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Survival means good preparation, good mind
By Molly Absolon, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
Date: March 13, 2013
I have been commissioned to write a book on survival stories, and so I am spending a lot of time talking to people about their epic experiences.
Their stories are amazing and humbling. Some of these kinds of tales have become part of our cultural lore. Even if we haven’t read “Touching the Void,” most of us have heard the tale of Joe Simpson crawling out of the mountains of Peru with a broken leg, having survived after his friend was forced to cut the rope between them, sending Simpson tumbling down the mountainside into a crevasse.
And we all know about Aaron Ralston cutting off his arm with a dull multi-tool after being trapped for 127 hours by a boulder in a slot canyon in Utah. We hold up the story of Ernest Shackleton and the crew of the Endurance — who survived the destruction of their ship by crushing pack ice, an open-water crossing of frigid, icy seas in a rowboat and a traverse over rugged, glaciated mountains to reach safety — as one of remarkable leadership and resilience.
These kinds of human survival stories are inspiring and riveting. And yet I always assumed you could avoid having to “survive” if you were adequately prepared. As an outdoor educator, I believed if you made the right decisions, carried the appropriate gear and had the proper training, you would not be faced with a survival situation. You may have to endure hardship, but it won’t really meet the survival standard.
I scoffed at survival courses, thinking they were attempts to reverse time and use antiquated, if interesting, skills. Why do you really need to learn how to start a fire from a bow drill when you should always be carrying a lighter or matches in a waterproof bag? Why bother setting out snares to capture mice when you have packed the right amount of food for your trip? And if you brought a tent, you have no need to build a shelter out of pine boughs, right?
Well, right and wrong. As I’ve talked to people about their survival stories I’ve grown to realize that the word “survival” has blurred for me. I always associated it with primitive living skills, which I agree are cool but am not so sure are really going to save you if you get lost or in trouble in the mountains. Survival really is the human ability to endure and deal in the event of an unexpected challenge.
Because the truth is, no matter how skilled and prepared you may be, you can’t guarantee you will never find yourself in a bad situation. Nature doesn’t follow any rules. Weather and conditions can change unexpectedly. You may get injured or sick. Your equipment can break, or you may be involved in an accident. Things happen, and the more time you spend in the backcountry, the more likely you are to face a crisis or emergency.
In his book “Deep Survival,” Laurence Gonzales explores what allows people to survive in desperate situations. After reading countless accident reports and interviewing numerous people who have lived through horrific events, Gonzales has reached the conclusion that the people who make it have something inside that sets them apart from those who fail.
He writes, “The maddening thing for someone with a Western scientific turn of mind is that it’s not what’s in your pack that separates the quick from the dead. It’s not even what’s in your mind. Corny as it sounds, it’s what’s in your heart.”
We all experience a rush of emotions when stressed or frightened, but only some of us are able to control those emotions enough to perform well in the heat of the moment. According to Gonzales, as many as 90 percent of us are unable to think clearly or solve simple problems under duress. We get rattled, we panic or freeze, and we do stupid things. It’s a rare 10 percent of us who actually thrive on stress. These people are able to draw on some inner character trait that enables them to perform and even thrive when conditions seem dire. Think of elite athletes, high-rolling gamblers and emergency response workers.
It’s not always apparent on the outside who has this ability. Statistics show that in many outdoor survival situations — the classic lost camper out on a freezing cold night for example — it is those we’d think would succumb to the conditions most rapidly who survive, while the highly skilled outdoor person dies. Search and rescue workers say it’s actually pretty common to find small children unscathed in such circumstances while an experienced hunter falls victim to hypothermia. The question is, what sets those two apart?
Gonzales theorizes that children or inexperienced adults may do better than others because they have no expectations, no mental map clouding their judgment. They don’t over-think things but, rather, respond instinctively and often better than an adult faced with the same information.
But instinct isn’t always enough, particularly for people caught in situations that require skill to escape.
A friend of mine, Colby Coombs, lived through one of the most epic tales of endurance I’ve heard. He was climbing Mount Foraker in Alaska 20 years ago with two friends. They were close to their goal when an avalanche hit from above, sweeping them down the mountainside. Colby’s teammates were killed, and he was badly injured in the fall. He proceeded to get himself down through thousands of feet of technical terrain and across the heavily crevassed Kahiltna Glacier. It took him four days with his broken, battered body. Colby says he felt he had no choice. He had to try to get down so he could tell people what happened, and so he focused on one step at a time until he finally made it to safety.
But Colby did have a choice. He could have lain down and died on the mountain. He could have given up and waited, against all odds, for help. He could have freaked out.
I often wonder what I would have done in Colby’s place. And I mean that metaphorically, since I do not have the skills to be on Mount Foraker. But if I were faced with the devastating loss of my partners, experiencing great physical pain and confronted by an epic journey to safety, would I have what it takes to make it? I’ve had my moments where I’ve freaked out on climbs, had temper tantrums when my gear has been inadequate or my skills have failed me, and those moments of emotional instability make me wonder. I’m most likely one of the 90 percent who panic under great stress.
But I hope that once the emotions clear and I’m left with no option, I’d be able to pull myself together and survive.