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Situation: You turn a corner in Glacier National Park to see a grizzly 50 feet away — and coming down the trail.
Reaction “You’re [probably] going to panic,” says Dave Smith, author of Backcountry Bear Basics (Mountaineers Books, $16), “so channel your fear into positive action.” Stand still, even if you want to run. Holding your ground shows the bear that you can defend yourself. Wait for it to react, or move away. Rehearse an action plan beforehand. Keep groups close together and always put an adult at the front. Pepper spary is both a useful deterrent and strong psychological security. Practice unholstering the canister until you can do it without looking or fumbling. Keep the spray at ready when traveling through prime bear zones like huckleberry patches and dense foliage.
Situation: Your uneasiness is confirmed when the trail dwindles to a game path.
Even when your life is not in immediate danger, you can panic. “It’s a physical response to a potential threat,” says Jonathan Abramowitz, associate professor of psychology at UNC-Chapel Hill. Hyperventilation, a racing heartbeat, nausea, and loss of small motor skills can make you act irrationally. “Calm down by sitting down,” says Gino Ferri, author of The Psychology of Wilderness Survival. “Then, eat and drink something.” Because thoughts dictate your actions, rein in your imagination by taking an inventory: Where is the nearest road? How much water do I have? Stop panic from overtaking a group by being authoritative yet cool. Strong, soothing leadership is reassuring to others.
Situation: Suddenly, one of your partners collapses, screaming in pain. Your group gathers; his lower leg is grotesquely broken.
Reaction “Accident victims tend to be quiet,” says Buck Tilton, BACKPACKER’S Medicine Man and author of Wilderness First Responder (Falcon, $35). “It’s everyone else who panics.” Distraught bystanders can hyperventilate, talk incoherently, even collapse. Parents of injured kids are especially prone to overreaction. Tilton recommends removing onlookers from the scene by giving them a task. Overcome your own panic-induced paralysis by reverting to your first-aid training. Start with the ABCs— airway, breathing, circulation— then do a head-to-toe evaluation. “Relax yourself by concentrating on your breathing,” he says. “Then look for solutions.”
Situation: You’re hiking an exposed ridge, halfway to the summit, when lightning starts flashing.
Reaction: Your instinct to race for lower elevation could be wrong. “Lightning is dangerous, but unroped falls kill many more hikers,” says Al Read, president of Exum Mountain Guides in Jackson, WY. Find a sheltered location and devise an escape plan. As for other weather events, consider the situation and act accordingly. Limit your exposure to wind and rain. Monitor your body temperature and watch for signs of hypothermia, like shivering. Hunker down during whiteouts to conserve energy and avoid wandering off trail. “Bad weather is an external threat,” says Read, “but protecting yourself is an internal process.” Put on warm clothing, fuel your body with food and water, and evaluate changing conditions.
Exposure/ fear of heights
Situation: You’re hiking in the Tetons and get cliffed out. You’re gripped; you freeze up. Now what?
Reaction: “Inexperienced climbers stop thinking in crisis situations,” says Patrick Peterson, operations manager for Wyoming-based Jackson Hole Mountain Guides. “They get tunnel vision, they stop listening, and they start looking at the elephant in front of them instead of the individual steps to overcome it.” Talk yourself off a ledge by slowing down, compartmentalizing tasks, and busying your mind. “Focus on the little things you can control,” says Peterson. “Pre-climb the route ahead in your mind, focusing on one move at a time.” And don’t look down. Instead, take three deep breaths, find solid footholds and handholds (in that order), and slowly scurry out of danger.
The First 30 Seconds
On August 4th, 1999, Raffi Kodikian, 25, and David Coughlin, 26, best friends since college, backpacked into Rattlesnake Canyon in Carlsbad Caverns National Park in southern New Mexico. They made camp a couple miles down the trail and boiled hot dogs for dinner. In the morning, they packed up and headed back to the car, but somehow got turned around. They had a topo map, but neither of them could read it. Suddenly lost in the Chihuahuan Desert, Kodikian and Coughlin began wandering among the ocotillo cacti, passing several cairns marking the trail out of the canyon. They drank all of their water, but it rained in the afternoon, so they slurped from pools, refilled their water bottles, and prepared to spend a second night out.
Although they knew their car was parked on the eastern rim of the canyon, that night Kodikian thought he spotted a light on the western rim. So the following morning, stumbling through 90F heat, they crossed the canyon floor and scrambled up the far rim hoping to find a road. Surrounded only by more cacti, they slumped into the shade and watched vultures circle overhead. An hour later and parched with thirst, they struggled back to their camp, sucking prickly pear cactus fruit for its sappy juice. Later that night, Kodikian gagged trying to drink his own urine.
By the third morning, Kodikian and Coughlin convinced themselves they were going to die, and made a suicide pact. They tried slitting each other’s wrists, but their hunting knife was too dull. Then, according to Kodikian, Coughlin began begging Kodikian to kill him, to spare him the agony of dying of thirst. Kodikian obliged, plunging the knife twice into his best friend’s heart.
Park ranger Lance Mattson found the men less than six hours later. Kodikian was lying in his tent.
“Where’s your buddy?” Mattson asked.
“Over there,” Kodikian said calmly, pointing to a pile of rocks atop a shallow grave. “I killed him.”
Kodikian was sentenced to 15 years in prison, with 13 years suspended. He eventually spent 16 months in jail. The tragedy was attributed to the misery and delirium caused by extreme thirst.
But Kodikian’s testimony revealed perplexing facts. When Kodikian and Coughlin first lost their way, they still had water, were practically on the trail, and were less than a mile from their car. Had they simply stopped, took shelter in the shade, and collected their wits, they might well have retraced their steps.
On the third day, Kodikian and Coughlin hiked to the opposite rim and back to camp, indicating that they were not debilitatingly dehydrated. From their vantage point high on the western rim, they should have seen the park’s visitor center, and two water towers along the Rattlesnake trailhead road.
The men’s final campsite was only 275 feet from a marked trail leading out of the canyon and less than a mile from their car. “People have actually gotten lost there,” said Gary McCandless, chief detective for the Eddy County Sheriff’s department. “But it didn’t take them long to find their way out.”
An autopsy found Coughlin to be moderately to severely dehydrated, but nowhere near death. An unopened can of beans was found at their campsite. Kodikian, although clearly thirsty, was not only strong enough to bury his best friend under 70-pound rocks, he spent just two hours in the hospital after his rescue.
But if thirst wasn’t the killer, what was?
Whenever you read or hear about a death in the wilderness, reports such as this make it sound as if the outdoors itself—a snow slope, a river, extreme heat or cold—killed an innocent human. Using mass media’s wilderness-as-murderer interpretation (“Avalanche Buries Veteran Backcountry Skier” or “Hypothermia Claims Six Lives”), it was the desert—its merciless heat and malicious absence of water—that drove Kodikian to murder. But after studying hundreds of accident reports from Europe and North America, I’ve come to believe that this, and numerous examples like it, is a misdiagnosis.
Exhibit B: In 1998, Daniel Kimm, 20, and Jude Fontenot, 21, college students from Boulder, CO, left the boundary at Berthoud Pass Ski Area, 60 miles west of Denver. They hiked to the top of Russell Peak, a notoriously avalanche-prone mountain overlooking Highway 40. Kimm dropped off the summit and began descending the east face on his snowboard. Mid-way down, he set off an avalanche, was entrained in snow, and ended up buried in debris 600 feet below. Desperate to reach safety and signal a rescue, Fontenot skied down to the road, passing over the debris pile where his friend was buried.
The coroner determined that Kimm died of asphyxiation. The papers reported it as another avalanche death. But professional ski guide Greg McFadden, who responded to the scene, has a different take.
“Had Fontenot simply stopped at the debris zone and taken the time to look around, he would have seen an entire arm, with a bright yellow North Face jacket, sticking out of the snow,” says McFadden. “It was in plain sight.”
McFadden uses this story in his avalanche safety classes. “Had Fontenot not panicked, there might have been some chance Kimm would have survived,” he says.
Exhibit C: On January 19, 2007, three men hiked to the top of Mt. Lafayette in the Pemigewassett Wilderness of New Hampshire. During the descent, the strongest of the three, Brian Gagnon, took off ahead of his friends. The three planned to meet up at treeline, but when the slower two men reached the rendezvous point, Gagnon was nowhere to be found. His partners waited for an hour, but the weather deteriorated, so the two dropped down to their car and immediately called for help. Gagnon, who declined to be interviewed for this story, was fully equipped for a night out in the cold. He had a tent, along with a -30°F sleeping bag, a foam pad, a GPS, cell phone, food, and a backpacking stove.
“He could have been out there for a week without a problem,” says Rick Wilcox, longtime president of the New Hampshire Mountain Rescue Service, who was part of the search and recounted this story.
And yet, somehow, beating his way down through the pucker brush, Gagnon lost his tent. He spent the night out, then called his friends on his cell phone in the morning. Despite having a GPS in his backpack (he didn’t even get it out), Gagnon could not tell anyone his location. Perhaps because of the wind, he couldn’t get his stove started, so he couldn’t melt water. Gagnon eventually decided to sit down and wait to be rescued. He didn’t know it, but a quarter mile downhill was a set of footprints in the snow. They led back to a trail.
“Nothing is very far from anything in the White Mountains,” explains Wilcox. “Most people just walk downhill and eventually hit a road.”
Gagnon spent two nights in below-freezing temperatures before search-and-rescue found him. He was lying in his sleeping bag in a frozen stream. His foam pad was 10 feet away, along with the contents of his pack.
“He lived, but he had frostbite from his neck to his butt,” says Wilcox. “It’s a clear case of how bad judgment and panic can combine to create a deadly predicament.”
Despite stories like these, panic is seldom diagnosed as the cause of catastrophe. One possibility is because it’s humiliating. It’s one thing to blame backcountry trouble on bad weather or dangerous terrain, but who wants to admit that they got so scared they lost control of their senses? Nobody. It makes you look wimpy and weak.
I was 15 when I panicked badly. I was learning how to rock climb, and my instructor, Coach Kopishka, was a god to us kids. As far as we could tell, he knew no fear. He was a black belt in karate, climbed as stealthily and calmly as a cat, and was merciless as our high school swim coach. He’d lead the team to 17 straight state championships.
We were out at Vedauwoo, a Wyoming climbing area known for hard, wide cracks in flesh-ripping granite. I had climbed just a few times before, and all on a top rope, when Coach handed me two metal hexes, chunks of aluminum used to protect a fall, and pointed to a notoriously fat crack called Upper Slot Left.
It was my first lead—a 40-foot, 5.6 off-width. More than that, it was a test and a dare and an honor, and I stepped up to it like any adolescent boy with so much to prove. I didn’t know how to place gear, so I put in both hexes early on and kept climbing until I was 10 feet from the top, where the crack narrowed. Narrow cracks require a technique known as hand-jamming, a skill I hadn’t yet acquired. Before long, I found myself slipping out of the crack. I was so far above my last piece of protection that if I fell, I would hit the slab of rock at the base of the route and be seriously injured—or possibly killed. The thought of falling set my heart pounding and my mind racing. My legs began quivering (what climbers call “sewing machine leg”). My hands started sweating, further loosening my grip on the rock. In that instant, I lost control of my mind. All I could think was: “I’m going to die!” The logical approach would have been to get a grip on my emotions and either down-climb slowly and carefully, or continue up the crack. But at 15, I didn’t have the courage or skill to get out of this fix. I was stuck, I knew it—and I panicked.
At some point Coach recognized that I was freaking out. He soloed up behind me and handed over a hex. I placed it with a trembling hand. Gathering confidence just by his presence, I climbed to the top. Then I vomited.
I didn’t fall and die, but I was profoundly embarrassed. Coach had proven his hero-god status, and I had proven my cowardice. Inside, I resolved to never panic again, no matter what.
Almost all of us have panicked at some point in our lives, whether over losing a child in the grocery store, flipping in a kayak, or getting turned around momentarily in the backcountry. We know what it feels like, but what is it?
Panic is the body’s built-in alarm system to the threat of danger. In 1915, American physiologist Walter Cannon coined the phrase “fight-or-flight” to describe a series of bodily changes that occur in response to a real or perceived threat. First, signaled by the brain, the adrenal glands attached to your kidneys release a jolt of adrenaline, essentially shocking your system. Your heart begins to race, respiration becomes quick and shallow, hands and feet go cold. Pupils dilate, muscles become primed for action. The stomach shuts down digestion, and the liver releases a shot of stored-up sugar. All of this is evolutionarily designed to kick your body into lifesaving mode when you find yourself face-to-face with, say, a saber-toothed tiger. It’s only in the last 20,000 years, the snap of a finger in evolutionary time, that humans have been the dominant predator on the planet. For the first 2 million years of our ever-morphing existence, our ancestors were often prey. And panic was a sensible survival mechanism.
Panic still serves a purpose in modern society—it fuels the woman who single-handedly fights off a rapist, the teenager who lifts the car off a sibling, the man who leaps into action to save schoolchildren on a collapsing bridge. But in the wilderness of today, with so few predators left, the fight-or-flight response is usually counterproductive. In most backcountry incidents, whether you’re lost or injured, hungry or thirsty, two of the worst things you can do are fight or run. When you’re lost, for instance, fighting manifests itself as an unwillingness to accept any physical or geographical cues that contradict your (unknowingly confused) internal sense of direction. The panicked mind reasons that the compass must be broken, the map must be old, the trail’s going the wrong way. A panicking mind misreads reality.
“This is because the brain is being flooded with noradrenalin, or norepinephrine,” says Dr. Kenneth Heilman, distinguished professor of neurology at the University of Florida in Gainesville. Norepinephrine is the brain’s hormonal counterpart to the body’s adrenaline. “Panic, what we could call excessive or extreme anxiety, has two components,” Heilman explains, “physical and mental. What happens to the body is often readily recognizable, but what happens in the brain, precisely because it is in the brain, is almost invisible.”
To illustrate, Heilman uses a typical bear encounter. “The visual system recognizes the bear. The cognitive system says ‘Hey, bears can hurt people.’ This sends a message to the amygdala, an almond-shaped organ in the brain that chemically mediates many external experiences and is responsible for triggering the fight-or-flight response. The amygdala talks to the hypothalamus, which sits just above the brain stem and relays messages to the pituitary gland, a marble-sized organ directly below it. The pituitary gland signals the adrenal glands, and the result is a full-body sympathetic nervous system response—increased heart rate, sweaty palms, and all the rest.
Simultaneously, a message is sent to the locus coeruleus, a storehouse of hormones located in the brain stem to secrete norepinephrine. A small dose of this hormone increases the sensitivity of the neurons in the cerebral cortex, explaining why a certain level of stress can improve performance. (Elite athletes excel here; witness Tiger Woods winning the Masters or Venus Williams winning Wimbledon.) But Heilman says too much norepinephrine actually inhibits the knowledge and problem-solving areas of the brain.
“Increased norepinephrine causes you to focus on the external stimuli, but hinders your ability to create a long-term plan,” says Heilman. “Think of a child with attention deficit disorder. Putting these children on medications such as Ritalin (norepinephrine) allows them to allocate their attention to the teacher.” But when you get into trouble, you want to be in your head. Otherwise, you make stupid mistakes.
Kodikian and Coughlin repeatedly misread reality—failing to find the trail they’d walked in on; hiking in the blazing heat to the wrong rim; and, finally, convincing themselves that they were dying when they weren’t.
“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.
“Hyperventilating actually balances your body chemistry, if you’re in a physical crisis and maximally exerting yourself,” explains professor and therapist Reid Wilson, author of Don’t Panic: Taking Control of Anxiety Attacks and the director of the Anxiety Disorders Treatment Center in Chapel Hill, NC. “But it’s the wrong response in a psychological crisis.”
The most effective way to counteract panic and its compendium of psycho-physio affects is to take what Wilson calls “the calming breath.”
“First, stop moving,” Wilson says. “Force yourself to sit still and consciously control your breathing. Exhale completely, then inhale slowly, filling the lower lungs first, and then the upper lungs. Hold the breath for a count of three. Exhale slowly, while softly saying a cue word or phrase, such as ‘I am calm’ or ‘Serenity’ or ‘I am in control.'”
After 10 to 15 calming breaths, two things will happen. Physiologically, your heart rate will already be dropping. The adrenaline surge in your body will dissipate. And the norepinephrine spike in your brain will start leveling off. Psychologically speaking, you can now think again. (Later, thank your mother for all those times she diffused your childhood tirades by saying, “Take a breath, honey.”)
“Panic is like getting lost in your mind,” says Wilson. “You have to find your mind first, before you can find your way out of the woods.”
In the past half-century, psychologists and psychiatrists have adopted the calming breath, otherwise called conscious breathing, as their first level of treatment for numerous anxiety disorders, from panic attacks to agoraphobia to post-traumatic stress disorder. However, the practice of conscious breathing has been at the heart of Buddhism and meditation for almost three millennia.
Google “meditative breathing” and you’ll discover several dozen breathing methods, all intended to stop the rushing of the brain, dissolve distractions, and make the mind clearer and more lucid. In meditative breathing you focus entirely on the breath—the rise and fall of your belly, the feeling of air passing through your nose, down your throat, and into your lungs. The mind will often wander away from this simple focus, and the task is to gently bring it back. The ultimate goal in meditative breathing is inner peace. The goal of the calming breath is less exalted: to turn down the natural panic response in order to think coherently and restart the logical part of your brain.
I’ve used meditative breathing to stay calm in a number of anxiety-inducing situations. Once, on the face of a mountain in Tibet, my camp was almost avalanched. My partner and I heard the sickening roar of a massive slide while lying in our sleeping bags. We were scrambling around in our underwear when a rock the size of my head meteored through the tent. Neither of us was hurt—the main path of the avalanche just missed our camp—but we also could not move off the face. We spent the rest of the night lying awake, waiting to be killed. To stay positive, I practiced deep breathing—and managed to stay calm despite my impending execution.
Wilson’s cue word is much like a Buddhist mantra. Using the same phrase repeatedly can actually signal your brain to produce calming chemicals such as serotonin, the neurotransmitter responsible for feelings of happiness. Serotonin offsets another neurotransmitter, none other than norepinephrine.
“In a panic situation, our reptilian brain shouts, ‘I’m prey! I’m going to die! Run. Run!'” says professor Kathleen Hall, author of Life in Balance: Nourishing the Four Roots of True Happiness and the founder of The Stress Institute in Atlanta. “By using a simple affirmation—’I am in control’ or ‘I can handle this’—you’re telling the brain, ‘Nope, that’s not the situation.'”
Hall describes this as the quintessential difference between control and powerlessness. Most people who die in the wilderness have lost heart and believe they cannot control the outcome of their predicament. Kodikian and Coughlin are good examples: They so thoroughly convinced themselves that they were helpless they saw suicide and then murder as the only alternatives.
The calming-breath-with-mantra is a method for disarming the alarm system, regaining control, and accurately assessing your reality.
“Once you regain your composure,” says Wilson, “you’re already halfway out of the woods. The next step is to take a mental inventory. Itemize all those things you have going for you—your strength, your outdoor skills, your attitude. Recognize that you are well-equipped for this challenge.”
After an optimistic listing of your intellectual capabilities, observe and inventory your situation. How far are you, honestly, from road? How badly hurt, truly, are you? Will it storm in the afternoon? Will it be a chilly night? With a calm mind, you should be able to distinguish between perceived dangers—darkness, for instance—and real dangers, like a cold, windy rain.
Finally, put it all together—your attitude, your skills, your environment—devise a plan of attack, and then execute it methodically, with a willingness to change course when new information presents itself.
Much of the conventional wisdom regarding panic has come from psychiatrists, psychologists, and therapists studying mental illnesses: anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive/compulsive disorder. Notably, the basic physio-psycho mechanisms of panic are the same whether you’re panicking in the wilderness from a real threat, or experiencing a reoccurring panic attack caused by a mental condition. But experts say that there are important differences.
“In the backcountry,” says Dr. Paul Auerbach, author of Wilderness Medicine and the blog Medicine in the Outdoors, “there are just too many variables. A person may be high-strung and have a low tolerance for uncertainty and for pain—all anecdotal indicators of a person who could panic,” he says. “But let’s say they’re a good swimmer and feel comfortable in the water. Such a person may panic when trapped on a ledge high in the mountains, but might have no problems crossing a raging stream.”
Likewise, a person who is afraid of the dark but feels completely comfortable with animals may freak when the sun goes down—and do just fine with a bear encounter. A climber with no vertigo may panic in a situation where she or her partner is seriously injured. Nonetheless, Auerbach believes that anyone who’s in a weakened condition— extremely thirsty or hungry or cold, for example—could be more susceptible to panic.
“In extreme hypothermia as well as in extreme hypoxia—both of which can occur simultaneously on a mountaineering expedition—humans tend to become complacent and foggy, rather than panicked,” says Auerbach. “Bad judgment is usually what first gets people into trouble. Bad judgment stems from lack of experience, lack of preparation, and faulty thinking. It leads to bad decision-making, which worsens the situation and precipitates panic.”
But what if you suspect you’re prone to panic? The medical community has drugs for altitude sickness, infections, and pain. Recent studies even suggest that Viagra can stave off some of the effects of altitude. But does it make sense to pack prescription Xanax, a popular anti-anxiety medication, in the first-aid kit?
“Anti-anxiety drugs have been proven to effectively treat anxiety disorders,” says Auerbach, “but they’re probably not the answer for panic situations in the wilderness. They have numerous drawbacks: They affect each person differently and unpredictably, they require 15 to 30 minutes to take effect, and they often act as a sedative instead of a stimulant.”
“I wouldn’t want someone afraid to cross a river to pop a Xanax on the bank,” Auerbach adds. “It could slow their reflexes. And in the case of a bear encounter, you want the bear to take Xanax. Not you.”
According to Auerbach, there are only two field-proven ways to prevent or mitigate panic: 1) Understand the psychology and physiology of panic, along with its symptoms and treatment, so you can quickly recognize the symptoms and immediately implement stress-reduction methods. 2) Train yourself for specific, potential panic situations.
Most of us head into the hills with considerable gear and a sizable set of technical skills. We know how to use a map and compass—because we’ve practiced it. We know how to set up our tent and light our stove—because we’ve practiced it. We may even know how to splint a leg or identify the symptoms of altitude sickness—again, because we’ve practiced. But how many of us practice panic? Not enough. And that’s a problem NOLS instructor Schimelpfenig is trying to remedy.
“In our wilderness medicine classes, to practice self-rescue, we’ll actually chop a hole in the ice of [Wyoming’s] Popo Agie River and ask volunteers to jump in,” says Schimelpfenig. “It hurts right away. Their breathing and heart rate skyrocket.”
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.”
Without a rope, Montopoli spent the next several hours working out a safe route up and over the mountain. He climbed up and down the same line repeatedly, going a bit higher each time. Eventually, he summited, and stumbled back to the valley floor.
“The point is, given the right situation, almost anyone can panic,” says Montopoli. “The trick is to recognize you are panicking and know how to get a grip before things get bad.”
“For all but the most experienced hikers,” adds professor Wilson, “when confronted by a threat in the wilderness, you should expect to panic.”
Why? First of all, most people don’t experience outdoor crises enough in their lives to develop the ability not to panic. Secondly, most of us are conditioned by the media to believe that we’re screwed if something goes wrong. Which is utter nonsense. The only stories that make headlines are those with drama and/or death. Our national parks see nearly 300 million visitors a year, and yet there are only about 3,000 search-and-rescue operations annually. For every person who needs a rescue, there are thousands who get themselves into trouble.
“You must believe you have the knowledge and power to help yourself,” says Kathleen Hall. Knowing that 99.99 percent of people lost or hurt in the wilderness get out fine is a good start.
Whether you practice panic preconditioning or not, you can still develop your most powerful physiological tool for preventing or managing a panic attack: conscious breathing. Whenever you get anxious, use the calming breath and your mantra. Panic is automatic, autocratic, and instinctual. But if you practice controlled breathing—a bit of modern-day rewiring for the primordial brain—it will become your new instinctive default, your all-purpose escape plan for the next fix you find yourself in.
I’m certain that you’ll soon hear about some unfortunate soul who died in the wilds from extreme heat, bitter cold, or getting lost. Read between the lines. Panic probably killed them. But it won’t kill you.
In a crisis, these symptoms will develop faster than you can read this page.
The Brain Command central during a panic attack, your gray matter responds to danger the same way Cro-Magnon’s did. It starts with the visual system, which communicates messages (there’s a grizzly bear on the trail) to the interpretive cognitive system (that grizzly is big and scary). This signals the amygdala, an almond-shaped organ near the brain’s center that responds by igniting a flurry of neural fireworks. The amygdala talks to the hypothalamus, which relays messages to the pea-sized pituitary gland, which tells the adrenal gland to shoot the body up with adrenaline so it can defend itself. Simultaneously, the locus coeruleus gets tipped off, and starts secreting norepinephrine, which in high doses actually restricts the problem-solving areas of the brain.
Lungs and Diaphram Thoracic breathing (short, shallow breaths) amps you up when you should be calming down. Take deep, diaphragmatic breaths (a.k.a. belly breaths) to balance the CO2/O2 levels in your blood.
Heart Adrenaline and a jolt of sugar cause your heart to start pounding and blood pressure to rise. Repeat your mantra (“Relax, breathe. Relax, breathe.”), and it should start decreasing soon.
Adrenal Glands These organs, located on top of the kidneys, are responsible for the fight-or-flight feeling. They release a shot of stored up adrenaline (think super-charged Gu) that shocks your system into action.
Stomach and Digestive Tract Don’t expect to get the munchies. Your digestive system goes into survival mode, redirecting blood to your big muscles so you can outrun a cougar (theoretically, of course).
Lightheadedness Hyperventilation is the culprit here, making your blood more alkaline. You’re still getting plenty of oxygen, but this central-nervous-system response causes you to blow off too much CO2.
Dilated Pupils That grizzly may give you bug eyes, but having them doesn’t mean you’re taking in more information. Panicking people misread common cues like trail markers, footprints, or roads. Wait for that wild-eyed feeling to pass, and then survey your surroundings carefully.
Sweaty Forehead and Palms Perspiration is the body’s way of staying cool while your engines rev up. You’ll feel clammy before you start moving again, because your heart rate and metabolism are already increasing.
Hand Tremors No one knows why some people shake and others don’t, but if you get the quakes, an adrenaline surge is the cause. Don’t worry: These tremors, barely discernible by onlookers, shouldn’t interfere with your ability to act.
Tingling Fingers and Toes The pins-and-needles feeling doesn’t mean your extremities are dozing off. Rapid breathing changes the pH balance in your blood, which causes your peripheral nerves to misfire. That creates tingling, numbness, and even cramping.
Muscles Pumped with adrenaline and an increased blood flow, big muscle groups (hamstrings/quads/glutes) are primed for action.
Mark Jenkins lives in Laramie, WY, where he climbs at midnight with his 13-year-old daughter, Teal.
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