Survival Stories

I have a number of things on my mind today that I was considering as topics for a blog post, but decided to talk a bit about survival stories. In particular I’ll discuss three that are of interest to me, two factual and one fictional.

I’ve always enjoyed reading survival stories and watching movies based on those who have survived in difficult circumstances. Often when I’ve been in places of extreme climate and terrestrial conditions I hearken back to these stories and think about how the individuals involved survived despite the odds stacked against them. Every time the answer is really simple: smarts and determination.

To survive is not a test of courage, nor a test of strength, or stamina, or even luck, though all of these can make surviving in desperate conditions easier. It is a test of one’s ability to make an accurate assessment of one’s current state and the conditions one has been placed in, and deciding upon the best avenue to extricating one’s self from the calamitous situation.

Most of us assume we will never be put in a survival situation, but there is simply no guarantee that this will be true. One could live their entire life in the comfort of suburbia and work daily in the safety of an office building, but find themselves trapped in a blizzard on a remote stretch of road and faced with a life and death decision, or in any number of other frightening situations. Reading these stories provides us with an understanding of what went right, what went wrong, and what we can learn from the success and mistakes of others.

The first story I’ll discuss is that of Aron Ralston, whose story led to the movie 127 hours. Ralston of course was forced to cut off his own arm when trapped hopelessly in a slot canyon outside Canyonlands National Park. As everyone who has hiked in that area knows, the odds of being found and discovered there are pretty close to zero (although the canyon walls to echo and carry sounds farther than you might imagine).

Ralston has become somewhat of a hero for having the courage to amputate his own arm, but he also made a lot of mistakes before he ever set out, despite his canyoneering experience. Mistakes that we can learn from. He was arrogant and reckless. He assumed nothing could go wrong. He didn’t communicate where he was going or what he was doing.

You have to tell people where you are going. Cell phones make this a tad easier as they provide a reasonable indication of one’s location (always carry one and try to make sure it’s fully charged – better yet get some type of solar charger), but when you are going into the remote wilderness one of the only means of rescue is having a basic understanding of one’s location, something nobody had. While he still would have lost his arm, his ordeal would have been much shorter.

So what did he do right? Well, obviously he correctly assessed the situation and concluded that his survival meant parting with his arm. That is a terribly painful reality (literally), but being willing to make a strategic sacrifice is sometimes necessary. In some stories I’ve read over time, sick and dying members of a party have to be left behind to give the others a better chance. Staying together is not always the answer, though it more often is better and safer for everyone.

Another decision upon cutting away his arm was to drink from any available fresh-water sources. Could they have dangerous bacteria? Yup. Is the need to get any hydration, even from a dirty water source better than none in the moment? Yup. If you survive the hike out you can always get medical attention for the possible giardiasis and gangrenous wounds. But without water, it’s over quickly.

Another thing he did right is know exactly where he was and how to get back, as well as know that the location he was in was not likely to be stumbled upon by another canyoneer. If you can trust that the location you are in is probably trafficked by fellow hikers, drivers, etc at least once a day, staying put might be the better option than risking a journey back.

The next story I want to discuss is a favorite movie of mine from the 1990s called The Edge. It’s a story of a group of wealthy urbanites who take a vacation at a remote wilderness lodge (I assume it’s Alaska but the movie never directly says). After a bush plane crash, a few survivors must trek through the wilderness to safety.

There are a few interesting things about this movie that I enjoy. First, the hero of the story is the billionaire businessman (Anthony Hopkins) who despite being placed in a desperate situation is able to reason his way back to civilization. At the beginning of the movie he is quizzed by his fellow travelers on what would be depicted on the back of an oar, and being well-read he correctly responds that it is a rabbit smoking a pipe.

The allusion to events later in the movie is obvious in that Anthony Hopkin’s character is smart enough to reason his way through all the circumstances that they will encounter and is thus unafraid as they occur, which leads to their salvation. And of course among his party there are those that are also out to get him. But because of his intelligence, willingness to read and educate himself well beyond the confines of his required business knowledge, and determination to meet the challenges, he survives. His habit of reading and acquiring knowledge mattered when it counted most.

One of my favorite parts of the movie are the scenes leading up to the encounter with the bear which has already killed one of the members of the party (I’ll forgive this bit of fiction because grizzlies don’t really stalk and kill humans in this way). He makes Alec Baldwin’s character repeat the line “If one man can do it, any man can do it”. Essentially what they intend to do is use a sharpened spear to make the bear impale itself under its own weight. Native hunters used they method, he knows, but they only need to know that they can do it.

I’ve often reminded myself of that mantra many times when I am faced with a difficult challenge. No, everyone cannot run a 9.6 second 100 meters or multiply two numbers of ten digits accurately in seconds. But for most any task or project or endeavor we can rely on the knowledge that if one person was able to previously accomplish the same task, we can accomplish the same task as well. We just need to understand how they succeeded and why they succeeded.

Sometimes the biggest barrier to our success or survival is our own self-doubt. Once we set aside that invisible internal enemy, we can overcome the odds stacked against us logically and systematically.

Finally, the amazing story of Julianne Koepcke. Julianne Koepcke was a seventeen-year-old girl who miraculously survived a plane crash over the Peruvian rainforest in the 1970s. She fell from the plane without a parachute, but because she was strapped to her seat (which acted a bit like a helicopter to slow her descent), and fell into the canopy of the rainforest, she was slowed just enough to survive.

Once on the ground though she had a broken collarbone, lacerations, and was hopelessly alone in one of the most hostile ecosystems on earth. This situation should have been a death sentence despite surviving the fall. But she had one huge advantage over 99% of the rest of humanity: she had been raised in the rainforest by her scientist parents and was both knowledgeable and unafraid of the rainforest.

She knew about the snakes and understood the dangers they presented. She knew she could acquire water from leaves. She knew that she needed to treat a festering wound or it would lead to her arm being amputated or her own death (she found gasoline along the way and used to kill the maggots). She knew that a king vulture meant that carrion was nearby and assumed it was other plane crash victims. There she found candy that she was able to use to stave off starvation.

Eventually she found a couple Peruvians in the forest who were able to treat her wounds, give her food, and bring her back to civilization. Her story is amazing but again leads back to one common element about all stories of survival: that it is a matter of reasoning and calm decision-making that makes the difference between life and death.

This was a girl that was not placed in a position to trek through the rainforest to survival, but when fate led her to that situation, she was able to meet the challenge. I think it’s important that we always consider what might go wrong, and think about what we can do to prepare ourselves for any situation no matter how unlikely it may seem. Not all of us live in the rainforest, or at high altitude, or in a desert climate, but a little knowledge and experience goes a long way when we are faced by survival situations.

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