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Backpacker Magazine – October 2013

Survival A to Z: Hunger

Out of food in the wilderness? Don't let that cause a real problem

by: Dennis Lewon

During spring in northern India, the upper Chandra River cuts through sheer-sided snow banks that can extend from water’s edge to canyon walls. As the weather warms, the frozen banks calve into the icy torrent on one side, and melt away from the rock on the other, opening crevasses. In the narrowest spots, a prudent hiker should worry about breaking through on one side or the other. My partner Ellen and I had already passed a few such places, and we had no desire to retrace our steps upstream, and then up and over a 15,000-foot pass, to return to the Spiti Valley where we’d started several days earlier. But there’s nothing like hunger to cast a new light on formerly unattractive options.

In camp, I had unloaded my pack and immediately smelled a problem: Gas had leaked all over our food. I was carrying stove fuel in a cheap plastic container, and gasoline had rendered our lentils inedible. We salvaged a few biscuits, but we had as much as a week of hiking in front of us—if we could get through. We were attempting to trek from Spiti to the Kullu Valley. A dirt track makes the 120-mile journey passable by car in summer, but snow buries it the rest of the year. And an exceptionally deep snowpack this spring had delayed even foot travel. We’d seen no one since leaving Spiti, and locals there said nobody had tried the route yet. “Too many avalanches,” one said. 

Still, we were far from panicked. The human body can survive a long time without food. IRA hunger striker Kieran Doherty lasted 73 days without eating (at which point he died). In 1992, in Nepal, an Australian trekker got trapped in tricky terrain, in winter, and survived 43 days on just two chocolate bars and a caterpillar. 

So two days after the fuel spill, after we’d rationed our precious biscuits while hunkered down during a snowstorm that reduced visibility to nil, we still weren’t worried about starving. But the hunger pangs were real, as was the uncertainty of the route. What if we kept moving forward, only to get stopped by an impassable section? What if one of us got injured? Would we regret pushing on?  

Hunger, it turns out, is scary if there’s no end in sight. It’s not like fasting, which tests your willpower (don’t look in the fridge!), but little else. Not knowing when you’ll eat again must be among the most primal of human fears, and, unlike some fears, it’s not one you’ll experience unless the stakes are real. Want to test your fear of heights? There are safe places you can look over the edge. But you’ll never know the deep anxiety of hunger until your body starts to feed on itself—converting glucose and other compounds stored in muscles, liver, and fat into energy—and you don’t know when it will stop. 

But here’s the trick: Don’t let discomfort lead to a real survival situation. Don’t make bad decisions because you fear hunger. Don’t cross a dangerously high river or forage on potentially poisonous plants or scale a cliff without a rope—all of which can kill more swiftly than an unplanned crash diet.

In India, we knew in our heads we weren’t close to starving, even if our stomachs suggested otherwise. So on the third day after the spill, we continued along the river, assuming the way ahead would be easier than what lay behind. Rather than dwell on what might go wrong, we joked about making money on our new weight-loss plan. 

Soon, we arrived at a wide valley, with a small, summer farming outpost. The potato farmers hadn’t arrived yet, but a caretaker had come to prepare the site. He was thrilled to see us, and insisted we celebrate our successful passage from Spiti with gur, the local moonshine. Between toasts, we tried to tell him that what we really needed was food. But he poured another cup and indicated dinner could wait.

Of course, I knew we’d survive a few more hours without a meal. But I nearly died from the hangover.

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Oct 08, 2013

Enjoyed this story when I read it in the magazine. Reiterated my habit of always making sure fuel cans are enclosed in something that won't leak.


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