[ESSAY] Four geologists that nature just couldn’t kill

Most of the epic survival stories you’ve read probably involve crazy mountain climbers, adventurous cave divers, or bearded and grizzled desert hikers.  Scientists aren’t typically mentioned in this company.  But sometimes, geologists find themselves enduring nature’s worst in the pursuit of that must-have dataset… or at least, a dataset that seemed really important at the time.  Here are three stories about four geologists who found themselves at the wrong place at the wrong time when nature removed her flowery veil and donned her murder hat.  But before I get into those, it needs to be said that people perished during the events of some of these stories.  Given that, please consider this a celebration of the perseverance, luck, good fortune, and bad-assery of those who survived.

ONE & TWO: Keith and Dorothy Stoffel outrun a fiery death cloud

The morning of May 18th, 1980 looked like a beautiful day to go flying in Skamania County, Washington.  At around 7:00 am, geologists Keith and Dorothy Stoffel got into a single-engine airplane and took to the air, hoping to enjoy the crystal clear blue sky and admire the gorgeous snow capped mountains.

Everything began to go wrong at 8:32 am when an earthquake rocked the region and triggered one of the biggest landslides in recorded history, sending a quarter of a freaking mountain rocketing downhill at 150 miles per hour.  High above the mountain, Keith and Dorothy should have been safe.  Except that this mountain was Mt. St. Helens and the landslide was the precursor to one of the largest volcanic eruptions in North American history.

The Stoffels took to the air to make some observations of the volcano.  In the preceding weeks, the mountain was literally swelling like a water balloon.  As it did, huge cracks began to form on its surface and Keith and Dorothy took to the air to document this process.

A few minutes after the gigantic landslide, the mountain exploded and sent flames and ash 12 miles into the stratosphere.  But instead of turning the plane away from the expanding mass of fire, rock, and terror, the Stoffels stuck around to take some pictures.  So I suppose they’re at least partially responsible for what happened next.

Appropriate responses to this include screaming four-letter words at the top of your lungs. Questionable responses include saying, “Swing around again, dear!” (photo bad-assily copyrighted by Keith Stoffel)

The column continued to grow, pushing higher and higher into the sky until the weight of 60 million tons of rock and ash began to collapse.  As it did, the cloud grew wider, expanding outwards at a brisk pace of 220 miles per hour.  Within moments, it was up to 670 miles per hour.  Briefly, it even reached the speed of sound.  Let me repeat that: a massive wall of fiery death rock was traveling across the Earth faster than Chuck Yeager and headed right for Keith and Dorothy Stoffel.

The two geologists finally made the decision to get away from the exploding mountain and turned to try to outrun the supersonic death cloud, basically doing their best Pierce Brosnan impression.  Unfortunately for the Stoffels, their plane had a max speed of 188 mph, and again, the cloud was freaking supersonic (768 miles per hour).  Things didn’t look too good.  But luckily for Keith and Dorothy, they had a bit of a head start and the pyroclastic cloud soon hit a ridge and began to slow down a full 23 miles away from the crater.  Remarkably, and despite nature’s best efforts, Keith and Dorothy Stoffel actually outran a volcanic eruption.

Note: A less sarcastic account of Keith and Dorothy’s story can be found in this report written by Keith Stoffel himself.

THREE: Nature’s sense of irony tries to kill evolutionary geologist Richard Leakey

Richard Leakey is the son of legendary archaeologist and Darwin-lover Louis Leakey, whose work in Kenya in the 1950s helped establish the evolutionary link of humans moving out of Africa.  Though he resisted at first, Richard did go on to follow in his father’s professional footsteps, simultaneously thwarting multiple attempts by nature to turn him into an evolutionary footnote.

In 1955, Richard Leakey was 11 years old but well versed in horseback riding.  He loved to jump horses and partake in Steeplechase competitions (which, if you don’t know, are basically just dangerous and badass horse obstacle courses made even more badass if you can navigate one when you’re 11 years old).  The details are unclear, but at some point the 11-year-old Leakey fell from his horse, probably while looking like a kick-ass little Zorro.  When he fell, his head struck the ground hard enough to fracture his skull.

In 1955, medicine and knowledge of the brain wasn’t what it is now and the young Leakey laid on the ground near death.  Not surprisingly, Leakey was bedridden for quite some time, slipping into and out of consciousness.  After months of recovery, Leakey eventually healed from his wounds and took up horseback riding again, as far as I can tell just to poke nature in the eye for trying to kill him.

About 10 years later, Louis Leakey got sick of his son’s confrontational style and lingering teenage angst.  As a result, he did what any father would do and sent Richard on an expedition down the Omo River in Ethiopia.  As the group attempted to cross the river, a swarm of freaking crocodiles attacked the wooden boat, smashing it to pieces in a melee of foam, scales, and razor-sharp teeth.  Remarkably, Richard and his crew managed to swim to shore unscathed before ordering an aluminum boat.

Imagine something like this, only with 12-foot, 1000 lb. carnivorous reptiles

The cost of the boat was well worth it.  During this expedition, a contemporary and member of Leakey’s team named Kamoya Kimeu discovered a 160,000 year old fossil from a Homo Sapien, then the oldest of its kind.

But nature wasn’t done trying to take out Richard Leakey.  A few years later, he was diagnosed with a terminal kidney disease.  Clearly not one to back down, he persevered for another 10 years before falling seriously ill.  Leakey received a kidney transplant from his brother, Philip, but his body rejected the transplant.  Doctors put him on medication that suppressed the rejection, but weakened his immune system – leading to cases of pneumonia and pleurisy that nearly killed him.  Leakey refused to go down and made a full recovery.

In 1989, Leakey became the head of wildlife conservation in Kenya, bringing his confrontational style to the job.  As expected, he didn’t make many friends as he fought the lucrative poaching industry.  In 1993, as Leakey was flying a small propeller-driven plane, something happened and the plane fell from the sky.  Upon impact, the fuselage crushed his lower legs, both of which were later amputated.  Leakey and others suspected sabotage, but it was never proved.  In keeping with his defiance of nature’s cruelty, Leakey made a full recovery and was walking around on artificial limbs within months.

For the record, that’s a horse, a fractured skull, a crocodile attack, a terminal kidney disease, gravity, and a plane crash.  Richard Leakey is currently 69 years old and still going strong.

Note: A full account of Richard Leakey’s early life can be found in his autobiography One Life.

FOUR: Antarctica picks a fight with Douglas Mawson

The same year that the Titanic set sail, an Australian geologist named Douglas Mawson traveled to a remote and almost entirely unexplored corner of Antarctica.  Mawson and his team wanted to map this part of the continent with unprecedented detail, collecting geological samples to build a richer picture of the bottom of the world.  After 5 weeks of relatively good weather, and a trek of 300 miles away from their base camp, Mawson’s expedition team began to encounter the same luck bestowed upon the Titanic…which is to say, things got bad. [warning: this story gets grim before it gets better]

Not pictured: A good luck charm

Mawson’s travel team consisted of two other men (Xavier Mertz and Belgrave Ninnis), two sleds, and about a dozen sled dogs.  In a decision that some might call questionable, the team put their only tent and nearly all of their rations on a single sled that we’ll refer to as the “important sled.”  As Mawson rode the other sled, Mertz skied alongside Mawson and Ninnis decided that this was a good time to get in a quick jog.  As Ninnis strode over the snow, the ground opened up and swallowed Ninnis, the team’s best 6 dogs, and the “important sled” into a seemingly bottomless crevasse.  The only thing that saved Mawson was that he had evenly distributed the weight on his own sled.  After a 5-week trek in, Mawson and Mertz were left with a single sled, no tent, and one week’s rations.

Almost immediately, Mawson and Mertz were battered by 50 mph winds.  After a brief service for their fallen friend, they turned for base camp and sledged for 27 straight hours in a blizzard to retrieve a spare tent cover they had stored in a cache.  This wasn’t a tent, this was a tent cover.  But using skis and the remaining sled, the two geologists built a crude shelter from the increasing winds.

After two weeks, the two had consumed all of their rations save some beef broth and cocoa.  As a result, and I apologize deeply to our dog lovers, Mawson and Mertz turned to the remaining sled dogs for sustenance.  Mertz didn’t really enjoy the meals of sled dog meat, and so chose to eat more of the dogs’ livers.  Livers are rich in a lot of great vitamins, like vitamin A.  Unfortunately for Mertz (and Mawson too), when taken in excess, vitamin A is poisonous.

The health of both men deteriorated quickly, more quickly for Mertz.  They continued to trek back towards base camp, gaining 200 of the 300 miles over the next month.  They began to suffer from dizziness, nausea, abdominal pain, hair loss, skin loss, yellowing of the eyes and skin, and something called mucosal fissuring that I was too afraid to Google.  Mertz finally couldn’t hang on any longer.  He slipped into a coma and died on January 8th, 1913.

Mawson was left to cover the remaining 100 miles alone, on foot, battling madness brought on by the excessive vitamin A, and through winds that were reaching as high as 200 mph.  That’s not a typo: 200 miles per hour.  During his trek, Mawson continued to haul a lightened sled, fastened to him by a rope tied around his waist.  As he neared base camp, Antarctica tried to swallow him for a second time.  A snow bridge he was crossing gave way and Mawson fell into another crevasse.  Miraculously, the frozen rope did not break and the lighter sled held his weight.  Mawson was able to climb out of the crevasse, hand over hand on the frozen rope, and stagger back to base camp 10 days later.

Six men had stayed at base camp to search for the long overdue explorers.  When the ghostly figure of Mawson stumbled into camp, he caught sight of a speck on the horizon, floating away into the open water.  The 6 men informed Mawson that the ship Aurora – his one hope of a quick rescue – had left a mere 5 hours earlier.  They telegraphed the ship and asked her to return to port to pick up the severely degraded Mawson.  But high winds and treacherous seas thwarted the rescue attempt and the Aurora turned away.

Mawson was forced to remain at base camp until the next rescue ship arrived… a YEAR later.  Over the year, and through the harsh Antarctic winter, Mawson slowly regained his strength and healed from his wounds and frostbite.  In December of 1913, Mawson finally left Antarctica.

Having survived this epic ordeal, a normal person would probably stay as far away from Antarctica as possible.  Instead, Mawson returned to the continent in 1929 and stayed there for three years, continuing his geological work and more closely pinpointing the south magnetic pole.

Mawson’s other, less demanding job

Note: A full account of Mawson’s expedition can be found in his book The Home of the Blizzard, and in David Robert’s piece for National Geographic.

by Miles Traer

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