Epic Survival: Extreme Adventure, Stone Age Wisdom, and Lessons in Living from a Modern Hunter-Gatherer (2017)
A CLOSE ENCOUNTER WITH DEATH
The winter solstice in the Grand Canyon changes everything. The grandeur of nature’s remarkable creation dims. When the sun is at its lowest point on the horizon and shines the least amount of hours, you cannot see it at the bottom of the canyon. The day is in constant shade. When the light fades, it drags the temperature down with it.
Because I had lived in the area years earlier, by the time I was several thousand feet down in the canyon, I had an idea where I was. My original plan was to stay in the bottom and hike along the Colorado River and then pop out. However, with the low temperatures and lack of sun, I knew that wasn’t a viable option.
My entire body was beaten. I was cold and hungry. I was wearing a very thin wool shirt with no pockets and a pair of nylon shorts. I had to get into the sunlight. Rather than cross the canyon, I decided to climb out.
I climbed up toward the rim, thinking that at the very least I would be exposed to some sunshine. My idea was to eventually hike to the South Rim and resupply some food staples. That would have been twenty-five miles. I had traversed more than two hundred miles, weaving my way through deserts and canyons, from Utah into Northern Arizona, so this seemed very doable.
As I was hiking up, it started snowing. Within an hour, the snow was coming down in sheets. I was wearing sandals, as I had traded away my lined moccasins for an extra blanket. I had known the trade was a risk, but I thought I would be farther south when the heavy snow came. I had no socks. I was generating heat by moving, but my body temperature had dropped slightly, so I did not have much heat to give. The snow was falling so rapidly that it rose somewhere between my mid-calf and knee. The wind was also picking up, limiting my vision. The visibility was so bad that I couldn’t tell I was in the Grand Canyon.
It was getting later in the day and colder with each step. I needed to warm up my feet. I left the trail and undid my bundle. I unrolled one of the thin blankets, cut off the bottom, and then cut it into two big squares. I removed my sandals and wrapped my feet in those two squares of wool, and I then tied my sandals back on.
The realization hit me that I was going to die dressed in a thin wool shirt and nylon shorts. I took the saddle blanket I had brought and cut a slit in the middle. I threw it over my head and tied it around my waist like a poncho. I was in such a dire survival situation that I was cutting up my blankets. This would render them useless later, but there wouldn’t be a later if I didn’t make it out of here.
I continued pistoling toward the top. I reached the top right at dusk. The sun had gone down, and it was getting dark fast. With every step, I sank into the snow. My legs were numb from the cold.
I finally stopped. I couldn’t go any farther. My thoughts turned to surviving. If I could make it through the night, I could reach sunlight in the morning. I looked around to see if I could find some insulation for shelter. It was no use; everything was blanketed in two feet of snow.
I needed to get a fire going. Without a fire starter, I would have to spin a coal. I looked at my hands and started to move them. I could feel the onset of hypothermia. I tested my hands by rapidly opening and closing them. My fingers barely moved. I was telling my fingers to move, but they wouldn’t. They were too cold to spin up the fire.
I had reached my outer limit of exhaustion. I was out of food and energy. Many times I had pushed my body in terms of lack of calories and against the cold, but I was aware that I had gone too far.
I stood there in the blowing snow. There was no dry place to lie down. I knew that if I lay down in the snow, I would freeze to death and die in the night. The nearest village was still at least fifteen miles away.
Though it was the middle of the night and too overcast for the moon to light my way, I decided my best chance to live was to try to walk the fifteen miles. With my physical gifts and my mind’s ability to focus, I believed I could plow through the snowdrifts and make it to safety.
I could feel frostbite on my nose and cheeks. I tucked my face into my makeshift coat to try and warm my skin and ward off permanent damage. My body was completely defeated because I didn’t have the caloric resources to maintain warmth. My core temperature was barely on the functional side. I could feel hypothermia setting in, as my joints tightened and my pulse slowed.
I continued walking directly into the wind. A hard, sharp, icy snow was slashing my face. I was freezing. I didn’t have the energy to shiver. I was beyond that stage and I was not really conscious of what was going on. The functions of my body felt like they were slowing down.
Moving was my last-ditch effort to stay warm. I don’t know how I was moving. My body had never been that far gone. Several times I collapsed in the snow. On one fall, I hit hard and ended up on my back. I lay there for a while, not fully conscious.
I summoned the energy to get to my feet. I walked another few steps. But eventually, no more. I fell down. The lights in my brain went out.
Time passed. I woke up and came to the realization that I was lying in the snow, unable to move. I looked up and saw lily-white flakes falling from nature’s ceiling into my eyes. Even in my depleted state, I appreciated their elegance. I said to myself, “Thank you, God, I had a great life. I really appreciate it.”
I was certain I was going to die; yet I was okay with it. It was time to go do something else. I closed my eyes.
Then I heard a voice. “Your mom’s gonna be pissed if you die in the snow,” it said. “She’ll be forever cursing your primitive skills and earth-living life if you die here.”
I couldn’t place the voice, but it didn’t matter. I wouldn’t call it motivation because I certainly did not want to die, but upon hearing the voice, I slowly rose to my feet. Putting what mattered over mind, not trying to muscle my way but just attempting to move, I continued both my trek to town and my life, which, at that point, were intertwined.
I later found out that it was minus eight degrees with a wind chill of at least twenty degrees below zero. Even for the Grand Canyon on the shortest day of the year, the conditions were particularly dire.
How did I find the energy to get up and walk when I seemingly had none?
I learned that it was a classic boost of adrenaline triggered by fear that can occur when the body is challenged to its limits. Likely, my body temperature had dropped below the danger level of ninety and was nearing eighty-two, the trip line for loss of consciousness. In a study, Vladimir Zatsiorsky, a professor of kinesiology at Penn State and an expert in the biomechanics of weight lifting, found that an ordinary person can summon 65 percent of their strength in normal circumstances, whereas a weight lifter can summon 85 percent. In competition, a trained athlete can go 12 percent above those figures. But with an adrenaline surge, the short-term push can be double those figures.
As Dr. Sam Parnia explains, under extreme stress, the adrenal gland dumps adrenaline into the bloodstream, blood pressure surges, and the heart pushes oxygen to the muscles. “Performance is multiplied, and every fiber and muscle in your body functions a hundred times better,” Dr. Parnia says. “You become superhuman for a short period of time. For Matt, because he is so fit and can deliver oxygen at a much higher level, his adrenaline surge would be even more extreme.”
I also attributed surviving to my ability to deal with fear. I had reached the brink. I knew what it would feel like to die. Fear was present, but it did not consume me; therefore I did not succumb to it. Fear can lock people up and prevent them from thinking clearly. It can debilitate the mind and the body. However, people who have the ability to relax have faster reflexes; whereas more fear translates to slower reflexes, as a doctor once told me.
Coping with fear requires calm. In my experience in the wild, anytime fear creeps up, I try to relax into it rather than allow it to consume me. If you tense up, everything about you starts to fall apart. Climbing initially taught me how to deal with fear. It was get up the rock or die. That type of fear showed in my clunky technique. But once I learned to respect the rock and be in touch with my movements, awareness trumped fear.
Lack of fear also brings clarity. I was lying in the snow, hours from freezing to death. My skills and judgment were being questioned. The result of not answering would be final. But I inherently knew I had a connection to the environment that had taken me down.
I did not feel that I was being reckless. I was not attempting to challenge the land out of hubris. I was not trying to prove anything to anyone, or find anything. I am not a pioneer, nor am I an explorer. I was a person living the way millions of people over hundreds of thousands of year have lived. The wall I found myself up against was a circumstance of my life.
I have always believed that in the wild if you’re open and honest with your environment, there will be a connection—you take care of it and it takes care of you. If everything you do has an honesty and integrity to it, even if you are in a difficult situation, you won’t feel a high degree of fear. If you look at the big picture—I’m alone in the wilderness, stuck in subfreezing conditions with no communication—you will be uncomfortable. But if you can step back and isolate that one spot where you are and focus on it, you won’t be afraid of the unseen and unknown. For me, those were the skills I had devoted my life to pursuing.
The adrenaline surge likely gave me energy to push on, and my ability to focus on where I was allowed me to use that productively—not that the rest of the trip was easy by any means.
I eventually reached the south village. Unfortunately, I was on the east side, which I soon found out was closed for the winter. My immediate thought was that I would die if I didn’t get inside a warm building. I planned to use what little bit of cash I had and check into a hotel. But when I reached the hotel, it had a sign that informed me it was closed for the season.
I looked around. There were two feet of snow on the ground and no signs of any life at all.
I said to myself out loud, “I can’t make it another two miles to the next village.” That actually made me smile, because in all the time I spent alone, I had probably not uttered more than two or three sentences out loud.
I was spent. I had barely made it to the doorstep of that hotel. My first thought was to find shelter somewhere, anywhere. I was freezing, so I needed more than just a dry spot. Perhaps there was a doorway, or even a garbage Dumpster. I looked around. The buildings were square, brick box structures. I didn’t see any doorways or awnings.
I started walking back out into the road area. It was covered with snow. But I noticed that there was one set of tire tracks. Though they were filling with snow, they made walking a little easier. It also gave me hope that someone might drive through.
I felt like I wasn’t going to make it. I didn’t know what to do. I walked a few hundred yards, and then I saw my salvation. A white van with heavy chains clanking hard on the road was coming right at me.
Given how I looked, I thought there was no way they were going to give some crazy-looking mountain man a ride. I thought about lying down in the middle of the road, but quickly reconsidered. I put out my thumb.
The van stopped. The driver, a man bundled up, pushed the door open from the inside and offered me a ride. I pulled myself in and thanked him.
It turned out that he worked for the town and was picking up employees who were out drinking late at night. Where, I had no idea, because the place looked deserted.
He dropped me at the nearest hotel. The desk clerk didn’t seem all that shocked at my appearance. I checked in and went to my room.
I unrolled my pack and spread out the contents to allow the warm air to dry them. I went into the bathroom and ran my hands under lukewarm water. When I looked in the mirror, I realized my face had some minor frostbite on my cheeks and nose, but I would be okay. I took a warm bath, dried myself, and then crawled into bed. I fell asleep immediately. What happened next was majestic.