I once knew a guy, an inexperienced hiker, who went out for an overnight on the Appalachian Trail, got left behind by his hiking buddy, and panicked. A trail-runner found him 15 minutes later, broken, blubbering, and gearless on a blue-blaze trail. He ditched his pack because he thought it would slow his escape. He was crying because he wasn’t ready to die. That’s not survival.
Sprained your ankle and forced to hobble out using a tree branch for a crutch? That’s not survival either. That’s a mishap, a blip, a frightening but ultimately funny story. So what is survival? Here’s an easy baseline: You’ll know it when you’re eating the weakest sled dog.
In a survival situation, if you come back at all, you come back without something dear to you. Maybe it’s a finger, or a friend, but more likely something that was once glued to your psyche, so close you never realized it was there: The belief that the world is forever filled with warm beds, warm partners, and happy endings for all the pretty-much good-enough people like you. Survival changes that. It cleaves your life into two: before it happened and after it happened. And in the middle is a gigantic monument that casts a shadow from which you may never emerge.
You’ll know survival is at stake when you find your faith. Then lose your faith. Then come to a haunting realization: You are going to die. You might live yet, thanks to luck or skill or probably both, but you will stare your own mortality in its pale and hollowed-out face, and if that image doesn’t stalk you by day, you can count on seeing it in your dreams.
Such life-or-death situations can materialize out of the night and set upon you. But more likely, they’re the final step in a series of bad calls that forced you—at the knife point of stupidity—past the place where you can get back to being normal, or happy, or warm. Your sprained ankle, say, makes you eager to find a shortcut home. You cut switchbacks, you follow animal trails, because you just know you’re almost there. Then in a flash of noise and motion, you’re lying at the bottom of a small cliff, ears all filled with the whine of adrenaline, pounding heart, and gasping breaths.
If you’re still not sizing up the sled dogs or family pet, don’t worry: You’ll know what’s at stake when you realize that the world, with all its near-infinite beauty, doesn’t give a damn about your good times, your feelings, or your sense of fairness.
Of course, you’ve always known that—in an airy, detached sort of way—because you’ve heard about it happening to other people and you’ve thought to yourself “I’m too smart/prepared/careful for that." But now, for the first time ever, you’ll feel it—subtle as a rasping and unanswered scream for help—right down into your bone marrow. That is survival. May you never know it.