WEST FORK KICKAPOO - In his book ‘Deep Survival,’ Laurence Gonzales explains why some people die and others don’t when tragedy strikes, when a poor decision is made, or, most often, when both occur: a tragedy compounded by a poor decision.
How does one survive 76 days alone in a raft on the open seas when their sailboat has capsized? How does a teenager survive 11 days in the wilderness after falling 10,000 feet from a plane that was struck by lightning? How does one fall into a crevasse while mountain climbing, sustain a horrific injury, and manage to come crawling back to base camp days later?
Most of us will never cross the Atlantic Ocean in a sailboat, fly over the remote rain forest of the Amazon, or attempt to climb the Cordillera Huayhuash of the Peruvian Andes. But understanding and adopting a basic survival mentality could one day save our lives or someone else’s.
Gonzales uses the acronym STOP to describe this approach to survival. The S is for Stand, but also for the word Stop itself. Remain calm and analyze the situation. Try to get your breathing under control.
The T stands for Think. What do you need to do to survive? Take inventory. Review how you got there, what the current situation is, and what your options are.
O is for Observe. Study the terrain. Look for familiar landmarks. Can you see where you need to go, what the weather is like, how much daylight is left? Are there identifiable threats (e.g., grizzly bear country) or opportunities (deer, rabbits, other food sources)?
The last letter, P, is for Plan. Figure out your course of action and act on it. It might be as simple as sitting tight and building a signal fire, hanging up a flag or cloth, or using a mirror to alert others or signal a passing plane.
When Steven Callahan, sailing on the Atlantic, realized his sailboat was sinking, he deployed his survival raft. He then needed to make a decision to risk his life—to swim back to his failing boat to retrieve his emergency bag, a cushion, and a sleeping bag. This crucial act was the start of Callahan becoming a survivor.
Joe Simpson and his climbing partner, Simon Yates, celebrated summiting a 21,000-foot mountain, but then disaster struck: Simpson plunged off a cliff and broke his leg. The two men decided to lower Simpson down the mountain on a rope. But a blizzard was raging, night was falling, and Simpson was unable to assist. After a wrong move left Simpson dangling from an ice ledge for an hour, Yates had to make a tough decision: cut the rope or be pulled to his own death. He cut the rope.
At 17 years old, Juliana Koepcke found herself upside-down in a tree after falling two miles through the sky. Her collarbone was broken, she had a gash in her left leg and right arm, and one eye was swollen shut. Fortunately, her injuries weren’t life-threatening, plus she had the benefit of familiarity with the rain forest because her biologist parents worked there.
As her father had taught her, Koepcke found water and followed it downstream. She waded through the knee-deep river, where crocodiles and poisonous snakes lived. She sucked on candy she’d salvaged from the crash site.
After 10 days, Koepcke stumbled upon a shelter and boat. She siphoned the gas from the boat's motor and used it to kill the maggots that had burrowed into her open wounds. Not wanting to steal the boat, she spent the night in the shelter. The next day three men found her, treated her wounds, fed her, and took her downstream seven hours to a pilot, who then flew her to a hospital, where she was reunited with her father, treated and released.
After consuming the meager rations in his emergency bag, Callahan learned how to spearfish, collect barnacles, and catch birds that came to his raft to eat. He devised a system to ration one pint of water a day from the rainwater he was able to collect.
On his 76th day in the ocean, having traveled 1,800 nautical miles, a fisherman noticed his raft. Despite numerous shark attacks, punctures in the raft, and intense physical and mental stress, Callahan was rescued, weighing one-third of his original weight and covered in painful saltwater wounds.
Yates continued down the mountain alone, burdened by the guilt of cutting the rope and the grief of losing his friend. Back at base camp, he began packing up his gear and Simpson’s belongings to return them to his family.
But Simpson, crippled, starving, and severely frostbitten, never gave up. He crawled over the glacier and moraines for three and a half days, back to camp, where Yates heard him cry out.
Callahan, Simpson, and Koepcke were all survivors. They were able to control their panic, assess their situation, make a plan and act.Perhaps we can all apply this same mindset to survive the rest of 2020.