Stranded In The Southland

Friday, January 26, 2007

Deep Survival, Not So Much

My friend N., knowing my interest in outdoor survival, lent me Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why. N. seems like a quiet biology professor -- "Wanna see my new guinea pig?" -- but she's actually much more hardcore than I could ever dream. She's spent months and months in both the Arctic and Antartica, with all sorts of wild stories. "Oh, yeah, I just gave that bear a warning shot with the .30-06 and it took off..."

In any case, Deep Survival looked promising, despite N.'s warning to me about the clunky prose (and that she'd kinda stopped reading it). Laurence Gonzales had apparently spent his life (in between writing gigs for various outdoor magazines) figuring out what separates the survivors from the non-survivors. He reviewed countless neuro-biology texts, accident statistics textbooks, and was going to summarize it all with a few anecdotes from his life, and a few stories of other folk's survival (or lack thereof).

Alas, it didn't turn out quite as I (or perhaps Gonzales) hoped. While Gonzales does an amazing job of dragging out quotes from everything from Herotidus to All Quiet on the Western Front to modern psychology texts, I'm not sure how well he really absorbed everything. He tells us that the sapiens in Home sapiens is derived from the Latin sapere, to taste. Most references mention the alternate definition, to know. I imagine that, as a species, we're a bit more about knowing than tasting.

When he talks about climbers falling and reaching a velocity of 30mph, "the equivalent of the speed you'd attain by jumping from an eight-story building." Do the math -- d = 1/2at^2, v=at, etc. -- and you'd see that 30mph is the speed you'd get from falling 40 feet, the distance the climber fell.

That's all nitpicking, and I know it is, but if the author screws up the easy stuff that jumps out at me, how is he murdering the ever-so-much-more complex concepts that's he's trying to convey about survival? I'd feel more comfortable if he wasn't constantly quoting from all these texts, but it gives you the feeling he hasn't internalized the lessons, but is just kind of combining all his references, like a sloppy high-school student doing a "research" paper.

His thesis is reasonable -- that your ability to stay calm and react and not freak out is more important than training and equipment and all the rest. Then he tells an anecdote about a skier stuck out in -20 degree weather in a light warmup coat, who freezes both his feet, and still manages to survive by toughing it out and striving continuously to make it. Make sense, right?

Then it turns out that the guy was a former Marine aviator, all of whom (although Gonzales doesn't mention it) go through hard core (as in, eating snakes and bugs out in the woods for weeks) survival training. These kinds of stories occur again and again; it almost seems like the author is suggesting that either you have it or you don't, and if you don't, there's not much you can do but die. And then it turns out that the survivors in the story had great preparation and/or equipment.

The whole book is full of this, right up to the last chapter, which almost salvages the whole experience. He brings it all together in that last chapter, and really makes his point that developing a calm attitude and not freaking out is pretty important all the way around, and that you can actually do some work to further develop that attitude. He even mentions that it's a good idea to take classes and learn what the heck you're doing.

Over all, there were some useful lessons to be learned from the book, but I wonder if folks wouldn't have been better served with a book of some actual survival tips, interspersed with some thoughts about attitude. I'm sure attitude is everything, but I know that my attitude is a whole lot better when I've got my ten essentials and I know that I've left word about where I'm hiking, and I've got some idea what I'm doing. The whole thesis of the book seems a little far-fetched.

Eh, it's always good to be reading about this stuff and thinking about this stuff.