Why Do We Like to Read Stories About Death in the Wilderness?
Freezing to death. Heatstroke. The excruciatingly painful sting of a box jellyfish, which can kill a person in under a minute. After writing the classic 1997 story “Frozen Alive,” Peter Stark became an expert on what it feels like to die in the wild. We asked him why people are so interested in reading about it—and about his own close calls.
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“When your Jeep spins lazily off the mountain road and slams backward into a snowbank, you don’t worry immediately about the cold.” So begins one of the most famous stories in Outside’s history, Peter Stark’s intimate, terrifying account of what happens to the body as someone freezes to death.
“Frozen Alive” is a cult favorite, surfacing annually on podcasts, in NPR interviews, and as part of journalism case studies about why the piece is so effective and unforgettable. Stark went on to write about the physiology of other extreme ways to die in his 2001 book, Last Breath.
Frozen AliveYour temperature begins to plummet. Amnesia and stupor set in. Your blood thickens. You have very little time left.
In the book and in several other Outside stories, Stark chronicles in minute detail what happens to our bodies when we drown, suffocate in an avalanche, or die of heatstroke, dehydration, starvation, scurvy, the bends, malaria, or any number of horrid ways to perish in the wild. Perhaps the most terrifying is to be stung by one of the deadliest creatures in the seas: Australia’s venomous box jellyfish, which releases nerve toxins that by some estimates can kill within one minute.
Stark, who lives in Missoula, Montana, has become an expert on the wilderness nightmares that potentially lie in wait for all of us. He’s also a master of historical adventure. His book Astoria, which recounts the ill-fated attempt to found an American settlement on the Pacific Northwest coast, was a bestseller in 2014, and his 2019 book, Young Washington, chronicles the wilderness exploits of George Washington, who, as it happens, nearly froze to death in the winter of 1753. His next book, Tecumseh’s Promise, will tell the story of the legendary Shawnee chief.
We talked with Stark about his own near miss encounters, from almost being bitten by a deadly black mamba to kayaking with crocodiles, and why he thinks that—all things being equal—freezing to death isn’t the worst way to go.
Outside: You’ve called “Frozen Alive” a zombie story. It comes back to life every winter. Everybody wants to talk about freezing to death!
Stark: Well, it’s a story we can all relate to. I worked with the editors quite closely to make that tone as intimate as possible: it’s you, and there are all these little decisions you’re faced with at every turn. Am I making the right choice here or not? And, of course, in that kind of extreme cold, little mistakes can build on themselves and end up in a disastrous situation.
Your first plan to report the story was to camp on Rogers Pass, in Montana, the coldest spot in the lower 48, on the coldest night of winter. How did you envision that going?
I’d done a number of first-person stories for Outside, crazy things like learning how to ski jump and luging on the big Olympic course at Lake Placid. Meanwhile, my wife, Amy, and I had spent part of a summer way up in northern Greenland; the Inuit hunters we were with were wearing windbreakers while we had on our full winter ski gear and were still freezing. So I got really interested in the physiology of cold.
As luck would have it, Rogers Pass is about an hour’s drive up the Blackfoot River from my home in Missoula. But the temperatures were forecast to be 50 below zero, with 50-mile-an-hour winds. I called Mark Bryant, Outside’s editor at the time, and told him I was just going to camp in our backyard. He said, No, no, we don’t want a story about you camping in the backyard. Why don’t you invent a character and explore the physiology that way?
How did you report it so specifically, with the loss of each degree in body temperature?
I did a lot of physiological research and talked to a lot of experts. I was very conscientious about matching what happened to the “you” in the story with the outside temperature and a credible body temperature. It took some doing—initially, the character’s temperature climbs as he exerts himself uphill on cross-country skis. Then I had to calculate the timing, how quickly this would happen. I had to do things like make sure he fell in the snow to really chill him down fast.
Did you speak to anyone who’d had a close call with exposure?
I did. A childhood friend from Wisconsin went through a similar incident here in Montana, at Big Sky. He was skiing late in the day, trying to get some fresh tracks, and ended up finding himself way down in a gully, unable to get out. It was 20 below zero and he tried to walk out, but the snow was too deep, and it was getting dark. He was so weary, but he knew he couldn’t fall asleep because he’d soon be dead. He managed to make it through the night, but it was the classic really close call.
I was struck with how low body temperature has gone in some of the record cases—one woman survived with a temperature of 57.9 degrees.
It’s amazing. Extreme cold temperatures slow down all of the body’s physiological processes. Since I wrote the story, controlled chilling techniques have been used more and more in surgery as a way to slow down metabolism while the operation proceeds.
Think of how many times you’ve been out in the cold, and you get really chilled and start shivering, and then maybe get a little colder than that. At that point, you’re starting to lose something mentally. It’s a sobering thought.
Conversely, when the body heats up, the exact opposite happens. Human metabolism accelerates to the point where it’s like a runaway nuclear reactor and can’t cool itself down. It just goes over the edge.
I want to talk about heatstroke next. There’s a much smaller window of time before it becomes fatal.
Yeah, out of all the research I’ve done into ways to die—or come close to dying—heatstroke is the one I found the scariest. It’s so quick, and it can be very easy to find yourself in that situation. If your body is in good shape and you’re sweating, it can handle a lot of that. But sometimes it can’t. The brain essentially gets kind of scrambled. It’s this profound cascading effect in which one system of your body after another breaks down, to the point where you can’t come back.
That’s terrifying. Yet when Outside posted your recent story on heatstroke, people were like, Yeah, yeah, I’d rather read about the guy freezing to death again. Why is that?
That’s a really good question. In some ways, heatstroke is a little bit more mundane; it can happen in an urban situation, in situations that don’t seem all that romantically adventurous—not that any of these extreme situations would be romantically adventurous if you were in them yourself. With freezing to death, you’re often consciously putting yourself out there, whether it’s ice fishing or hunting or backcountry skiing. And help is typically a long way away.
What should the guy in your story have done?
You generally stick with the shelter that you have. It’s commonly understood in Montana that if you’re driving long distances in winter, you throw a sleeping bag in the car and have water, a flashlight, maybe a fire starter—just a way to make it through the night.
Let’s talk about some other ways to die in the outdoors. You’ve written about the box jellyfish sting, for instance.
That’s the only actual creature I’ve written about. It’s as big as a grapefruit or a cantaloupe, but its venom is extremely toxic. I wondered how that little creature could completely shut down a human body. Its venom screws up your electrical system at the cellular level, and it can very quickly cause your nervous system to shut down.
So, when it’s your time, how would you want to go? I’ll give you a choice: heatstroke, drowning, starving, or freezing to death.
Oh, God. I laugh, but I shouldn’t: many people have suffered terribly dying in those ways. Heatstroke is just so awful physiologically, but in a way the victims are fortunate—they don’t know what’s happening to them after a certain point. Drowning would be so incredibly panic-causing—that’s a real nightmare situation for me. Hypothermia is a good way to go, insofar as there is any good way to go in an extreme situation. It may be better than a box jellyfish—that would just be kind of bizarre.
But I have to tell you about another creature that I actually did encounter.
I was just going to ask!
In 2003, Outside sent me on a kayaking expedition down an unexplored African river, the Lugenda, in Mozambique. We were touring a wildlife preserve in a classic old Land Rover, the kind with no windshield and no doors. I was in the passenger seat, and as we approached this clearing, I noticed a big black stick poking up on my side of the truck, probably five feet off the ground. I was watching this stick as we got closer, and then I noticed its head was swaying. It was a black mamba, maybe 13 or 14 feet long. They’re extremely territorial.
We were moving right toward the snake, and it was aiming itself at me. I just had time to say “Oh shit” and dive under the dashboard. There was a loud wham, right in the side of the Land Rover. We stopped the truck, and you could see these two fang scratches going down the paint about a foot in front of where my leg was.
That trip actually helped me pivot in my career. I was 48 years old, with two kids at home. About halfway down the Lugenda, with sudden waterfalls around the corner and tipping over and swimming with crocodiles, I said, You know, I think this is as far as I’m going to go in the first-person adventure realm. A guy can really get himself killed doing this.
I started writing more about historical explorers who found themselves in these truly extreme, dicey situations. So now I call myself an adventure historian.
You come by that sense of adventure naturally. Your father shipped out on an ore freighter in the Great Lakes when he was 16. And then he served on the last commercial sailing ship to round Cape Horn, in 1949.
That sense of adventure is partly my inheritance. My grandfather had it, too, and also my mom. My dad had this notion of romantic adventure, and he’d go off and do these crazy things like that Cape Horn voyage. He was studying abroad in Switzerland, and he sold all his books and took a little plane down to Australia and managed to get on this tall ship. Of course, the romance wore off quickly. He told me that after three days out in the Southern Ocean, he would have dived off that ship and swam to shore if he could have made it.
It’s always surprised me when I look back that I’ve been going along the same lines in some ways. He was a businessman—that was his main thing—but he loved to write and he loved to travel and he loved history. That’s sort of what I’ve done.
You wrote about his death in Outside in 2003. He took his own life when he was 76—he jumped off a bridge in Aspen, Colorado, where you were all vacationing. It’s a complicated thing to talk about, but—
Sure. That was one of the few pieces I’ve ever written that just kind of flowed right out of me. It was a shock when it happened, and I was really angry. I certainly would not advocate for his choice. But he had bouts of depression. By the time he was 40, he’d been diagnosed as bipolar. I’ve since wondered if it had to do with CTE [chronic traumatic encephalopathy]—he played a lot of football growing up and had sustained some bad head injuries.
At the time, he was going through a period of depression. Some months earlier, he’d started to get nerve issues in one leg, and he had always loved to ski. Years earlier he had told me not to expect him to get old in a nursing home, and he made it pretty clear that he wasn’t going to. I think his self-image had a lot to do with being an active, adventurous man of action. The prospect of not being able to do that was more than he could bear.
I’m thinking of the depression that can be there waiting for adventurers after they come down from a big summit.
Exactly. This is so germane to Outside, and what we all love about being active and being outdoors. There’s a certain point where you realize, I’m never going to be able to do that again, and you can get really depressed.
That’s something I’ve been very cognizant of as I grow older. How do you calibrate what you want to do with what you can do in terms of ability? How do you make those mesh?
For me, I’ve always loved to play soccer, and 15 years ago, I started an over-40 soccer league. We can’t do things quite like we used to, but we can still have a really good time. There’s great delight when one of the older, creakier guys scores a goal—everybody celebrates. You can find satisfaction at almost any level if you throw yourself into it.
If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide or self-harm, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline toll-free from anywhere in the U.S. at 1-800-273-8255 or text HOME to Crisis Text Line at 741741.