They Survived the Wild and Fire Ants—Two Men With No Option to Ask Directions

Image by Muhammad Habibullah Iskandar from Pixabay

His burnt skin was hanging on by a thread. A thread slowly chipped away by tiny specs of fire ants. The same fire ants that were keeping him alive. 

Ghinsberg in the Wild

Yossi Ghinsberg had always sought a life of adventure. After his stint in the Israeli Navy, he set his sights on the jungle. He wanted a real survival experience—close to nature. He wanted the dense trees, long walks, wild animals and even the hungry insects. He welcomed harsh sun, torrential rains, and the feel of simultaneously fighting against and living with nature. 

In this moment, when she wanted Yossi Ghinsberg, he welcomed the fight.

It was 1981 and 21-year-old Ghinsberg had spent the last few months working odd jobs, saving up to travel through the South American jungle. He hitchhiked from Venezuela to Colombia, where he met Marcus Stamm, a teacher from Switzerland. 

The pair became friends and made their way to La Paz. La Paz, Bolivia sits 3,500 meters above sea level and rests on the Andes Altiplano plateau. The city’s snow-covered peaks are punctuated by the luminous pink, green, and yellow-painted houses that slope down to valleys hugged by mountains. 

In La Paz, the pair met Karl Rupretcher, an Austrian geologist, and Kevin Gale, an American photographer. Rupretcher said that he was searching for gold in the remote Bolivian-Amazon village of Tacana. Reaching Tacana wouldn’t be an easy feat - the indigenous village was surrounded by unchartered Amazon territory. At the time, little was known about the village, and even today, the information and visitors are sparse. It was exactly the kind of adventure Ghinsberg was looking for, so the foursome flew to Apolo, Lapaz, a city with a population of about 2000 people. The group was venturing further and further away from civilization. 

They traveled to the meeting of two rivers - the Tuichi-Asariamas rivers - to reach the local village of Asariamas. There, they gathered supplies - mostly rice and beans. Their first attempt at trying to reach a remote village via the Asamariamas river was inhibited by Marcus Stamm’s refusal to eat monkeys when they ran out of food. He was growing weaker and weaker, and so they had to pack up and head back to Asariamas. 

Back at Asariamas, Karl Rupretcher had another idea. They would build a raft and sail down the Tuichi River to Curiplaya, a small gold quarry. They would continue downriver and eventually reach La Paz. Their journey would be over, but they’d go out with an adventure. 

The villagers helped them build the raft and they set sail down the river. In a twisted turn of events, Karl, the very person who had suggested their raft expedition, told the group that he couldn’t swim and that the San Pedro Canyon was coming up - a series of waterfalls and boulders that would capsize and decimate their little raft. 

Confused and feeling betrayed, the group argued and separated. Ghinsberg and Gale continued in the raft while Stamm and Rupretcher would walk up the Ipurama River to the village and return to La Paz from there.

Stamm and Rupretcher set off on foot, heading up towards the village. Ghinsberg and Gale got back on the raft and headed downriver. Shortly after, they lost control as they neared a waterfall. Gale made it to shore, but Ghinsberg was carried down the river and over the waterfall. Alone. 

For the next few days, Ghinsberg foraged on berries and leaves while the insects foraged on whatever pieces of him they could reach. At one point, it had been five days since he’d last eaten anything. His foot was rotting from fungi. When he had strength, he prayed for death. When he had nothing, he could only long for it. 

During one of those near-death sleeps, he woke up to find a woman beside him. She needed help. She needed to get out of the jungle. He managed to get himself and the woman up and moving. He had no strength for himself, but he had strength for her.

When Ghinsberg started losing the last of his strength, he stood under a tree and shook the fire ants off. They fell onto him, and softly, violently, with the tiniest, frantic bites, they began to bite into him. The pain pumped his body with enough adrenaline to keep moving. Soon, he heard the sounds of an engine. He stumbled towards it and reached the search party of Gale and the indigenous people. The two of them had made it out. Gale had been on his own for five days before he was found. He returned to La Paz where he notified his friend’s embassies and the police about what had happened, and they set up a rescue team.

Marcus Stamm and Karl Rupretcher were never heard from again. It turns out that Karl Rupretcher was a conman who was responsible for robbing a post office and he was wanted by Interpol. His intentions were never quite clear. We still have no idea what happened to Stamm and Rupretcher, despite days of searching.

Yossi Ghinsberg had been alone in the jungle for three weeks. What made him overcome unimaginable odds to reach civilization? Who was the woman who kept him going? 

He says that she wasn’t real. Some people told him that the woman was a guardian angel.  Yossi thinks that she was an imagination. However, she wasn’t from HIS imagination. She was something else entirely. Where did he get the strength to dream about an entire human being when he barely had the strength to breathe?

There’s a resilience in us—so strong it overrides every natural instinct—giving us the tools to get out of a hard spot. It seems a long way off, sitting on the couch or lying on the bed and looking at some kind of ‘device’, but we have the chops to survive a harrowing ordeal like Yossi’s. Sure, Yossi had the training and desire to immerse himself in the wild, but mental strength is the underlying power that saved him. We take that out on every hike, because we never know when we’ll need it.

McClatchy on the Trail

On May 31, 2019, Joshua McClatchy went for a hike on the Buckeye Trail in Arkansas. It was the last day of Spring. The season had brought vibrantly green, swaying leaves that played peekaboo with blue skies and warm snippets of sunshine. Summer promised warmth, adventure, and colorful scenery. 

The trail covers 1,444 miles, more than the distance from California to Texas. It loops through some of the most captivating scenery in Ohio - from the roaring waterfalls of Cuyahoga Valley National Park to the turquoise-watered, cavernous sanctuaries of Hocking Hills. 

The trip was supposed to be a way for Josh to celebrate his 38th birthday. He’d been planning it for a month, although he’d never hiked the trail alone before.

The trees were dotted with blue blazes—rectangle painted shapes that showed the routes. A single blaze would mean the route was quite straightforward. A double blaze would indicate there was a turn coming up, with the top one showing which direction to turn. Two blazes next to each other meant pay attention - the route might not be that obvious.

As the first sunrise of June hit, Josh hiked his way through the Caney Creek Wilderness. He sent his mother some scenic pictures.

However, just a few hours later, he sent her another text, this time a little less enthusiastic and far more worrying. He’d realized he had lost track of the trail. He asked his mother to send help. He wasn’t able to give his location, and soon after he lost cell phone service. One step in another direction and the temperamental signal was lost to the tech gods. It was a remote trail. He could hear the leaves crunch. 

Hours went by. He was supposed to be done with the hike by this time. Except, it was nightfall now and he could hear the bears in the distance. He could feel the thousands and thousands of ants crawling beneath him, over him, under his clothing. He described them as an inch long, with stingers bigger than their heads.

That was night one. He learned to tuck his clothes into anything - his pants into his socks, tighten up his sleeves, and string up his jacket. Over the coming days, Josh heard voices calling his name, and although he shouted back, frustratingly, they soon disappeared. He followed a stream for water, but often had little or nothing to eat. 

Josh also has bipolar disorder, and by this time he’d been off his medication for a week. He had to survive the elements and he had to survive his own mind, mentally extracting the tricks it was attempting to play from the reality that he was actually facing. 

On Friday, June 7, Josh climbed to the top of a ridge. Something told him to stay put. He watched the sun go down. He felt the ants start to wake up en masse. He could swear he heard those bears in the distance. There was something else, too. A sound of spinning blades. Somehow, a helicopter had spotted him. Within minutes, there were around 50 rescuers on the ground.

We Can’t Always Ask for Directions.

There’s a tongue-in-cheek cliche’ that men never ask for directions. But what if there’s nobody to ask? There’s no ego, only survival. 

Ghinsberg and McClatchy were eventually rescued, after fighting brutal elements, hunger and dehydration, insects and wild animals, injuries and exhaustion. The had only their minds and the raw environment for company. Their bodies were failing, and their brains carried them through. 

A guy like Bear Grylls, who’s had years of survival training, would fare much better than the average person, and anyone could improve their basic bushcraft. But survival experts say a positive mental attitude (PMA) is what keeps someone alive under strained conditions. If the brain gets bogged down with the stress of just surviving, all the accumulated prior knowledge, judgment, instinct and intuition fade away.

Survival is temporary. Survival and getting through a rough spot, for Ghinsberg and McClatchy, was mental.

Add your survival story, below.

Posted in

Cael Woolward

The days are filled with research, the dark nights with terrors—or at least the terror of writing. It started in Cape Town, but now happens in Danang, where a journalism graduate brings stories to life, one phở chay and cà phê đen đá at a time.

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