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Backpacker Magazine – December 2007

Backcountry Survival: How to Survive in the Backcountry

There's a backcountry killer on the loose, and it's not hypothermia, grizzly bears, or rockfall. The thing mostly likely to maim you on your next hiking trip is living inside your head.

by: Mark Jenkins

But in this controlled environment, he says, what they learn is that they're not going to die. T

hey learn that they can actually survive in extremely cold water for 5 to 10 minutes. They learn that they have time to think, to override panic, to solve problems and save themselves. Practicing panic management is rare for most campers, but climbers—often unknowingly—do it all the time.

"Trad climbers [who rely on gear they place instead of existing bolts] have one up on hikers and backpackers," says ranger Montopoli. "They've already experienced panic. They've climbed above their protection, freaked out, and fell—and were caught by the rope. The next time up, they realize that panicking won't help, and they learn to consciously control their minds." Early in my climbing career, my partner and I used to simulate alpine climbing conditions by intentionally choosing to climb at night. We also purposefully climbed in snowstorms, actually waiting for "full conditions" before setting off into our local mountains. We even played a game we called Options, which entailed mimicking an injury—climbing a route with one hand or skiing on one leg. All of this was intended to teach us to be mentally prepared for life-threatening circumstances on big expeditions. And it's worked. After some 30 expeditions, I can't say I've never panicked, but I can say I've managed to keep a lid on it.

Montopoli warns that no one is immune to panic, not even himself. In the late 80's, he was soloing the east ridge of Disappointment Peak, a craggy, castle-like mountain in the Tetons, and accidentally traversed out onto the sheer north face. The climbing was extremely exposed, and halfway up a fist crack, he began to panic. His first instinct was to push through. "But I knew my arms would pump out and I'd fall to my death," he says. "So I backed down to a little ledge."

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Reader Rating: -


Star Star Star Star Star
Dec 05, 2013

Well written. It's amazing how much of life and the decisions we make simply comes down to how we choose to breathe.

Dinah Beres
Apr 20, 2011

I think every backcountry hiker and backpacker should read this.

Steve B
Apr 15, 2009

To Chris P-Zwit - What exactly does a college education have to do with someones judgement in an outdoor survival situation? It seems kind of odd that you question someone elses judgement with such a bizarre and off the wall judgement yourself...

Chris P-Zwit
Jan 03, 2009

See the movie Gerry by Gus Van Sant. It uses this story. Fear and ignorance turned into panic and despair which spiraled into confusion and over reaction. Having hitched and hiked America, you have to stay oriented and not wander too far out. These guys barely left the car and freaked out. College educated, but no street or outdoor smarts. What a sad note on "higher education."

Dec 16, 2008

good article, very informative, lots of good examples used to illustrate panic and solutions to it

Sep 11, 2008

It would be nice to kn ow how many pages are in the article before starting


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