When you find yourself in one, survival situations are always unexpected, even if you have been doing something risky, like trekking the Arctic, putting a sack of cash into launching a new business, or flying a plane.
The way you react when disaster strikes will determine if you, or your endeavour, lives or dies. Fortunately, there’s a way to prepare your mind to be a survivor, whatever the scenario.
Laurence Gonzales has spent his life doing risky things, such as competing in aeroplane acrobatic competitions, but he is also a journalist and author who has talked to survivors and survival experts to try and discover what qualities make a survivor.
RSNG read his book, ‘Deep Survival, Who Dies, and Why’ to bring you the rules of how to adopt a survivor’s mindset and survive anything – because you never know what life will throw at you…
Plan Ahead… But Don’t Be Inflexible
The most common survival situations occur when people go into unfamiliar terrain with the wrong equipment or information. Laurence Gonzales tells the story of when he went to Hawaii and was about to go for a dip in the sea when a chance conversation with a lifeguard saved his life.
If he had gone ahead with his plan a rip current would have taken him out to sea and then waves would have brought him back in again to be smashed into shark food against razor sharp volcanic rocks, sharing a grisly end with several other tourists each year.
You should have a plan of action and speak to someone to get the relevant local knowledge before embarking on an adventure. But at the same time keep an observant eye on your environment:
‘It’s important to have a plan and a backup plan or a bailout plan… But you must hold onto the plan with a gentle grip and be willing to let it go. Rigid people are dangerous people,’ writes Gonzalez.
‘The best way to build a survivor’s reaction to fear is to routinely take yourself out of your comfort zone’
Don’t Let Emotion Take Over
The human body has evolved some powerful emotional responses for survival scenarios. It releases catecholamines, which can give us almost supernatural strength and energy in these moments – Gonzalez knows a man who lifted a Chrysler four-door sedan off of his daughter’s leg after an accident – but these same brain chemicals, mixed with fear, can lead to impulsive, irrational behaviour.
‘They can make you so excited that you do the wrong thing.’ And in a survival situation, the wrong thing will kill you.
One way that Gonzalez says the survivor’s mindset works is that fear is used as fuel, and deflected by dark humour. ‘In the initial crisis survivors are making use of fear, not being ruled by it. Their fear often feels like and turns into anger, and that motivates them and makes them sharper,’ he says.
‘They understand at a deep level about being cool and are ever on guard against the mutiny of too much emotion.’
The best way to build a survivor’s reaction to fear, and the fight or flight response, is to routinely take yourself out of your comfort zone, whether that is on a rock climb, or a public speaking gig. The more familiar you are with yourself and your emotions in these situations, the greater your chances of survival will be.
In the survival situations Gonzalez has studied, it’s often surprising who emerges as a group leader. He quotes one Navy Seal commander who said: ‘The Rambo types are the first to go.’
You may be skilled in one area, but that doesn’t mean you’re skilled in all of them. In situations where the wrong call means death, overconfidence is deadly: ‘We have a saying: “There are old pilots and bold pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots.” That’s true in all hazardous pursuits,” says Gonzalez.
The survivor’s mindset is always curious and never closed. ‘Those who gain experience while retaining a firm hold on a beginner’s state of mind become long-term survivors.’
When In Doubt Bail Out
Sometimes being a survivor depends on what you decide not to do. This summer the world saw the spectacle of a massive line of climbers queuing at 26,000ft close to the top of the world, in the ‘Death Zone’ to get to the summit of Mt Everest.
A tiny window of good weather had created a stampede up the mountain, but the human body cannot keep itself alive at such heights, and at least 11 people didn’t make it down alive.
The survivor knows when to call it quits, even if they have already spent tens of thousands of dollars on a goal that seems tantalisingly close.
Gonzalez quotes Drew Leeman, a director of risk management for the National Outdoor Leadership School: ‘It’s a matter of looking at yourself and assessing your own abilities and where you are mentally, and then realising that it’s better to turn back and get a chance to do it again than to go for it and not come back at all.’
‘The climbers would have been safer if they had tried to descend with no safety system at all’
Beware The Sand Pile
In extreme environments and during hazardous activities, constant, level-headed risk assessment is essential to survival. You may not think that the most dangerous part of a mountain climb is on the way down again, having reached the summit, but that’s what kills the most climbers.
Gonzalez uses the example of a disaster at Mt Hood in 2002, which was triggered when a group of climbers fell on their descent. They were roped together and carried ice axes to arrest an individual fall, but they were unprotected – they didn’t use ice screws as anchors.
A single slip from the man at the top of the human chain ripped the whole group off the slope, because he was moving too fast when he reached the next man, for that climber to do an ice-axe arrest. Then their rope swept up other groups below them, like a clothesline, and sent nine men plunging down into a ravine – three of them were killed.
Rather than being a freak accident, Gonzalez says that because climbers would often descend the slope roped up, but not using protection, this kind of disaster was inevitable – it was designed into the system just as natural systems like piles of sand always collapse after gaining a certain size (this was recorded as the ‘Sand Pile Effect’ by physicist Per Bak).
‘The climbers would have been safer if they had tried to descend the slope with no safety system at all,’ says Gonzalez. They traded their safety, and eventually lives, for the convenience of getting down to the mountain lodge faster. It seemed safe because it was common practice, and the slope looked amenable, but that didn’t save them.
Play And Celebrate
In a true survival situation, you might think that all of your thoughts would be practical ones, but the survivors Gonzalez has spoken to tell him that they had to keep their minds busy with all sorts of things to stay sane, from doing math problems in their heads to reciting poetry.
‘Just as survivors use patterns and rhythms to move forward in the survival voyage, they use the deeper activities of the intellect to stimulate, calm and entertain the mind. Counting becomes important too, and reciting poetry or even a mantra can calm the frantic mind,’ he says.
It pays to live a life of learning and experience as much as you can of art, literature, philosophy and mathematics etc to become a true survivor.
At the same time, survivors know when to celebrate, often getting excited about the smallest success, which motivates them and holds hopelessness at bay. ‘It also provides relief from the unspeakable stress of a true survival situation.’
If you want to survive you need to turn thought into correct action, even if there is a risk, to save yourself and others. Gonzalez says survivors often perceive their experience as split in two – they know how hopeless the situation appears to be, but push those thoughts away to act with the expectation of success. ‘They believe that anything is possible and act accordingly.’
Then survivors break down huge, daunting tasks into small, manageable chunks and are meticulous about meeting these short-term goals.
‘They deal with what is within their power from moment to moment, hour to hour, day to day. They leave the rest behind.’
Surrender To Survive
It seems like a paradox, but people who make it out of survival situations usually end up viewing pain, death and injury with detachment. They don’t dwell on such things but instead surrender to them, without giving up.
After climber Joe Simpson broke his leg falling into a crevasse on a remote mountain he knew he was for all intents and purposes dead – he even said it out loud to his partner.
But, like most survivors, Gonzalez says he quickly went through the mental stages of denial, anger, grief and acceptance at break-neck speed. After this, his death had literally ‘ceased to bother him and so he went and crawled off the mountain anyway.’
‘75% of people who died after getting lost did so within the first 48 hours’
But Never Give Up
Search and rescue professionals often end up being haunted by another truth of survival – sometimes people just give up and die. Psychologists talk about ‘wood shock’, a state of deep fear that can hit people who get truly lost.
It can cause even experienced outdoorsmen to do inexplicable things, like failing to set an overnight fire. ‘Hikers have abandoned full backpacks, hunters have let their guns behind,’ says Gonzalez. A Syrotuck analysis of 229 search and rescue cases showed that almost 75% of people who died after getting lost did so within the first 48 hours.
If you fall apart mentally in a survival situation, then you’re as good as dead, and the degree to which just giving up can kill you – apparently with no other cause – is plain spooky.
Kenneth Hill is a search and rescue professional: ‘I have photos of a man who settled into a cosy bed of pine needles after removing his shoes, pants and jacket, and setting his wallet on a nearby rock. In the photos, he seems so peaceful, it’s hard to believe he’s dead.’
Believe You Will Make It
It seems that the most important thing in order to survive, whether you are lost in a forest, shipwrecked, or fighting to save your startup, is to believe that you will succeed.
‘Develop a deep conviction that you will live,’ says Gonzalez. ‘Survivors admonish themselves to make no more mistakes, to be very careful and to do their best. They become convinced that they will prevail if they do those things.’
WHAT NEXT? Want to know more about wilderness survival? Then read the RSNG interview with Bear Grylls.
Laurence Gonzalez’s book ‘Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies And Why’ is available from Amazon
Follow this article’s author on Instagram @The_Adventure_Fella
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