Visiting dangerous places, leaving cell signal behind, traveling by yourself and just generally taking risks? Well, guess what? At some point, it's going to go badly for you. Likely when you least expect it. Here's what I've learned about self rescue.
Right now, I'm planning a backpacking trip over the Christmas break. Me, Ty, Wiley and Sansho. Maybe our friend Matt. We're all experienced outdoorsmen/outdoorsdogs, but we're traveling somewhere incredibly remote, that's subject to tides and waves and which was likely blanketed in snow and washed out in last week's storms. And when I say waves, I mean there's a possibility for 40 footers capable of washing us straight off the beach. And our plan is to pull our food out of the ocean. And our dogs are even more prone to bad decision making than we are. So maybe a little more risk than usual and the idea of what we'd do if one of us was hurt — or worse — came up in conversation last night. So here we go.
Be Prepared: The idea is to minimize the chances of something going wrong, then maximize your ability to deal with them. Think of it in terms of driving a car, the difference between getting a flat tire when you're equipped with the tools, spare and knowledge to fix it has vastly different results than when you have none of the above.
Even if you're only passing through in a relatively safe manner, you should endeavor to learn as much as possible about any new environment you're visiting. Things don't always go according to plan. Try to paint for yourself as realistic a picture of the potential risks as possible. We're looking at moon cycles, tide charts, weather forecasts and historic data, also calling around trying to assess current snow conditions in the mountains above the coast. That's in addition to our pre-existing experience in this and similar environments.
All that gives us the ability to time our movements, pack the right equipment and tells us what we need to look out for ahead of time.
Take rip currents for instance. We'll be in the water and knowing what to do when you're caught in one gives you the ability to respond correctly, not just immediately.
The most effective way to survive a life threatening situation is not to get into a life threatening situation in the first place.
Fight: Chances are, you'll know when things are starting to go bad. Call it your spider sense, an evolutionary survival mechanism or just the ability to recognize plain facts. If the snow starts to fall away below you, the grizzly starts its charge or your motorcycle's tire starts to slide out, then don't hesitate, react. You can swim to the top of an avalanche, box a bear and ride out a motorcycle crash. Those aren't common outcomes, but they are possible and this is why you go to the gym, why you study martial arts and why you never stop trying to improve your skills.
With the right mindset, you are capable of performing superhuman feats of strength, speed and endurance. We've all heard the stories about moms lifting crashed cars off children. Having experienced a couple events like that myself, I can report that the clarity and ability you're gifted with in a true, life-threatening emergency is impressive. But you're not going to save your life unless you try.
Make Things Safe: It's no good pulling yourself out of an angry ocean only to be pulled back in by the next wave. Or to survive a car crash only to be clocked by an oncoming 18-wheeler. As soon as the immediate danger passes, look around you, think about what could go (more) wrong and take steps to address it. Move yourself or any victims to high ground, away from the bear or off the steep slope before starting to worry about first aid or calling for help. If there's an imminent danger, moving to safety makes concerns like stabilizing a spine secondary.
First Aid: Your priorities are breathing, then blood loss. Calm down, take a deep breath and assess yourself for damage. Minor cuts and burns and scrapes and whatnot aren't a big deal. Neither are sprains or fractures. You're worried about immediate threats to you consciousness and life.
You don't need an awful lot to stop most bleeding, ripping up your shirt gives you as effective a bandage as any, but a proper first aid kit filled with effective equipment is obviously better.
This is when the pain is going to start setting in, as the adrenaline wears off. You'll be able to minimize that by stabilizing any broken body parts, but it's still going to hurt. It's just pain, you'll get through it. And the funny thing is, once you have, everything else will always hurt a little less from then on out.
Wait For Help Or Walk Out? 99 percent of the time, you want to wait where you are for help. The most effective way to ensure that that's on the way is by leaving detailed plans with someone responsible, along with an expected return time.
This can be as involved as leaving a detailed itinerary with a friend, registering at a ranger station or trailhead or simply telling your buddy you're gonna go that way to do this when you leave camp.
If you're somewhere that somebody's likely to come along, you're visible and you're safe. Stay where you are.
If you're absolutely positive that no one's going to come along, you didn't leave plans about where you were going, the safety or survivability of your location is in question or you urgently need medical care, then you're going to have to figure out how to go find help.
Your priority in that case is finding help — other people. If you're a mile off a popular trail, then all you have to do is make it to that trail. If you're out of cell phone range by just a ridge, then all you have to do is get over that ridge. Evaluate the risks and rewards of heading in a certain direction, minimize the former while maximizing the latter and choose the path of least resistance. Create an achievable goal and then get there.
Obviously your chances of making this work are improved by your preparation. Do you know where you are and what's around you? Do you have a map and compass and know how to use one? Do you know where the nearest people are? You should, at all times.
Self Rescue: This is a mindset and an approach as much as it is an achievement. You maximize your odds with ability, knowledge and preparation, then make it happen through shear force of will. It's not going to be a pleasant experience, it's not going to be something you'll want to repeat, but man, is it rewarding when you pull it off. And so long as you convince yourself that you can, you will.
And if you don't? Well, Ty and Matt have my girlfriend's phone number.
Photos: Chris Brinlee Jr.