Deciding to Start Surviving

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A Montana hunter recently got stranded in the back country for four days after a heavy snowfall. Sounds like he did everything right, although he was lucky to find some sheds with a propane heater.

Worried that night was fast approaching and that his wet clothes might lead to hypothermia, he trudged to a small collection of sheds he’d spotted earlier in the Tenderfoot Experimental Forest. He forced open the door of a 4-by-4-foot plywood shed with metal siding, stripped off his soaked clothes and lighted a small propane heater he’d found in the shed to dry out. That took five hours.

One thing I always look for in a tale of survival is the moment when the subject recognizes he is lost and “starts surviving.” This step looks different depending on the climate and terrain, but basically it’s when you stop casting around for the trail and start figuring out how to shelter from the elements, as when this hunter realized it was time to kick in the doors of those sheds.

What’s interesting to me about this moment is that (1) survival absolutely depends on it but (2) I think it must be a very difficult step to take, psychologically. It requires acknowledging that you are not going to find the trail “any minute now,” and that you will probably not be sleeping in your bed or camp tonight. You not only have to admit defeat but also have to start thinking completely differently about your next steps.

A lot of people never make it around this corner, and I suspect they account for the majority of people who end up getting carried out of the woods.

When I think about having to survive in wintry weather, I think of John Muir’s essay “Stickeen”, in which he relates his thoughts upon realizing he’s about to be caught by darkness in the midst of exploring a crevasse-riddled glacier. (The “we” refers to his companion, the small dog whose name gives the essay its title.)

Doubtless we could have weathered the storm for one night, dancing on a flat spot to keep from freezing, and I faced the threat without feeling anything like despair; but we were hungry and wet, and the wind from the mountains was still thick with snow and bitterly cold, so of course that night would have seemed a very long one.

For inspiration in the event that I ever have to start surviving, I have tucked away that calm understated “doubtless” next to the image of crazy old John Muir, calmly dancing for his life in howling wind and blasting snow.

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