cold you have to have clothing that wicks (lifts) the moisture away from the body and does not hold onto it; on the other hand if you’re wearing cotton the cotton will simply get wet and then you’ll die of hypothermia. Wool and synthetic fibers made for cold weather are important tools for life and survival in freezing temperatures (learn more about the most essential cold weather survival gear here).
How fast can freezing temperatures cause hypothermia and kill? LiveScience.com states:
“Normal core body temperature is 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit, and mild hypothermia sets in at about 95 degrees F. After that, “as you start dropping [in temperature], bad things happen,” Sawka said.
At 91 degrees F, you can experience amnesia.
At 82 degrees you can lose consciousness.
Below 70 degrees F, you are said to have profound hypothermia and death can occur, Sawka said.”
Shortly after the escape the men encounter what would be considered near-white out conditions with snow falling fast and the wind whipping the snow into their eyes, making it very difficult to see. But they had to keep going.
One of them — a younger guy from Poland who had been arrested by the Soviets and was one of the recent arrivals at the Gulag — had experience in the outdoors; he knew what they had to do; for those of us paying attention we just learned a new survival skill for dealing with severe, blinding snowfall.
Ski goggles would have saved the day of course, but no one had ski goggles; luckily that included the guards. The Polish convict had the answer though — he cut away sections of bark from a nearby tree that had fallen and then cut two slits — for eye holes — into each section — and then each man simply held it up in front of his face.
In North America the Eskimos in the far north would call these “snow blinders”. For the Eskimos snow blinders had a dual purpose — not only keeping snow out of the eyes, but on sunny days they helped greatly reduce the glare from the sun’s light reflecting off the snow, which can make it nearly impossible to see.
Flint, Steel, And Spark
One of the men had flint — flint is essential for creating a spark. Without that spark there is not going to be a fire. In planning the escape flint would have been an essential. Without it survival would not have been possible.
That first night the men were able to get a fire going by striking a knife (their only knife) against the flint. Pay attention though. Not all knives will create a spark when struck against flint — especially many knives in the modern age. You want a knife with a high carbon count — like a lot of older blades have — such as the blade the men in this escape had. They had an older blade that was able to create a spark when struck against flint.
If you don’t have a flint tool (specifically for fire making) it’s not the end of the world — remember, people from ages past, before the modern age, found flint in the ground — rocks that would work for creating a spark.
White quartz (scroll down at this link) for example is a rock reportedly harder than steel — look for a rock with straight edges as you’ll get the best spark when you strike your knife on the corner vs. using a rounded stone (quartz was also used to make arrow heads due to it’s hardness). You can still get a spark from a rounded stone, just not as good a spark as you can get from a stone with an edge to it. See: Knife and Stone for Creating a Spark
When you strike the rock on steel (steel blade with a high carbon count), the flint edge shaves off a particle of the steel blade, exposing iron which reacts with oxygen in the air — creating a spark. This spark can be used to ignite tinder. See: Creating a Fire with Tinder
Flint, Iron Pyrite, And Spark
What if you don’t have a knife with a steel blade? You can do what primitive cultures have done — turn to iron pyrite. Like flint (flint stones), iron pyrite can also be found in the ground. An essential survival skill for living off the land is learning how to find flint and iron pyrite and which stone shapes make the best sparks when struck against each other.
Death By Hypothermia
One of the men, suffering from night blindness brought on by periods of severe hunger (which occurred prior to his arrival at the work camp) died that first night — simply because he strayed a few yards too many away from camp while collecting firewood and succumbed to the cold. Because of his night blindness (inability to see at night or even dusk deep in the forest when little light is available), he wasn’t able to make his way through the snow back to where they had gotten a campfire going, even though he was only 15 – 20 yards away. That is how quickly the severe cold of the Siberian wilderness can kill. His night blindness of course was too blame.
Saved By Fire
That small fire the men were able to get started saved the group who would have otherwise all froze to death that first night. The flint and steel knife were essentials to this group surviving in the cold, snowy wilderness of Siberia, as well as their sheer determination to keep moving, trekking through the snow, the physical exertion keeping their bodies just warm enough to keep going without falling victim to the cold.
Their clothing helped of course — each of the men had wool clothing on as that’s what the prison would have outfitted each man with, even if it wasn’t stated in the movie. It would have been standard clothing for the severe cold climate. Wool (or modern day synthetic fibers) are a necessity in severe cold as they can keep people warm, especially when worn in layers, and even when wet. Cotton on the other hand is dangerous when wet, as can happen in the snow, and as can happen from the sweat of physical exertion; sweat and cotton combined ultimately rob the body of heat, quickly leading to hypothermia and death.
Make a note of that. If you’re going to be anywhere near the snow don’t have cotton clothing on. Have either wool or — in the modern age — synthetic materials that work a lot like wool. Wear your clothing in layers — the colder the temperatures, the more layers you can pile on.
Piling On Layers
The trick to surviving in deep cold is to pile on lots of layers and sleep under lots of blankets. Your shelter should be built with thick walls sealed by dirt, mud, or snow to block any drafts (wind chill). Eskimos have mastered the art of snow shelter making — building igloos that can comfortably house a handful of people and allow for a small fire that provides heat within the igloo — all without melting the ice that holds their igloo together.
Preparing For The Escape
In the weeks and months prior to the escape, each of the men had slowly stockpiled food; they took small bits of food from meals that were served at the work camp and found great spots around the work camp to hide them. The freezing temperatures and snow on the ground worked as a perfect food preserver — they just had to keep the guards (and other prisoners) from seeing that they were stashing food away.
On the day of the escape the men dug up / retrieved their food stores and this is what they survived off of for the first few days and possibly weeks of the escape.
As food ran low they eventually turned to insects, though with so much snow on the ground and cold temperatures insects weren’t plentiful and the men were slowly starving.
A Note On Hunting
For these men on the run and traveling vast distances through the snowy wilderness, they didn’t have time to trap food. Trapping food calls for waiting in an area for a few days, waiting for small animals (rabbits, squirrels, opossums, chipmunks, raccoons, foxes, etc) to spring traps. Then you have to comb the area and check your traps. These men didn’t have a few days though. They had to keep moving, or so it seemed to them. In a situation like this, where you have to keep moving, it’s going to be insects that are likely to save the day. You can (usually) easily find these as you travel through an area.
Make it important to know what the edible insects are in the wilderness and mountains that you may one day find yourself in; a lot of people hike and camp or go through drives through the mountains. Know what’s edible in your local mountain ranges before you go on excursions; should an emergency take place or you (or one of your family members) get lost, you’ll know how to find insects that you can eat and survive off when food isn’t available.
The men had a general idea of where they were going — they were headed south, believing that a large lake sat somewhere below them on the map, where the Trans-Siberian Railway ran along side. They believed that if they could get to the lake they could then survive off fish, while also having a landmark (the railroad tracks) to help them know where they were going. Their goal was to get out of Communist controlled territory; as the escape progressed and days and weeks passed, no matter how far they traveled it became clear that the Communists controlled a lot more territory than they had initially thought.
Stealing From Wolves
Low on food, and in a mountainous area far south of the work camp they had escaped from, they came across a pack of wolves that had killed a game animal and were now eating off the carcass. Hungry, rather than scared, the men picked up sticks and chased off the wolves. A few of the wolves may have wanted to put up a fight — but the men weren’t scared. They shouted at the wolves, waved sticks and charged. Their aggression made the wolves perceive the men as a dangerous predator — one that shouldn’t be challenged. The wolves ran off and the men claimed the carcass, dropping down on all fours to eat; luck or God was with them that day as they didn’t get sick from eating the raw carcass; today these men had become the wolves and this was their kill.
Survival Tip: Uncooked wildlife can carry parasites / bacteria; it’s always best to ensure proper cooking before eating anything killed in the wild.
Making It To The Lowlands
The men — having traveled many weeks and months, very hungry at times, very beat up by the elements and having to live off the land with minimal resources — came down out of the mountains finally and arrived at the lake.
They had survived the Siberian wilderness, though technically they were still in Siberia, just a lot further south and at a lower elevation. The lake offered fishing as well as bathing.
Once in the lowlands they were surprised by a teen age girl, homeless, who had found them in the forest — and who had tracked them silently for a short time, watching them through the trees — as she traveled across the countryside — making her own escape from the Communists.
After arguing with themselves on whether or not they should have “another mouth to feed”, the good hearts in the group won out and they allowed the girl to travel with them.
Running Across Melting Ice
The group arrives at a small body of water and the girl surprises everyone by running across the ice to the far shore. In the far north on hard frozen ice this wouldn’t have been an issue — but they were further south, the ice on the pond had melted into smaller ice patches, and the only way to make it across was to run and leap across the ice, almost “skipping”. Many people probably would have fallen off the ice, losing their balance as it shifted — but this girl did it — she got across safely by moving fast — and the men followed her example.
One or two of them weren’t as lucky as she was once on the far side — they did fall into the water, but at least the water wasn’t deep near the shore and they made it out ok.
Survival Tip: If you fall into water in cold weather you can quickly die to hypothermia, even if you get out of the water just seconds later. Strip out of your wet clothing (this isn’t the time for modesty) as soon as possible while others in your group get a fire going.
While they’re working on getting a fire going you can do push ups, you can run in place, you can jump in place — do exercises that focus on large muscle groups, and do them fast — you need to get your blood pumping — it’s going to help you warm up long enough to get that emergency fire going. Look for a heavy rock — pick it up, lift it high over your head, and “military press” it as many times as you can. Put the rock down and run in place for a minute. Pick the rock back up and do a few more military presses and even full leg squats.
Do whatever you can, as fast as you can, to get your blood pumping and keep your body warm.
Once that fire is lit warm up next to it and dry your clothing out. Remember this about falling in a lake, pond, or river in the cold: Your survival is going to depend on how quickly you can get out of your wet clothing and warm up by a fire. You and your group should have a plan — and you should be carrying with you dry tinder and kindling (from a previous fire) so that you are always ready to get a fire going and on short notice.
Finally, before you can continue your trip, those clothes need to be dried out by the heat. Don’t put damp clothes on — they are going to rob your body of heat. Wool is a lot better than cotton in the cold — but dry it out first and get the most use out of its properties.
In the lowlands the group came across a small town, keeping themselves hidden in the nearby forest even as they eyed the town for possible resources, deciding that it was too dangerous to go into the town.
They knew that across Siberia that towns and villages would be dangerous places to be spotted due to the bounty placed on the head of escaped convicts by the Soviets. Even as travelers the group would have raised suspicions.
(History reports several million people taking part in forced labor camps across Siberia with over 500,000 losing their lives during that time. A small number managed to escape on multiple occasions, even if many of them lost their lives in the wilderness. The Soviets had done a good job of notifying towns and villages to be on the look out for escaped fugitives.)
The group stayed hidden and veered well around the town, though that first night one of the men snuck off and stole a small amount of food from town and luckily got away without being spotted. The others were angered (for risking the group’s secrecy) but quickly got over it.
Finally, in southern Russia, the group came out of of the mountains. One of the men, a Russian, decided to go his own way.
And now vast desert lay before the main group — the Gobi Desert; they had made it into Mongolia. Below Mongolia was still China, then the Himalayas, and finally India and freedom.
With the desert before them the escape from the Soviets had taken on new challenges and new dangers and new climate extremes. The dangers now were from the lack of water and possibility of dying of heat stroke.
One of the only clues we have of hot weather is the teenage girl’s death from heat stroke made worse by thirst; soon after the entire group almost loses their lives to a sand storm; quick thinking though leads the group to run the opposite direction from a fast approaching colossal wall of dust — they ducked down behind a shallow slope of sand just in time.
By the time the storm has passed it’s clear that the group was lucky they didn’t get caught by the full brunt of the storm.
The Way Back — Survival Story Of Incredible Perseverance
The scope of survival and escape that takes place in The Way Back — all on foot over 4,000 miles — is nothing short of remarkable and an incredible story of human perseverance.
Critics have appeared over the years challenging the author as to his claims. A new idea came forward in recent years, reported in Reader’s Digest in May, 2009 — that another man had lead the journey — that he was the one who should receive full credit for escape. See: / Controversy surrounds “The Way Back” — who really lead it?
Even with all the controversy surrounding The Way Back and what the critics have had to say over the years, the event is likely something that did occur. Who it really involved though seems to be up for opinion.
What we get from this is an incredible story of survival recorded in the pages of this book and shown in the 2011 release of the movie by the same name.
Survival is possible even in harsh conditions such as the Siberian wilderness in deep winter, the Gobi Desert in southern Mongolia, and then the trek through the Himalayas where the group eventually made it to India and freedom from the Communists — truly there’s a lot to be learned here.
When it comes to survival, never give up. Even if you have to walk over 4,000 miles and through mountain ranges and desert — survival is possible.
Recap What We Learned
** Know what flint is — either have a flint making tool or know how to find it in the ground. Every continent and every country has flint.
** Know what iron pyrite is and also how to find it in the ground. With flint and iron pyrite you can create a spark. Though a bow, string, and wood is a primitive method for creating fire, it’s a lot of work to produce that first coal using the bow, string, and wood method. Instead, if you can find flint (stones) and iron pyrite (stones) in the ground or along a river bank — or anywhere in the terrain — you’ll have the two materials needed for creating a spark. With just dry tinder you can get a fire going.
** When trekking through the deep cold, don’t stop to rest — not until you can get a fire going. The deep cold can cause a loss of consciousness and when that happens, death.
** Like primitive cultures that have lived (and thrived) in extremely cold climates at different times in history, pile yourself under layers — whether it’s clothing or simply animal furs and skins.
** Snow blinders (made from bark) will protect your eyes from both blizzard conditions as well as severe glare from the sun reflecting off snow.
** When there’s no time for hunting or trapping small animals, look for insects — many types of insects are edible. Before venturing into the wild (or simply flying a small plane over a stretch of wilderness), be sure to know which insects are commonly found in areas you’re likely to be in. That way you have a fast and nutritious food source should you have to eat insects in order to survive.
** Have a strategy for dealing with wolves and other dangerous predators. Though we didn’t see this in the story, if you can take down a predator (bear, wolf, lion, wild dogs, snakes, crocodile, etc) you’ll suddenly have food — just don’t become food for another predator in the process.