How To Survive in the Wild Part 1

Listen to this episode

S1: I said to Doug very calmly, Doug, there’s a bear right behind you, and I said it so calmly that he just ignored me. And and then I said it again and he finally looked up and there really was a polar bear pretty much right over his shoulder.

S2: Welcome to How to. I’m David Epstein. Ever wondered how you’d fare out in the wild for a few days? You know how to use a compass if there’s no cell service. Right. And you know which red berries not to eat or what if things got really extreme, could you stay sane by befriending Wilson, the volleyball, if you got stuck on a desert island like Tom Hanks in Castaway? Well, that was. There’s something undeniably attractive about survival stories. It’s classic man versus nature, humans surmounting danger by dint of sheer stubbornness and pluck. But those who actually make a living, surviving in the wild, they know that the real key, it’s not putting yourself in bad situations to begin with.

Advertisement

S3: If you ever feel like you’re going to die, you’re probably in the wrong place.

S2: This is Kyle Dickman today, he’s a writer for Outside Magazine. But when he was 19, he was a firefighter, specifically a hotshot.

S3: You can kind of think of him as like the elite infantry in the firefighting war, which is really what it is. So on the way to fires, we always listen to, like, Rage Against the Machine. There’s somewhere on the order of one hundred and twenty different hotshot crews and they’re all stationed in different parts of the country. So any time a fire pops up, their job is to sort of walk around the mountains with hand tools. And they’re they’re like extremely good gardeners, gardeners.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S2: Right. Like if their thumb happened not only to be green, but also possibly on fire. Hot Shots, along with smoke jumpers who parachute in work on the most dangerous wildfires, hiking up mountains and down canyons with chainsaws and shovels. They’re ready to dig trenches and clear material to slow down the fire’s spread.

S3: The one instance that I can think of where I was really nervous was we had flown into this ridge top in in the California’s Triniti Mountains and we had Cutline from the top of these mountains. Shortly after we finished building this line, something happened. The fire jumped that canyon and it started to run really hard up in our line. And this was, you know, it must have been nine or ten o’clock at night in the summer. And just like beautiful, like orange, weird, haunting glow. There’s like 30, 40 foot flames just tearing up this mountain. And I just remember, like, sort of watching these, like, swarms of embers land around us and being like one of those takes, we have nowhere to go.

Advertisement

S2: Kyle and his crew hightailed it out of there hiking most of the night to escape the fire zone. The next morning, they found that their camp and the equipment they left there was totally torched. And that wasn’t the only time Kyle’s faced mortal danger. But it wasn’t until a chance encounter on a comparatively tame hike with his family that Kyle believed his luck had finally run out. On today’s episode, the first in a two part series on how to survive in the wild, we’ll hear how a rattlesnake attack made Kyle think differently about taking risks. Then we’ll journey from the desert to the mountains to hear from Jill Fridson, who knows how to survive avalanches and the largest carnivore on land.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: We had been told that there would be a polar bear behind every rock and we saw nine bears and three of them were on one day.

S2: Even if you’re not staring down snakes or polar bears, Kyle and Jill, stories have something to teach all of us about risk luck and how to coexist with nature. Stay with us. In February of twenty seventeen, Kyle and his wife were at home in New Mexico caring for their six week old son, Bridger, when Kyle had an idea.

S3: I was like, honey, let’s let’s do something crazy. We have time off of work. We have a new son. Let’s go have an adventure, which in hindsight was just dumb as bricks.

Advertisement

S2: They ended up meeting Kyle’s family at Yosemite National Park

S3: the morning after we arrived. We get up and go for this little hike in like big blooming wildflowers. And it’s beautiful. And there’s waterfalls everywhere. We get to this bridge and Bridger gets hungry. So she stops to nurse him. And I go stand on this rock bridge. It’s over this creek that’s like ripping down a mountainside. And I’m like peering over the waterfall like, oh, wow, is a waterfall. And I feel sort of like when you’re going for a hike and you step on a stick and the stick comes up and whacks you in the shin and you’re like, oh, that was weird. And so I looked down and well, it turns out that stick was like coiled and had a diamondback pattern on it. And I was like, oh, that’s not great. And so and so, you know, like, I jumped back and started frolicking and going, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck. It was like screaming. And my mom and my dad are there, my brother and his wife. It’s like a family. It’s like a family affair. Right. And I was like, I got bit by a rattlesnake. I would get bit by a rattlesnake. But so my dad grabs me and my mom and dad used to be in search and rescue. That’s fortunate. It is. Except it also is in. My mom also happened to be an E.R. nurse. So these are all important things that ultimately don’t make any difference whatsoever, because when you get bit by a rattlesnake, there’s only one way to get better, and that’s to get antivenom, which we didn’t have. And I don’t think anybody in our family had any sort of idea what it means to get bit by a rattlesnake. You know, and where I got it was right on my ankle, very close to a vein, and I got bit by a big snake. And so I got a lot of venom.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S2: Within two minutes of getting beat, Kyle was unconscious and the venom was coursing through his body.

S3: And my leg just kept getting bigger and bigger. And then at the same time, there was a bunch of stuff that was sort of rushing up into my head and there was stuff that was making my like my asshole twitch. And so I was like shitting all over the place. And then I was like vomiting all over the place. And so it was just a real it was an ugly, ugly scene,

S2: exquisitely tailored poison to affect every system you got. It sounds like a lot of stuff.

S3: Yeah, no, it’s brilliant.

S2: Did you regain consciousness.

Advertisement

S3: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. And then I remember turning to my wife and telling her to get Bridger out of there, like I was like if I’m going to die, I don’t really need them to watch this. I don’t know that anybody really was like, oh, Kyle is going to die. But like I was like, well, maybe I’ll die. I just remember thinking, like looking up and being like, I heard the helicopter, you know, a helicopter pass overhead. And I was like, oh, Ray, it’s all going to end. And that wasn’t my helicopter, you know. Oh, jeez, I’d never been so impatient for help.

S2: By the time the rescue team arrived, Kayode managed to acquire yet another life threatening injury.

Advertisement

S3: I told the paramedic because I got stung by a bee and I’m allergic.

S2: You got stung by a bee in the middle of this.

S3: It was one the best. And he was

S2: like, he’s like, you know what, man? Today might just be your time.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S3: He’s like, Cyberia, it’s right. Off you go.

S2: Kyle was eventually whisked off to the hospital where he received the antivenom and spent eight days recovering. So one reason I’m totally fascinated by this is because I sort of think of it as like a possible alternate fate. I could have suffered myself like back when I was in college. I was a college runner and I lived in this remote part of Arizona for a little while. And I used to run a lot out in the desert where there were rattlesnakes and a train out there. And I’d see these Western Diamondbacks, you know, and I would just like step somewhere in here with a rattle like a machine gun and see a head pop out of the

Advertisement

S3: brush and

S2: really, you know, get your heart going. And I was told basically I should bring this whistle with me when I went running, you know, and if something happens, like blow this whistle and I’m like, I’m eight miles away in the middle of the Sonoran Desert, I’m going to blow a whistle, dear. You know, I didn’t have a cell phone at the time. And so I’m sort of curious, had I been, you know, had those snakes not taken pity on me or whatever it was, is there anything I could have done like that I cut my leg off or suck the venom out or what? Is there anything?

Advertisement

S3: I don’t cut it. Don’t try to suck the venom out. Neither one of those things do anything. Snake bite cats are useless.

S2: Oh, really?

S3: OK, yeah. You got to get to antivenom. That’s all you can do. I mean, this is true for most severe injuries in the wilderness. The only thing you can do is get out of there.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S2: Here’s our first rule for surviving in the wild, don’t go it alone. First aid kits aren’t going to save you. And listen, cowboy, cutting off your snakebit leg, it won’t even work. You need the antivenom and you don’t own any. So do your exploring with other people. And if you can’t at least tell someone where you’re going and bring a phone and downloaded GPS app that can deliver an S.O.S. if you get into trouble. What about in terms of avoiding getting bit by rattlesnake in the first place?

S3: Probably your best hope is just to be aware of, like, snake behavior. So like, snakes are most active when it’s 70 degrees. So if it’s warmer than 70 degrees, they’re most likely in the shade. If it’s cooler than 70 degrees, they’re most likely in the sun. Most of biodiversity lives within like one hundred or two hundred feet of creeks. So when you’re stepping over a log, like check on the other side of the log before you put your foot down,

S2: did getting bit by a rattlesnake make you think of sort of fear differently in any way?

S3: I mean, definitely threw me for a loop. So, like, I couldn’t really walk in the woods without every stick rattling or slithering or get out.

S2: Yeah, I think in a piece you wrote for Outside magazine, you said that fear was no longer thrilling, just scary and everywhere. And then you wrote that you’d actually dream that your life was falling and so you’d reach out to catch her in your sleep.

S3: You had a soft spot there. I don’t know why you have to do that. I mean, sure. Like, I think one of the great things about people is that we’re able to get over that stuff. I have two kids now and we take them hiking all the time or skiing or mountain biking. But I don’t think I have the same drive to push as hard as I as hard as I used to. But is that a product of the fact that I get bit by a rattlesnake or the byproduct product of the fact that I’m a dad or that I’m like thirty seven now and, you know, like, I just I don’t really have the same sort of angst that I did when I was younger.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S2: It’s not like it was any excessive risk taking activities. It sounds like when you had your closest brush with death.

S3: Yeah, that’s funny. Like I went for like a lovely wildflower hike in the woods and then that’s the closest I’ve ever come to death is like a hike with my family. Yeah. Like you just don’t know. But I mean, I also like for me that’s that’s that’s like a terrible reason to not do things that interest you.

S2: But as our next guest knows, people are sometimes all too willing to get themselves caught in sticky and snowy situations that they know are much more dangerous than a family hike. When we come back, we’ll travel to the Arctic bundle up. When Jill Freston was growing up in suburban New York, she was fascinated by anything frozen. She literally got her master’s degree in snow and ice. She moved to Alaska and landed a job running the Alaska Avalanche Forecast Center

S1: that was proposed that I’d be put in charge because I knew something about snow. But the only problem was I really had never even seen an avalanche

S2: at the time. Jill was twenty four years old and she didn’t expect how this opportunity would snowball.

S1: So I went to the states reigning avalanche authority and he was a big bearded guy who looked a little bit like Moses. And he sat back in his chair and he said, Well, if you want to learn about avalanches, what you have to do is you have to go into the den of the Dragons. You have to go to the mountains when everybody else is leaving and you have to climb up the ridge. And it’s probably going to be snowing so hard that your eyes are going to freeze shut. But that doesn’t matter, because if you do that five, 10, 15, 20 years, maybe, just maybe you’ll learn something. And I was such a nerd that I kind of wrote everything down and I went and started doing that. And over the next few years, we did a very strange dance where he went from, probably the biggest skeptic I’ve ever had in my life, to mentor, to partner, to husband. Oh, wow.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S2: OK, so this was a very fruitful partnership.

S1: Yeah. So I wanted to have been a big part of our partnership, really. I mean it’s kind of funny because I spent all this time focused on the union of circumstances that make avalanches possible, you know, snow terrain and weather and got completely blindsided by this opposite circumstances that ended up having us married for three decades now.

S2: For many years, Jill and her husband, Doug, worked in Anchorage training people how to avoid avalanches. There are a lot of different ways avalanches occur, but it usually involves some combination of a steep slope a week later in the snow cover and then a trigger.

S1: In avalanched classes, I would try to trigger avalanches because there’s no better way to learn, and if you pick a small slope and you use a bunch of student bodies, it’s quite fun to make small slopes avalanche in the bigger realm. We would use explosives.

S2: What was not so fun, the way most rescue missions actually played out.

S1: It’s not so much about saving people, because if if a call is going out for help, it’s pretty much a body recovery. I have in all my missions, I think I’ve done more than 40 people dead out of avalanches. I’m not sure of the number. And I have done one life recovery of someone completely buried in an avalanche.

S2: Well, can you tell us about that? That one?

S1: It was in Cordova, Alaska, which is a fishing port about one hundred and ten miles from Anchorage. And by the time I got there, they had found one woman dead. She had been sitting in her La-Z-Boy recliner, still holding the remote control for the television set when they dug her out and the search was going on for the second man, the other person who’d been living in that same house. And it’s a mess. I mean, there’s bits of house everywhere. There had been a number of houses completely destroyed and parts of them carried a half mile out onto a lake. All we could do really was digging with heavy equipment and then shutting the equipment down every 15 minutes or so and shouting and listening. And normally, I would say that doesn’t work. And I got there at about our four and about hour six. I was thinking of just trying to shut things down for the night. And just about when I was going to pull the person aside to start that, we heard a shout and we dug like crazy and we found first a blue door that was on top of this person, which is probably what protected him. And as we dug him out, he actually stopped breathing and was not breathing when we put him in the ambulance. So we had had this enormous effort to get him out. And then we just sat down completely shattered that we had not done it in time. And they revived in the ambulance. And he’s alive today.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S2: Wow, that’s incredible. And was there any logic to why he survived something about him or about where he was? Or was this just total pure luck?

S1: I think in his case, it was luck. He was in his utility room and he was just heading out the door when the avalanche hit and kind of blew him back in. And we found him in an airspace that essentially had been created by the door that had been blown off and the airspace of the furnace.

S2: Oh, wow. So he had a little pocket.

S1: One of the things you’re supposed to do if you’re a backcountry traveler who’s caught in an avalanche is wrap your arm around your face trying to create an air space. But, you know, talking about what you should do if you’re caught in an avalanche is a little bit like me telling you to go. Climb in your dryer and do all this stuff.

S2: Jill says, in theory, there are some ways to prepare yourself for an avalanche. Have the right equipment, bring a partner who always has their eyes on you. And if you do get caught, let go of all that equipment so that you stay as close to the surface of the snow as you can and then thrust a hand or a boot upward so that a rescue team can spot you and don’t panic so that you slow down your breathing and use oxygen at a slower rate. But that’s all in theory.

S1: The whole key to surviving an avalanche is not to get caught. Every accident I’ve seen has had a number of clues pointing to the instability. So you really don’t have to get to this point. Most people who are completely buried, there’s less than a 50 percent chance of survival within about 25 minutes and within 45 minutes, three quarters of all victims are dead. We’re allowing these accidents to happen because of human factors, were not making our decisions in the mountains based on the mountains terms. We’re pushing it on with our assumptions. Does the mountain care that you’re such a good skier? Not at all. Does the mountain care that it just got two feet of load on top of a weak layer? You bet. So what we often find is that. Even if people recognize those red light conditions, they’re still allowing their their wants and their needs to get them into trouble.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S2: So here’s our first rule from Jill. Forget your own perspective, just because you ski that slope a hundred times and you see other tracks from other people and this is the last run of the day, doesn’t mean that you’re any safer. Does the mountain care about any of that stuff? No, it doesn’t. After almost 30 years of seeing the same accident happen over and over, Jill and her husband had had enough.

S1: So we just burned out on digging out people dead out of avalanches and giving the same explanation to families over and over again. So we decided that we would sail away to Baja and experience our first ever winter without snow. And by the time we came back, people would forget about us and we did that. But we had such a good time that we ended up not coming back for seven years.

S2: They sailed down through Central and South America, then up the Atlantic coast and the Canadian North before returning to Alaska. Jill and her husband have now rowed over 25000 miles.

S1: And it’s interesting because as we’ve become more comfortable with Hazard, you know, I’m not uncomfortable rowing in big waves and I’m not uncomfortable standing on very steep snow covered slopes. We realized that it was going to take a much smaller mistake for us to get into trouble. So we’ve made a pretty conscious effort to step back from that line. We don’t we don’t push ourselves to the full range of our skills so that we we’re trying to allow a greater margin for error, because to some extent, if you do something for 10 or 20 or 30 years, you’re up against the the law of probability.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S2: Hmm. That’s interesting that you said, you know, you set your kind of constraints that you were going to work with ahead of time and then you stick to those as opposed to sort of playing them by ear.

S1: Yes. What we have tried to do is, is to put into place a pretty good set of habits. If I’m talking about rowing, we always have each other in sight. Even if we have just had a ripping argument and we can’t stand each other, we stay within shouting distance of each other. We also have to have a pact between us that we go with the more conservative judgment. Risk is a funny thing because it it stems from an Italian word, meaning to dare and and that implies both opportunity and choice. But if we take on these risks and we treat them like games of chance, then we’re just keeping our fate. And we’re a very fickle society when it comes to risk because we celebrate it when it succeeds and we denigrate it when it doesn’t. Like all those people were being so reckless and we’re all taking risks. One of the key is to understand the risk that you’re taking. You have to start out with what’s your purpose? Why are you there? You know, if you’re there because you want to climb impossible, no matter what, then you’re going to accept a higher level of risk. If you’re there to just have a good time and come back another day, you’re accepting a lower level of risk.

S2: Here’s our next rule. Know what you’re getting yourself into and then set appropriate guardrails. But Jill says this can be hard to understand, especially when we’re so biased by seeing those who’ve come before us.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: This happens all the time in the mountains, somebody might decide not to ski a slope and then somebody else skis it, there’s tracks on it now and then all of a sudden there’s 10 sets of tracks because people have decided there’s tracks. So it’s safe. And from NASA’s perspective, it doesn’t really matter that there’s 10 tracks on the slope. And we’ve often seen, you know, it might be that 11th person that comes along and triggers the slope.

S2: So remember, just because you or someone else has done this risky thing safely before, that doesn’t mean the mountain cares enough to let you do it safely. Again, this survivorship bias, it can lead us to false conclusions that can be catastrophic.

S1: I mean, one of the reasons I hated being called an avalanche expert is that the avalanches don’t know you’re an expert and the fact that you’ve done something for 10 or 20 or 30 years doesn’t mean that you can’t make an error in judgment.

S2: Despite decades of risk assessment, one of Dylan Dugs most harrowing situations actually occurred on a normal morning or normal. If you’re Dylan, Doug, the two of them and a friend were hiking the frozen tundra of Svalbard, a remote group of islands between Norway and the North Pole.

S1: The government of Svalbard requires that you carry a shotgun. So we, the three of us were sharing a tent and we had three shotguns in the tent. And I thought that the greatest hazard was that we were going to shoot each other’s feet off. But we woke up in the morning and Doug was already outside. He’d heated up water on a camp stove and was washing his hair. And I look behind him and there was a polar bear, just one jump above him, just on a rock right above him. And Doug had his head down and he had, you know, shampoo in his hair and was paying no attention.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S2: Normally, if you shout and wave your arms, you can scare off most polar bears. But as Doug would later joke, this appeared to be a teenage polar bear.

S1: You know, it sort of had a little bit of an attitude. It wasn’t very afraid of us and it didn’t back off, which was really the first time that I started to get a little bit scared and I did not have my gun. It was in the tent. I couldn’t really back up to the tent without without increasing the danger to Doug. John was still in the tent, our friend John, and he came out with his gun and and he ended up firing a cracker shell, which is like a combination flare and firecracker, which is a hard judgment call because it would only have taken less than a quarter second for that bear to be on. Doug, so do you fire another cracker shell or do you actually shoot at the bear? And we were very reluctant to shoot at bear is because we feel like we’re in their territory. And he made the right call. He made it. He shot a third cracker shell on the bear, ran off and we got out of there. But, you know, he made the right call with the third cracker shell. If the bear had jumped on Doug, he would have made the wrong call.

S2: Wow, that’s incredible.

S1: I mean, it’s funny because people see us as risk takers because of the journeys that we’ve done. And we when we say no, we don’t perceive ourselves as risk takers, they just laugh. There’s a certain amount of risk that just comes with being in those places. But given that, then we spend most of our time really trying to minimize those risks.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S2: Here’s our final rule, when you’re in nature, a good goal is to come out alive so you can explore another day. So instead of focusing on tips and tricks that might, in theory help you survive, turn your attention toward understanding and minimizing those risks in the first place. A big part of that is waiting for the right timing to avoid bad weather or other unsafe conditions, which sometimes means sitting in a tent for days. So Jill says make sure to bring a few extra books, but choose carefully

S1: when we’re in the Arctic, we’re reading all of these stories by Arctic explorers. But when you are stuck in the ice and your food is starting to run low and you’re reading about some guy that’s eating his shoes, it’s really not the best reading. It’s better to have a book about Hawaii.

S2: He had to. Would you say that you and Doug, in terms of your sort of adventure seeking? Have you changed over the years?

S1: Well, I’d say we’ve become a lot more boring. We we used to come back with a lot more stories about, you know, the polar bear that came right into camp or these huge waves. And now we’re

S2: we’re a little bit

S1: smarter about where we up. So we don’t have a lot of really exciting stories anymore. But most of the time we can still accomplish that goal. We just do it on nature’s timing and not on ours.

S2: Thank you to Jill Freston for all her fascinating advice, look for her books Growing to Lattitude and Snowsports, and also thank you to our hot shot rattlesnake survivor, Kyle Dickman. Be sure to look for his book On the Burning Edge and prepare yourself for next week’s episode on what to do when you’re lost at sea.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S3: Yeah, this story is so

S4: remarkable that honestly, David, I. I didn’t believe it for a long time because two fishermen leave Mexico and they go out for the weekend and they’re going to catch sharks. You got a tiny boat in a storm, hits them and destroys their motor and they start drifting west and west and west and then 14 months later, show up near Australia. One alive, one dead.

S2: What happened on that tiny boat? Tune in next week for part two of our series on how to survive in the wild. Do you have a question about how to do something risky? Send us a note at how to its late dotcom or leave us a voicemail at six four six four nine five four zero zero one. And if you like what you heard today, please leave a rating in a review that helps us find more listeners and helps us help them survive their problems. How TOS executive producer is Derek John, Rachel Allen and Rosemarie Bellson produced the show. Our theme music is by Hannis Brown, remixed by Merritt Jacob. Our technical director Charles Duhigg, our host emeritus, is probably surfing 10 foot waves. I’m David Epstein. See you next time.