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SURVIVE: If I Only Knew Then…

Three decades of trial and error from our favorite battle-scarred adventurer.
Survival TipsSurvival Tips

Avoid losing your partners. I once temporarily lost a buddy in the Wind River Range. We went climbing, and he went photographing. The plan was to meet back at camp for dinner. He never showed. We strapped on headlamps and did a cursory search, but we had no idea where he’d gone. At breakfast, he wandered into camp looking haggard. He’d gotten lost, been benighted, and huddled beneath a boulder until the morning.

Same thing happened on the north face of Everest. A certain team member always got off to a ridiculously late start. One day, he didn’t make it back to camp. It was snowing dogs and doilies, as the Norwegians say. At 9 p.m., we had a team meeting and decided to give him until midnight. At 12 a.m., we met again and only two of us voted to go look for him. A beastly blizzard was raging at that point, and most of the team believed it was too dangerous to be wandering around on a glacier that was already landmined with crevasses and seracs. The two of us set out swinging our headlamps and screaming our heads off, but we didn’t make it far before realizing that the others had been right. We retreated.

[8] Sitting on your hands reduces circulation, speeding frostbite. Keep your extremities insulated and close to your core, if possible.

[9] Unfortunately, wood is usually wet and cold when you need an emergency fire. Look for dry stuff off the ground (A, B), inside soaked limbs (use a knife to peel away the outer bark), and in stumps (C) that are full of flammable pine resin.

Sometime after lunch, our teammate found his way back to camp. He’d sat out the blizzard, literally and stupidly sitting on his hands to keep his *** from freezing, and had frostbite. [8] We were just glad he was alive.

The point? Searching for someone lost in the mountains at night is dubious at best. Everyone in your party should know beforehand what to do if they get lost: Stop, keep yourself warm (often you can build a fire if you’ve had sense enough to carry a lighter) [9], wait for morning. Don’t worry about food; you can go days without it. You need water, but not much.

Which brings me to one of my pet peeves: sleeping late. If you can’t get your *** out of the sack at 4 a.m., you can’t be a mountain climber. If you can’t get your *** up at 6 a.m., you can’t be a backpacker. Go home. Try bowling. Take up golf.

And this foolishness about not bringing a watch into the wilderness in order to be one with nature: Spare me. Casio 50m: $20, waterproof, light, alarm, stopwatch.

Not that an early start—or experience—can always save you. Consider avalanches, for example: I’ve taken avalanche courses, and I know how to dig a pit and I know the difference between TG and ET and MF metamorphism. So I’m not an idiot, and yet I’ve been caught in avalanches. Just because there is no evidence of recent avalanches, doesn’t mean it can’t suddenly happen. I once put a camp at the base of a face in Sichuan, China. We dug out a tent platform on a cone of ancient avalanche debris. Nothing had slid here for ages. That night a freakishly warm wind swept in, and the cornices 4,000 feet above us started avalanching. Chunks of ice tore through our tent.

And just because there is no known history of avalanches, that doesn’t mean, with the right conditions, they can’t happen. While I was ice climbing with a close friend in Wyoming two years ago, we were hit by an unprecedented avalanche. Unbeknownst to us, contrary winds had built a giant, precarious cornice over the previous few years. I lived, he didn’t.

And just to be clear, there’s precious little consolation in the notion that someone died doing what he loved. When friends are dead, they’re not here. For themselves, for their families, for their buddies. Forever.

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