The New Rules of Survival

The planet is smaller than ever, but that just means there's a host of new dangers out there—and a new set of solutions. These days, a text message or the right travel-insurance policy might just save your bacon. So study up—your life may depend on it.

A Royal Air Force helicopter searches for missing climbers (pdam2/Flickr)
A Royal Air Force helicopter searches for missing climbers

Salvation Comes at a Price

Survival

Hefty bills: the scary new trend in rescues
On a warm morning this past April, Scott Mason set off on what was supposed to be a day hike on New Hampshire's Mount Washington. The 17-year-old Eagle Scout packed a bivy sack and some extra clothes and consulted Forest Service rangers about his route. But well into the hike, he sprained his ankle, opted for a shortcut back to the trailhead on a path that was covered in snow, wandered off track, and promptly got lost. He spent three nights out before a rescue team found him.

It was all fairly typical, until Mason got a bill from the New Hampshire Department of Fish and Game: $25,000, the largest such tab in state history.

New Hampshire is one of eight states that charge for rescues, and in June legislators had eliminated a cap of $10,000 while also requiring only that a person had demonstrated "negligence." Mason's shortcut had apparently outweighed the fact that, once lost, he'd done everything right, from sleeping in a rock crevice to starting a fire by igniting hand sanitizer. According to Howard Paul, public-information officer at the National Association for Search and Rescue, such laws are increasingly popular, as is enforcement, which has historically been lax. Oregon, California, Hawaii, Maine, Colorado, Idaho, and Vermont also look to charge the rescued in certain situations, despite strong opposition from the SAR community. Charley Shimanski, president of the Mountain Rescue Association, argues that the fear of a bill means "people are less likely to call for help sooner or at all." The likely results: delayed rescue, more serious injury, and a more complicated overall operation.

Your best way to avoid an SAR tab? Don't do anything that might get you labeled as negligent, like straying from designated trails or packing inadequate supplies, since it's the key factor in most states. But if you do get into trouble, don't hesitate to call for help; most states have low maximum charges (Colorado's is $300). And if you get a bill, it's probably best to just pay it, as legal fees would likely be higher. The exception, of course, is New Hampshire, where, at press time, Mason was still fighting an uphill legal battle to reduce his payment. "Other states have a system for calculating the cost," says Jim Moss, a Colorado-based attorney who specializes in recreational law, "but in New Hampshire, the way they decide how much someone owes is extremely arbitrary."

The New Rules: Don’t Go Paperless

A shiny document (and a smile) can change minds.

Kyle Dickman, with the document
Kyle Dickman, with the document that protected him in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (courtesy of Skip Brown)


In the fall of 2008, I joined a team of six whitewater kayakers on an expedition down the Lower Congo River. The National Geographic Society, which was filming and sponsoring the descent, gave each of us a copy of a three-paragraph letter from the Democratic Republic of the Congo's minister of public information. Basically, it read, "We're here on official government business." I had zero faith in its value, but I packed it with my toothbrush.

Eight days into the trip, two soldiers with AK-47's made us lie facedown on a beach while villagers rifled through our bags. After 30 minutes, our expedition leader, Trip Jennings, was finally able to hand over his letter. When it was read aloud, the soldiers laughed then took $50 and a pair of socks and let us go.

Turns out simple documents can go a long way in many developing countries. According to Jennings, a veteran international adventurer, the idea is to convey that you have connections to important people. If you're on a focused trip, like a serious expedition or research project, you want authentic letters from government (or maybe rebel) leaders. Contact the country's consulate in the States and they'll usually direct you to the appropriate official. The ideal document is written on letterhead and clearly outlines who you are and what you're doing.

Even if you're just traveling in a rough area, a confidently presented document can get you out of jam and it doesn't have to be real. "Any official-looking scrap of paper works fine," says contributing editor Patrick Symmes, who's reported stories in crisis areas around the world and once dodged a potential hostage situation in Colombia by showing an illiterate guerrilla guard a photocopy of his passport. Veteran war correspondent Scott Anderson sometimes packs a "to whom it may concern" letter. "They come in handy with low-level officials who might be impressed by gold lettering," he says. The trick is to give the documents gravitas heavy paper adorned with your picture, a stamp or seal, and a fancy signature and know when and how to wield them. Anderson would present them with levity in sub-Saharan Africa, where, he thinks, it's best to treat confrontations like funny mishaps. "Understanding the culture is the key to making shiny documents work," he says.

The New Rules: Know When to Say When

It's better to bail out than to pass away.

Know When to Say When
(Photo by Charley Shimanski/Mountain Rescue Association)

Team Calleva was exhausted. The four professional American adventure racers were trekking down a cliffside Chilean beach near Cape Froward, the southernmost point on the South American mainland. Ahead, the sheer cliffs met the water, blocking their way. Somewhere beyond was the finish line of the 2009 Wenger Patagonian Expedition Race. After attempts to call in a rescue failed, they stared at the 50-degree waves of the Strait of Magellan and made a rash decision: They would try to swim around the cliffs.

"It almost killed us," says Druce Finlay, 30. The rough waters turned them back after ten minutes. "We got out and shivered all night. I couldn't dress myself or operate my hands."

That a team of talented professionals made such an irrational, life-threatening choice underscores just how easy it can be to let fatigue and a "save yourself" mentality lead you down a perilous path. In the ten days leading up to their ill-advised swim, Calleva had been moving almost nonstop through the notoriously brutal stages of the Wenger, sea-kayaking, mountain-biking, and trekking some 365 total miles in terrible conditions. They'd portaged kayaks 12 miles through a bog, been hammered by a snowstorm while camped on a ridgeline, and wandered drastically off-course in the dark. They ended up on the beach after opting for a misguided shortcut over a prohibited mountain pass, during which they ran out of food and took to eating berries and scavenging their trash.

Like all nine teams in the event, Calleva carried flares, a satellite phone, and a SpotMessenger, a handheld unit that can send messages indicating your location and that you'reOK or need help. But they didn't want a rescue; they wanted to finish the race. When they finally pulled out the sat phone on the beach, it couldn't get a signal and then ran out of power after being left on over­night. Their Spot was supposedly having problems, too, so they tried flares. No response. That's when they decided to swim.

As the race's director, Stjepan Pavicic, sees it, endurance athletes are particulary prone to these kinds of scenarios, because they instinctively look for an "active way out." Callevaultimately got lucky. After two members of the team scraped their way over the cliff and managed to alert race officials with their Spot, a helicopter came to the rescue.

Self-reliance is, of course, a valuable trait for anyone venturing into the wild—but only up to a point. "Too often, the people who die in the wilderness are those who didn't know when to turn back or call for help," says Sheryl Olson, a registered nurse and the founder of Wilderness Wise, a Colorado survival school. "When to stop is something that should be discussed and planned before any trip begins."

The New Rules: Cover Yourself

Heading to the wild frontier? Get insured.

Get Insured
(Photo by Charley Shimanski/Mountain Rescue Association)

Calculating Risk: What Should I Do If I Encounter a Forest Fire?

Wildfires can spread through an area at 70 miles per hour, but in the mountains you're most likely to encounter slow-moving flames that aren't billowing smoke, yet. "Fire is the only thing other than a bear that moves faster uphill," says Bryan Rosenow, a 13-year firefighting veteran from the Tahoe National Forest. "In most cases, I'd get below it." Flank the fire by traveling perpendicular to any slope, then head downhill and look for a place that's at least twice as far from vegetation as the flames are tall; a rocky outcrop, a road, or a burned piece of forest cool enough to sit in are best. Lying in a shallow stream? Probably a bad idea. There's usually more vegetation by water. "Wet feet won't keep you from burning," says Rosenow. "So unless you can swim in it, I'd look elsewhere."...

On the morning of November 10, 2008, New York Times reporter David Rohde set off with his fixer/translator, Tahir Ludin, to interview a Taliban commander southeast of Kabul, Afghanistan's capital. Rohde had been in the country for only a month—and had been married for only two. It would be 221 days before Rohde and Ludin were heard from again.

For Rohde, the risk of kidnapping was part of the job. He'd been detained in a foreign country before—in 1996, when Serb authorities accused him of being a spy during his Pulitzer Prize–winning coverage of the Srebrenica massacre—but this time was different. His capture had most likely been orchestrated by the very man he was meeting, and there was a significant price for his release: a reported $25 million, at first. Word of Rohde's abduction was slow to leak out. The Times worked to keep the story out of the headlines, fearing publicity would further endanger Rohde and Ludin, and was negotiating with the captors via a security firm. But negotiations were halting, then they stopped altogether.

Kidnapping is a constantly evolving threat for any traveler heading into an unstable area. By some estimates, there are as many as 15,000 international abductions per year—andthe hot spots keep shifting. Atop the current list is Mexico City, followed by Caracas, Venezuela. Right behind them is (surprise!) Phoenix, Arizona, thanks to an influx of drug cartels. Regardless of location, the majority of kidnappers are after the same thing: money. The average ransom paid approaches six figures, and perpetrators often have in-depth knowledge of their victims' financials, says Katie Colberg, a response consultant at the security firm ASI Global.

Before booking a trip to a high-risk area, consider kidnap-ransom-and-extortion insurance from companies like Travelers Insurance or eGlobalHealth Insurers Agency, which will coordinate with crisis-management firms to organize your release and will often repay any financial losses, including ransoms. And if you are abducted, be patient—very few people successfully escape. "Waiting is the most difficult part," says Colberg. "You feel forgotten." The only place where ASI advises people to attempt to escape is Iraq, where Westerners are typically killed.

Ultimately, Rohde and Ludin decided they had to save themselves. They made their break at night, after their guards were asleep, using a rope they'd found to descend a compound wall. Back in Kabul, Ludin told reporters that their escape was a desperate gamble by two demoralized captives. Rohde has yet to tell his story, but while traveling back to the U.S., he reportedly told a colleague, "All I want to do now is stay at home with my wife and cook some pasta."

The New Rules: Avalanches Don’t Discriminate

Just because you're in-bounds doesn't mean you're safe.

Calculating Risk: How Long Can I Live Without Oxygen?

It depends on your temperature. If you were drowning in warm Hawaiian waves, three to four minutes is all it'd take to cause irrep­arable brain damage or death. But if you fell into your ice-fishing hole, you might last 20 minutes or longer. When the brain is cooled, it requires less oxygen and produces fewer harmful substances during recovery. Cold also triggers redistribution of blood to core organs, conserving oxygen. According to the University of Manitoba's Dr. Gordon Giesbrecht, a leading expert on the effects of cold on humans, the quicker you cool down, the longer you can last. "Some people will breathe water in and out when they're submerged," he notes. "We don't know why some do and some don't, but there's evidence it helps you survive because it cools the brain faster." —L.L.

Avalanches

The prevailing wisdom goes something like this: If you ski in the backcountry, you're on your own. You should be trained in avalanche safety and carrying all the essential gear. But if you're skiing at a resort, you don't have to worry about slides; ski patrol has "controlled" the slope and deemed it safe.

Not true.

Consider what happened at resorts across the West this past winter. In mid-December, Snowbird opened its iconic hike-up peak, Mount Baldy, for the first time that season. Around noon, after more than 300 people had already skied Baldy, Heather Gross, a 27-year-old Salt Lake City local, lost a ski partway down the tree-and-cliff-riddled slope. As she was hiking up to retrieve it, a snowboarder above her triggered an avalanche. Skiers and boarders screamed warnings, but it was too late. Within seconds the slide had buried Gross beneath three feet of snow and debris. It took ski patrollers and a 150-person search a little more than an hour to locate her. She died later that day.

On Christmas Day, a slide at Squaw Valley killed 21-year-old skier Randall Davis. Two days after that, 31-year-old skier David Nodine asphyxiated beneath seven feet of snow when an avalanche struck an experts-only area at Jackson Hole. Overall, the season saw the highest number of in-bounds deaths since a single avalanche killed three skiers at Alpine Meadows in 1976.Granted, the snowpack was unusually unstable last December. But, say many experts, as resorts continue to cater to skiers' growing appetite for challenging slopes by expanding boundaries to include more-extreme terrain, skiers need to start taking an active role in reducing their risks.

"Resorts do a phenomenal job making it a safe experience, but they're working in nature's domain," says Dale Atkins, a VP at the International Commission for Alpine Rescue. "They can't guarantee safety."

That doesn't mean every resort skier needs to take an avalanche course. If you stick to intermediate or groomed terrain with little exposure, you can essentially ignore the risk of slides. But if you search for the steepest, gnarliest terrain, wear an avalanche beacon and carry a shovel and probe, especially on high-risk days (during major weather and the first few days after). Studies suggest that if rescuers find you within 15 minutes, you have a 92 percent chance of survival. All the ski patrollers at these resorts, and many of the locals using them to access the backcountry, carry beacons. In the incredibly rare instance that you get caught ina slide, wearing one could save your life.

The New Rules: Don’t Skimp on Your S.O.S.

When you're lost at sea, send the right signal.

U.S. Coast Guard
U.S. Coast Guard conducting a search for a missing boater (courtesy of U.S. Coast Guard)

Captain Nelson Liu and five of the 11 crew members of the Princess Taiping were asleep on a stormy, moonless early morning in the Philippine Sea when running lights appeared onthe horizon. The 53-foot-long wooden junk, a replica of a Ming Dynasty warship handbuilt out of cedar, was 27 miles northeast of Suao, Taiwan, its final destination on a 14,000-mile voyage. The looming lights belonged to the Champion Express, a massive tanker aslosh with vegetable oil bound for China.

At first, it looked like the big ship would pass more than a mile to port. Surely the helmsman noted the return from the Princess Taiping's radar reflector, detectable eight miles away. But just when the Champion Express came abeam, it turned 90 degrees—right at the Princess Taiping. The wooden boat had a tiny outboard engine, but it was stowed, and its sails were reefed, due to heavy seas. It was all but dead in the water.

"The ship's coming at us at maybe 20 knots," says John Hunter, a recent graduate of the University of Hawaii who'd been awakened by the commotion. "I remember thinking, This could be it. The funny thing was, I was OK with it. It's a pretty sweet way to go."

The 628-foot tanker heaved the junk out of the water and cleaved it not so neatly in two, the midsection exploding into shards. As the Champion Express melted into the darkness, Hunter and his shipmates clung to the partially submerged stern, up to their necks in 80-degree seawater. Two were missing: Masao Kinjo, a Japanese sailboat racer, and Thomas Cook, a professor at Humboldt State University.

Larz Stewart, a 29-year-old surfer from Honolulu, hunted for their emergency communication equipment with his headlamp. He found Captain Liu's personal locator beacon (PLB) and triggered it. Nothing. But moments later, the ship's emergency position-indicator radio beacon (EPIRB), which sends out a distress signal with its coordinates to a network of satellites, mystically floated into his hands. Activated, it strobed reassuringly.

In the distance, another strobe appeared. It was on Cook's life vest. The impact had pitched the professor headfirst overboard into something blunt, opening his scalp to the bone, shattering a vertebra, and snapping his right forearm. He paddled with his good arm toward the others."I'm here!" he shouted. "I think I broke my spine!"

Some 5,000 miles east, at the Coast Guard's rescue command center in Honolulu, Chief Operations Specialist Peni Motu received the Princess Taiping's distress signal. Since the EPIRB system went live, in 1982, it's enabled nearly 27,000 rescues at sea, including 129 in the U.S. this year through mid-September. And yet 18 percent of boat owners fail to register their EPIRBs, a crucial step that allows rescuers to rule out false alarms. Motu verified the signal's authenticity and alerted a rescue command center in Taiwan. "Without the EPIRB, they wouldn't have had a chance," he says.

And they'd almost left without it. Captain Liu had brought only his old PLB, typically used to find someone swept overboard. But one crew member, Jack Durham, refused to sail without an EPIRB and had borrowed one from a friend. According to Amanda Suttles, of the nonprofit BoatU.S., which rents out EPIRBS, any sailor who ventures more than ten miles offshore should carry one. Even if you're only kayaking the coastline, Suttles suggests you carry (and register) a VHF marine radio equipped with Digital Selective Calling, a panic button that broadcastsa preprogrammed mayday.

About three and a half hours after the collision, the drifting sailors saw a white hull appear over the waves. They whooped and waved at the approaching ship, then cheered in astonishment when a helicopter flew by with the missing Masao Kinjo in its hoist. After swimming to the bow, only to find himself alone, the resolute mariner had rigged the broken foremast and started sailing the front half of the Princess Taiping toward Taiwan.

Anatomy of a Rescue

Anatomy of a Rescue
(Map by Chris Philpot)

Every year, thousands of people get lost or injured in the backcountry. This past March, while on an afternoon snowshoe in the mountains above Santa Fe, New Mexico, 52-year-old social worker Laura Christensen became one of them. As with most wilderness emergencies, a series of small but easily made mistakes put Christensen—a NOLS graduate and Wilderness First Responder with an associate's degree in outdoor education—in a dangerous and desperate situation.

Day 1, March 16, 2009 2:30 P.M. Christensen begins an afternoon snowshoe outing on one of her favorite trails (1). She tells a friend where she's going and is dressed for an aerobic hike and brings half a sandwich and a liter of water. Just in case, she also wisely packs an extra base layer, a balaclava, and a compass—but forgets the glasses she'd need to read it. LESSON LEARNED: If you're setting out late in the day, always bring a headlamp. Darkness can make even familiar terrain look foreign. And while Christensen smartly told someone where she was going, simply doing so isn't enough: You also need to tell them when you'll be back and that you'll contact them upon your return.

6 P.M. In search of fresh powder, Christensen decides to mix up her usual hike by going off-trail, meandering down a steep hill (2). LESSON LEARNED: Never leave familiar terrain without a map, especially near dark.

7 P.M.-dawn Christensen is distracted by the Eckhart Tolle book playing on her iPod and passes right over a second familiar trail (3). Darkness falls and she begins to panic. She tries to call 911 but can't get service. She begins shivering and leans up against a tree to stay off the snow but refuses to doze off. "I did everything in my power not to sleep," she says. LESSON LEARNED: Christensen's strategy was smart: She knew her body temperature would fall if she slept and that shivering would help keep her warm.

Day 2, March 17 5:45 A.M. At first light, she begins moving again (4). LESSON LEARNED: The old adage about staying put when lost doesn't apply if the clock is ticking on your exposure (and no one knows you're missing). But avoid off-trail shortcuts. Rescuers (generally) stay on trails and will have a hard time finding you if you're not within earshot.

12 P.M. Christensen wanders into an area where trails and old mining roads go off in every direction (5). She knows she's close to a Forest Service road but can't find it. She'll spend all day wandering around looking for it.

1 P.M. She tries to call 911 again, then tries text-messaging her friends, but has no luck (6). Finally, at 2:45 P.M, unbeknownst to her, she gets a flicker of service. One text message in her outbox goes through, and a friend calls 911. LESSON LEARNED: Texts can be transmitted when calls can't. And because Christensen's text indicated where she thought she was, rescuers knew where to start looking.

4:56 P.M. After a flurry of phone calls, state police initiate the search. The first of two helicopters is dispatched to the area.

7:16 P.M. The police notify local search-and-rescue teams, and the painfully slow process of a mostly volunteer response begins.

8 P.M. On her second night out, Christensen starts walking along the path of a power line (7), hoping it will lead her to civilization in the morning. She builds a bed of branches to rest on in the dark. LESSON LEARNED: Cold ground saps heat much faster than still air. Branches and leaves can provide critical insulation.

11 P.M. Twenty-seven volunteers assemble near the trailhead (8) where state police found Christensen's car. With only a vague idea of where she might be, ten hiking teams are sent in all directions (9). Two state-police helicopters now fly overhead, but it's dark and Christensen has no light except that of her iPod's screen. Nyberg and Schaffer's team is assigned to sweep the most likely trail and sets out, shouting her name and blowing an air horn every few minutes.

Day 3, March 18 1 A.M. About four miles in, their team spots a set of snowshoe tracks winding back and forth haphazardly on a remote path (10). The tracks lead to a nexus of trails and seem to go off in every direction. It's likely that the tracks belong to Christensen, but it's not clear which set of tracks to follow. LESSON LEARNED: If you're lost, make a mess. Break branches, string rocks into arrows, scratch HELP in the mud. Rescuers are looking for clues.

1:30 A.M. Delirious with hypothermia and exhaustion, Christensen hears shouting and an air horn but thinks it's campers scaring away a bear and is too afraid to go toward them.

4 A.M. After a night of false leads, Schaffer and two other team members start following an indistinct set of tracks, calling Christensen's name. A quarter-mile later, they hear her voice (11).

Learn how you can volunteer for search-and-rescue at nasar.org.

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