“THE HARD WAY Between a Rock and the Hardest Place” by Mark Jenkins What happens when a solitary day hike turns into the ultimate test of survival? OUTSIDE August 2003, pages 51 – 54 edited by Arthur Panaro
On Saturday April 25, 2003, 27 year-old outdoorsman Aron Ralston was climbing in the wilderness of Utah. An 800-pound boulder shifted above him and he snapped his left hand out of its path in time, but his right hand was smashed between the rock and sandstone wall. He was trapped and held in place. On day four of his ordeal, Tuesday, April 29, Ralston says “essentially I got my surgical table ready and applied the knife to my arm, and started sawing back and forth…. By Thursday May 1 he finally sawed through the soft tissue between the broken bones and amputated his hand.
”All the joys of a future life came rushing into me. Maybe this is how I handled the pain. I was so happy to be taking action.” Aaron Ralston
1 “Survivors rapidly read reality…
2 When something horrible happens, they immediately accept the situation for what it is and consciously decide that they will do everything in their power to get through it.”
3 That is, they have the ability to rationally accept dreadful circumstances without becoming angry or passive, two common responses to extreme stress.
“Getting angry is just a waste of precious energy, says, Siebert in The Survivor Personality, “and playing the victim dramatically increases your likelihood of dying.”
4 After adjusting to the new circumstances, survivors start looking very hard, but also very imaginatively, for solutions. “I call it integrated problem-solving behavior,” says Siebert. “By that I mean it’s a mixture of left-brain thinking — logical, linear, Mr. Spock — and right-brain thinking — intuitive, creative, lots of leaps of faith.”
5 One of Siebert’s most intriguing discoveries is that survivors tend to exhibit “biphasic personality traits,” which means they have oppositional, counterbalancing behavior. “It is to be proud and humble, positive and negative, selfish and unselfish, cooperative and rebellious, spiritual and irreverent,” Siebert writes in The Survivor Personality.
6 In other words, Hollywood has it wrong: Survivors are not brutish, one-dimensional Rambo types or combustible Scarface maniacs; rather, they are complex, compassionate, and, most important, open-minded. (The Survivor Personality 1996 by Al Siebert, Founder, Resiliency Center, Portland Oregon)
Peter Suedfeld, (U. of British Columbia,) has researched survival psychology for more than 40 years, puts it this way:
7 “Beyond the fundamental will to survive, the foremost character trait of a survivor is. intellectual flexibility.
People under high stress are more likely to become rigid, which only decreases their chances of survival,” he continues. ….
8 Even in a jam, “survivors are extremely adaptable people. They know how to improvise. If one solution doesn’t work, they try another. They don’t fixate on one answer. They keep an open mind, searching for options, developing strategies.”
And there are two other important survivor indicators: optimism and unflappability.
9 True optimists recognize that their predicament is temporary, isolate the problem, understand that even if they haven’t found a solution yet, it doesn’t mean there isn’t one, and recognize that they do have a modicum of control over their fate.
10 To be unflappable, meanwhile, is to be able to “tolerate bizarre experiences without freaking out.” It’s the old cliché: “Panic kills.”
11 There are only three ways to cope in a touchy situation —
- Leave the environment,
- Change the environment, or ..
- Change your attitude.
According to Suedfeld, “survivors are capable of recognizing which one, or which combination, will best increase their chances.”
So, considering, the psychological profile of survivors, if you tend to react to dicey situations with impatience, intolerance, panic, pessimism, passivity, pigheadedness, anger, or any combination thereof, you may not make it out alive.
Fortunately, it’s not just a matter of innate character or instinct.
12 “People absolutely can be trained to survive,” says Frank Heyl, a retired air force officer and director of the Combat Aviation Survival School, in Helena, Montana.
13 “Everybody is born with the will to survive,” says Heyl, “but it’s like a muscle or a skill. You’ve got to nurture it, train it, build it up.” You can pick up the basics from any survival manual or basic wilderness-safety course:
- Never venture into the backcountry alone without leaving word of your intended route and return date.
- Always, even on a day hike, stock your pack with the fabled “ten essential”: knife, water, food, matches, map and compass, headlamp, cord, proper clothing, and sun protection.
Heyl puts two additional items at the top of the list:
14 Number one “your head is number one. It’s the best survival tool there is.
15 Number two: a basic med kit and the understanding of how to use it.”
Then you’ve got to take this knowledge into the field.
“It’s all about hands-on experience,” says Heyl. “Go into your local woods at night, in the wind, when it’s raining, and see if you can build a fire. Go out into the winter and practice building a snow shelter. The more you practice survival skills, the better survivor you become.”
Even for a hardened military veteran like Heyl, surviving isn’t about being macho. “Men like to do things by the numbers. They like routine, but this kind of rigidity works against them in a survival situation. Women tend to be more flexible in their thinking, more adaptable, and this can make them better at survival,” says Heyl. “It doesn’t take Herculean strength to survive.” …Aron Ralston had a horrible choice to die or to mutilate himself. When a serac* unexpended falls and instantly kills a climber, we are not fascinated, only touched by grief. There was no choice, no existential struggle, no opportunity for the human will to pull ancient power from the depths of its core and transform fear into focus.
This, the steadfast, implacable will to survive, is what Aron Ralston has. And, should circumstances demand, it’s what we all want.
*[S’erac \S[‘e]`rac”\, n. [F. (in the Alps), orig., a kind of solid cheese.] A pinnacle of ice among the crevasses of a glacier; also, one of the blocks into which a glacier breaks on a steep grade.]