A survivor's story

telly talk

Marni Sheppeard, an experienced mountaineer, and Sonja Rendell, a relative novice, endured 10 days in rain and cold without food and water on a tiny ledge in the Southern Alps of New Zealand, before being rescued.

Their real-life survival story is chronicled in Discovery Channel’s survival series I Shouldn’t Be Alive. One of the two hikers, Marni Sheppeard, now a theoretical physicist, gave an inside look to the real-life drama.

Marni and Sonja Rendell, both university physics students, went on a three-day hike or ‘tramp’ over a mountain pass just before the Christmas of 2004.

Marni describes this hike as relatively straightforward as there was a very good route following valleys up through a grassy pass. However, when they came to the pass, they discovered a four-storey wall of snow and ice still left over from winter, blocking the pass.

This is where she made a mistake, thinks Marni. She decided to take a detour by climbing the rocky mountain on the side of the snow to get back to the pass on the other side.

Based on the fine weather and wonderful conditions prevalent then, it should have taken only a couple of hours. Unfortunately, the mountainside proved to be too steep, and they found themselves stuck on a small ledge on the mountainside, unable to move either up or down.

Then rain started to pour. Marni says that they hoped it would clear after a day or two. Instead, it turned to sleet and then snow during the next six days, and that was when she realised it was turning into a survival situation.

Their condition worsened steadily, and they both had trench foot, which had killed off the nerves in the feet and turned them totally numb. The crumbling rock faces were now slippery as well because of the rain and it would have been suicidal to climb them. They didn’t have a cell phone either, so they couldn’t call for help.

Their supplies, meant for three days, ran out, and they were reduced to eating milk powder and snow. The one exception was the bottle of red wine, the one Marni was taking as a gift to her sister, that they shared on Christmas day.

Their situation was extremely uncomfortable and physically horrible, but unlike dramatic accounts where people talk of “their lives flashing before their eyes,” Marni feels her experience was very mundane, because she was focused on what had to be done.

And primarily, she was keen on keeping both of them awake. Being wet and cold meant that hypothermia might set in and they might become comatose if they slept, since body temperature dips during sleep. Marni recounts that she made an effort to just constantly talk and be annoying to keep them both awake. She felt she was responsible for Sonja’s predicament, so that helped her keep focused too.

Since they were not expected back for three days, search parties were mobilised only after the fourth day. Even though helicopters were combing the mountains for them, they were flying too low, and the cloud cover was too thick for them to be spotted.

However, they were too uncomfortable and focused on survival to feel sorry for themselves, according to Marni. They were incredibly weak and tired, but they didn’t want to get caught in another storm, so they decided to climb out.

That was when, on day 10, that the weather finally cleared, and the helicopter spotted them.

“Elation is an understatement,” Marni says. “Until that moment, you really don’t know if you’re ever going to be picked up. The only way we knew was that the Air Force man hopped out onto the skid of the helicopter, opened the door and did a thumbs-up.

That’s the only way you know for sure they’ve seen you, so that was great. It was just absolutely euphoric. We were over the moon. I think we looked at each other, hugged each other and thought, thank god.”

Marni has focused more on her career since then, but she has been hiking also, though not in the same area. She realises that though her experience in mountaineering helped her friend, she was wrong to put her in that situation in the first place.

And taking stupid risks, like going off-trail, was bad.Leo Buscaglia, author and motivational speaker says, “The person who risks nothing, does nothing, has nothing, is nothing, and becomes nothing.

He may avoid suffering and sorrow, but he simply cannot learn and feel and change and grow and love and live.” Marni’s words are simpler: “What’s the point in living if you don’t take any risks?”Verdict on the show: Not to be missed.

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