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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.

“Panic snowballs,” says George Montopoli, a mountaineer and mathematics professor who has been a summer climbing and rescue ranger in Grand Teton National Park since the late 1970s. “Each mistake in judgment makes the situation worse. Panic compounds itself. It’s exponential.”
If misreading reality is the mental consequence of the instinctual fight response, running is the body’s (often inappropriate) physical response. Moving too fast in the wilderness is almost always a mistake. Your eyes miss clues—trail markers, rock cairns, an ephemeral spring; your ears miss signals—voices, a gurgling creek, the wahp-wahp of a rescue chopper. And running, as opposed to walking, usually means you are moving carelessly, dramatically increasing the chances of an accident.

Montopoli says the number-one cause of accidents in the Tetons is a simple slip on snow. Hikers, unaccustomed to traveling over snowfields, get scared and start moving too fast. “Instead of slowing down and thinking about every step, kicking holes and making sure of each foot placement, they just want to get off the snow as quickly as possible,” he says. “They start hurrying, lose their balance, slip, and fall.”

Todd Schimelpfenig, the curriculum director for the Wilderness Medicine Institute at NOLS (the National Outdoor Leadership School) in Lander, Wyoming, agrees. He has been an EMT for 30 years and, as a member of the Fremont County search-and-rescue team, has assisted in hundreds of rescues in the Wind River Range of central Wyoming. Schimelpfenig believes moving too fast actually fuels the panic response. “Your heart rate goes up, your breathing goes up, and your adrenaline output increases,” he says.

“And running just makes things worse. Whether you’re in trouble yourself or trying to help someone out of trouble, walk. Walk confidently, if only to prove to yourself that you are calm and in control.”

To help his students achieve do this, Schimelpfenig teaches NOLS wilderness first responders to keep something special in their medial kit: the rubber jar of calm.
“The first thing you do in an emergency is to quietly open your jar of calm it and pour it over everything,” he says.

Calmness, the antidote to panic, is both a physiological and psychological condition connected to breathing.

When we panic, we hyperventilate, which sets off a negative chain reaction in our bodies. Our breathing becomes rapid and shallow, only reaching into our upper lungs (it’s called thoracic breathing). Thoracic breathing blows off too much carbon dioxide, which causes the pH levels in the blood to change and peripheral nerves to lose calcium salts—that’s what causes the tingling in your fingers and toes, and it’s the reason breathing into a paper bag helps restore proper CO2 levels.

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