DEEP SURVIVAL Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why

Review by IWTC

DEEP SURVIVAL was published in 2004 but offers such a wealth of useful information that applies to travel that we had to review it.  For starters, the author, Laurence Gonzales, researched and wrote this book because his father was a combat pilot in WWII that crashed, was taken prisoner and managed to survive.  The author wondered what it was that allowed his father to make it home when so many in his situation would not.  Gonzales studies firefighters, pilots and others in high-risk jobs as well as analyzes what went wrong in various disaster scenarios.

Gonzales starts off by noting that in a crisis, 90% of people freeze up or panic while 10% remain calm and focused and live.  He studied people in high hazard professions to figure out what they had in common.  One surprising discovery is that humor (even dark humor) really helps.  In fact, the reason why people like firefighters come up with atrocious dark humor is because when we are in danger, we become quite frightened and tend to start operating off the amygdala, which is the lizard part of the brain that we first started off as a species.    It doesn’t do much besides telling us to do things like freeze or run for it.  Meanwhile, we have a great deal of training and other talents that are not located in this part of the brain.  When we tell jokes, we don’t freeze up or we unfreeze enough to access what we know.  So, a fighter pilot who is training to land on an aircraft carrier (trickier than it sounds) jokes about crashing but that allows her to access all the training information and knowledge she has as a pilot to safely land.    So if you’re travelling and beginning to feel you’ve run into something bad, crack a dark joke so you can calm down and think.

But let’s skip on to what works best for travel, which is avoiding crisis to begin with.  The book also shows the reader how to avoid arriving at utter panic, which means avoiding disaster.  For example, if you’re lost, he strongly recommends not bending the map.  Say you’re on a wilderness adventure and you come around the bend expecting to find a lake, because that’s what’s on your map.  But there’s no lake. It’s getting late, you’re tired and you want to set up camp.  Do not ‘bend the map’ by thinking if you just go a little further you will find the lake.  If you’ve read your map once more and determined there should be a lake then there’s been an error and you backtrack.  Backtracking is something none of us wants to do but it’s better than getting more thoroughly lost.  Usually, you get to a point where the map makes sense with what you’re seeing and you’re good.  He also recommends that if you’re upset because you’re lost or something is not going according to plan, take a moment to get a drink of water and a snack so that you can rest and think over your best option.  Taking that moment of normalcy can mean you plan your next move in a way that saves you more trouble.

One of our favorite parts of the book has to do with asking questions and accepting help.  He talks about a trip to Hawaii where he could see the waves from his plane and couldn’t wait to go swimming.  He changed to his swimsuit and ran down to the beach but before he jumped in, he had the instinct to ask the lifeguard where the best place to swim was.  The lifeguard surprised him by considering seriously and pointing out the spot and explain why.  It turned out that some of the most inviting areas had problems like riptides, undertows and so on.  He discovered that many tourists drown each year because they don’t ask and of course, they don’t know since they’re unfamiliar with the hazards where they are vacationing.  He also noted that when he spoke with the Hawaiian forest rangers about their lovely tropical forests, that tourists go missing regularly because they hike off trail. One problem with that is it’s very easy to get lost and never be found and the other is that their plant grown is often only loosely moored in a light layer of soil and rock that extends past cliffs.  Which means hikers step right through it and go straight down hundreds of feet to the ocean.  For reasons like this, he strongly suggests researching your trip in advance, talking with people who understand your area and preferred activities when you get there or hire a guide, in some instances.

Also of interest is Gonzales’s exploration of the intersection of ignorance and arrogance.  He mentions a whitewater trip that went wrong because a Special Forces passenger ignored the instructions from the guides as to what to do if you’re thrown out of the boat.  He had a great deal of training surviving in unusual environments so he wanted to figure it out.  He was sure he could.  So despite the guides telling everyone to keep their feet pointed down stream and to keep an eye out for ropes thrown to them from the boat to get them back in, he did the opposite.  Laughing, he ignored the ropes and pointing his head downstream.  Which meant he hit his head on a rock and drowned.   Gonzales is in favor of accepting the knowledge of people who know the area and activity no matter how adept you are in other situations.

Gonzales invites us to consider that sometimes when we just do things on impulse (such as on vacation) it’s like we’re hitting an icon on our computer.  That sets off a program based on what usually works.  His example was of a rescue party on snowmobile who were supposed to be waiting for some information so they could rescue people in an earlier avalanche.  Some of them triggered an avalanche of their own and that killed a number of their party because, as one of them explained later:  “the snow was so inviting so we just found ourselves going up a steep slope.”  So the icon for them was that snowy slopes are fun to snowmobile on.  Quite true, but they didn’t analyze the information that the slope was too steep and the conditions were prime for avalanches or they wouldn’t be out there to begin with.  The moral of the story, for us, was that if you know some things are highly tempting to you, the when you’re out travelling have some instinct for that when considering your next move. It might cause you to slow down and think instead of throwing yourself into a lethal activity.

This is a great book, well worth reading cover to cover as a traveler or just out of general curiosity.  For the traveler, his advice boils down to a certain amount of reconnaissance before you head out on your trip, gathering more information from knowledgeable people while you are there and having some level of caution in the face of the unfamiliar.

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