I have an article appearing in the Winter 2019 issue of Montecristo magazine about the life and work of Mike Danks, the Team Leader of Vancouver’s North Shore Rescue. Danks and his volunteer colleagues sacrifice their free time and sometimes put their lives in harm’s way to rescue hikers, skiers, snowshoers and climbers who becomes lost or injured in the Coast Mountains north of the city.
I’ve taken an interest in stories of survival in extreme, life-threatening, situations. I got hooked after reading the better known mountaineering classics like Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air and Joe Simpson’s Touching the Void – jolting, fast-paced reads about the unrelenting power of the natural world and our frailty when faced with it.
Since finishing those titles I’ve devoured virtually everything found on the topic from Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea, about the sinking of the American whaling ship Essex in 1820, to Erik Bjarnason’s Surviving Logan about an ill-fated climbing expedition on Canada’s highest mountain in 2005.
As a travel and adventure writer, I was bound to become entangled in this subject sooner or later. Not only have I met lots of people who’ve had close brushes with death, but as an avid hiker I’ve found myself increasingly cognizant of the dangers of travel in the backcountry. Those of us who are active outdoors are more acutely aware of stories about wilderness mishaps and people becoming lost, or simply vanishing without a trace. These incidents are far from rare. I’ve been disoriented in the mountains myself, and have had a few close calls with bears, so I know how quickly and unexpectedly one’s fortunes may turn for the worse.
I’ve just read a superb book that conveys the essence of why people tend to get into trouble in the outdoors – and how they either pull through, or succumb to, their difficulties. Laurence Gonzales’s Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies and Why is a book about the psychology of survival. His work examines case studies of tragedy – and near tragedy – in the outdoors to explain how those situations came to pass. Gonzales weaves in cognitive psychology, philosophical perspectives on human behaviour and his own do’s and dont’s in dangerous scenarios to create a sort of tao of survival. The book argues that our mental attitudes, habits, perceptions and the state of our awareness play a huge role in our ability to avoid, and survive, life-threatening situations.
For Gonzales, self-awareness is the fundamental ingredient. “To survive, you must find yourself,” he writes. “Then it won’t matter where you are.”
Deep Survival is not just applicable to extreme sports and the outdoors. It is a guide to surviving life. Below are just a few of the many ideas running through this rich and thought-provoking book.
1. The ability to manage high emotion arousal is an important survival skill.
The reason we are constantly adjured not to panic in an emergency is because we become mentally handicapped as result. We flee or freeze and become obtuse, unable to see and find potential solutions to our dilemma. High stress, excessive emotion, and panic narrows our perception. Gonzales writes, “Cortisol and other hormones released under stress interfere with the working of the prefrontal cortex. That is where perceptions are processed and decisions are made. You see less, hear less, miss more cues from the environment, and make mistakes. Under extreme stress, the visual field actually narrows.”
2. Mental flexibility increases our survivability by allowing us to adapt to changing circumstances.
Humans have a notoriously hard time changing their minds about something, even when faced with overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Too many people get into trouble in the outdoors because they are attached to their plans, even when the conditions or circumstances on which the successful execution of those plans are based, change.
“Survival is adaptation, and adaptation is change,” writes Gonzales, “but change is based on a true reading of the environment.”
3. Humility can save your life. Arrogance and boldness can forfeit it.
This is related to the point above. There is no dishonor in turning back or forfeiting an outing or expedition if the conditions or circumstances appear untenable beyond reason. Desire and ambition result in a rigid ego that drive blind, willful execution of goals. For that kind of mindset, nothing but the objective, matters. Sometimes not even survival. And that has often lead to tragedy.
4. The right information will increase your chances of survival.
This not only applies to knowing what to do in various emergency scenarios, but in how to avoid trouble in the first place. For instance, novice hikers tend to get into accidents because they don’t do sufficient research on their hike. Specifically they sometimes don’t ask themselves whether they are fit enough for the hike, or how long they require to complete it. The result can be injury and/or getting stranded on a mountain after dark.
5. Patience is often a pillar of survival.
We don’t realize that our goals always take longer to accomplish than we estimate and want. Because faster is considered better and more efficient in our “time is money” culture, we tend to push to do things quicker than we should. This heightens the risk of accidents.
6. When people become lost in the woods, or mountains, they often try to make their surroundings fit their mental map of it (a behaviour known as ‘bending the map’). They constantly seek out the landmarks they know, but instead tend to become more lost and expend precious time and energy in the process, increasing their chances of death.
People who are lost in the wilderness should aim to recreate their mental map to reflect the new surroundings, which makes you at home in a place, relaxes you somewhat, assists you in seeing and thinking better, and helps you survive long enough for someone to possibly come to your aid.
7. By helping others In a survival situation, we also help ourselves.
Helping another person survive – whether it means attending to an injured friend, or trying staying alive for the benefit of a loved one back home – offers an increased chance of living because it gives you the deeper purpose and drive that runs contrary to the mentality to simply give up. “When Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was lost in the Lybian Desert, it was the thought of his wife’s suffering that kept him going,” Gonzales writes.
I’ve been noticing something very peculiar about time of late. When I’m deep in my more regular routine, working a day-job and seeing the same friends and family under the usual circumstances, it feels like time is passing very quickly. Life feels shorter, contracted, and devoid of a certain pithiness. Time ticks-by evermore briskly. During these periods, it even seems to vanish or disappear when gazed at in retrospect. “Where did all that time go?” I sometimes ask myself. It is something we all experience.
On the other hand when I travel to new places, or when I see and do new things, time feels expanded, stretched, and lengthened in a very positive way. There is a sense that more time is available, and elapsing, than is usual. It unfurls like the volume of surface territory in a mountain range if one were able to flatten and stretch it out. No matter what kind of journey I’m on, whether it’s a long-weekend away, a trip of a few weeks, or a period of months, the time that elapses always seems to feel double or triple that indicated by the calendar.
I was recently in the U.K. for two and a half months living in a new city I had never before visited. Almost everything was novel about the experience. By the end of my stay, I felt as though half a year had elapsed. It’s a pleasant and uncanny experience to feel like you’ve been handed a slight extension to life.
We know from scientific research in a field known as quantum gravity that time is neither uniform nor experienced in the same way by everyone everywhere. Contrary to our learning and conditioning there are many versions of time. The way we experience it depends on numerous factors and circumstances.
Author Carlo Rovelli writes in his recent book The Order of Time that time goes by faster the higher you are; it moves slower the faster you are moving; that it has no fixed forward directionality; there is no “present” apart from nanoseconds between past and future; and the further you travel from another person, the more time separates notions of a shared “now.”
“In the 2014 film Interstellar,” writes Rovelli in the Financial Times, “the hero travels to the vicinity of a black hole. On his return to Earth, he finds his daughter older than himself: she is an elderly lady, he is still middle-aged.
“This is not Hollywood fantasy, it is how the world truly works. The film’s scientific consultant Kip Thorne has since received the Nobel Prize in physics for his role in detecting the gravitational waves emitted by merging black holes. He knows his topic. If we do not experience similar time distortions in our daily life, it is only because here on Earth they are too small for us to notice.”
Though too slight to perceive, the time distortions Rovelli mentions nonetheless demonstrate that time is relative and malleable. Where its relativity matters most at present is within the context of our own experiences and consciousness. This is proven by our observations and comments regarding time. We often describe time as “dragging,” or “flying by” or “standing still.” In adulthood, with its incessant busyness and tyranny of routines, it is common for time to feel like it is escaping us entirely – taking much of our lives with it.
I’ve been wondering what it is about travel, or about seeing and doing new things, that makes time feel more like it is giving – rather than taking.
While I was in the U.K. I went on a 3-day hike with my partner through the rolling countryside of Yorkshire Dales National Park in the north of England. As usual, by the end of the trip it felt like at least a week had elapsed. When I asked myself what happened during the trip that was different from my regular routine at home, a few things stood out. My partner and I were constantly problem solving, trying to determine the correct route through the park (the trail we were following would sometimes fade or vanish). Our visual background was constantly changing as we moved through many landscapes. Farmland and pastures would quickly give way to forested ravines that soon changed to hilly, windswept moors which then gave way to roads and village squares. It was as if theatre sets were being constantly rolled in and out in succession. We saw lots of animals, insects, trees, plants and flowers. Many people crossed our path, some of whom we met and conversed with. And there was loads of conversation between the two us – and silent thoughts to occupy us when we weren’t speaking. In other words: we were fully engaged with life, taking in lots of new stimulus and learning at almost every turn.
It occurred to me that if time is partly a register of the amount of change we experience from one moment to the next – as Aristotle defined it – then the more visual and mental stimuli one takes in, the more time seems to unfold – thereby lengthening it. Put another way: we may unconsciously quantify time based on how much, or little, we learn. When we are seeing new things and having novel experiences, time feels expanded relative to our normal lives, which are by comparison filled with the familiar.
When we travel it feels like we’ve lived two or three times our normal lifespans because we, in a sense, are actually doing more living. We are using our brains differently, processing new patterns or thinking differently to address new situations. Our experiences are denser and richer than when we are re-experiencing the same patterns again and again as part of our regular routines, which are essentially journeys along neuronal ruts akin to well-worn highways. This is when the feeling comes that time, and our lives together with it, are slipping away.
This has potentially big implications. If we try our utmost to fill our time with real learning and new experiences, whether at home or while travelling, then perhaps life won’t feel quite as short as the famous refrain suggests it is.
Read about my traipse up the remote Moose and North French rivers with cohorts Jean-Pierre Chabot and Mike Naponse during a visit to Moose Factory. This feature appeared in the Summer 2017 issue of Explore magazine.
One of the unintended consequences of spending a lot of time working and travelling in a place like British Columbia – a region of mind-blowing physical terrain – is that one becomes de-sensitized to attractive, but less dramatic landscapes in other places.
The unavoidable reality is that our minds are constantly comparing. The west coast of Canada with its big mountains and vast rainforests, elevated in my mind to a sort of gold standard of nature, has acted as a spoiler for other worthwhile spots. Time outdoors in Ontario and Quebec has sometimes fallen flat.
We’re all familiar with the situation in which bold and sensational things can sometimes drive out the fine: a powerful experience makes such an impact that everything subsequent seems to pale in comparison. It is one of the larger pitfalls of travel. Some people spend years, and sometimes their entire lives, trying to recapture a dramatic period spent, or experience had, while travelling or living abroad.
I decided to ditch that addictive, defeatist thinking and to get out to appreciate the wilder areas near where I live in southern Ontario, without feeling the need to place them on some experiential scale of the epic.
This spring and summer I hiked a few short sections of the 900 kilometre longBruce Trail Conservancy – something I’d never done before. I was hugely surprised. Those daylong rambles were among the nicest and most interesting I’ve done.
I’ve attached here a fewInstagram shots of some views along parts of the trail.
I’ve just finished reading Names for the Sea, a travelogue by writer Sarah Moss. The book chronicles her difficulties living and working as a teacher in Iceland, with her husband and kids in tow.
Although it’s less action-packed than I like my travel literature to be, the book contains more than a few brilliant gems of cross-cultural observation. Moss, who’s British, has a very hard time assimilating into Icelandic culture, which, as it turns out, is sometimes hugely at odds with her own – but in extraordinarily subtle ways.
I’ve written on this blog before that one of the boons of travel to places far removed from one’s own culture is that it can provide deep insight into other norms and ways of being, which, ultimately, comes full circle and provides insight into one’s own. Struggling to move through other cultures challenges our assumptions, which become mechanized and set according to our more predictable norms. Moss, explores this dynamic more than a few times in her book:
“Iceland has complexities so subtle that their existence is invisible to the inattentive foreigner. One of the Icelandic clichés about Icelanders is that, by foreign standards (as if ‘foreigners’ had one standard), they are rude. There is no word for ‘please’ in Icelandic. ‘Thank you’ and ‘sorry’ are used much less than in British and American English. Nevertheless, it has been clear to me from the beginning that Iceland is a place where the most intricate and important things are unarticulated, partly because intricacy doesn’t need to be spelt out in a place where everyone has always known how things are done, and partly because it is un-Icelandic to explain yourself. Self-explanation suggests some entitlement on the part of your audience to know your interior life. Icelandic drivers don’t indicate, Pétur once old me, because they don’t see why anyone else needs to know where they’re going.”
Sarah’s friend Pétur, who, decades earlier, moved to Iceland from the U.K., goes on to tell her about his experiences among Icelanders during his first few years there:
“There were manners of course, but the manners were sometimes not to say anything. So I’d say, ‘Excuse me, but please would you pass the potatoes.’ They’d pass them and I’d say, ‘Thank you.’ And they’d look at me, because you don’t say thank you when someone gives you a potato. That’s why you’re there, and why the potatoes are there, so you can eat them, and you know that and they know that you know that so why would you say thank you? There’s not very much of that kind of thing in Icelandic, it’s at a lower level in the same way that the flowers in the fields and the trees on the hills are at a lower level. They’re smaller and more subtle and they make more sense.”