Deep in the library of survival lore, astonishing tales tell of mankind’s will to live overcoming the most horrific odds imaginable. Time and time again, human beings endure the unthinkable in situations where food is scarce, fire is little more than a dream, and temperatures are so relentlessly cold they can snap even the strongest souls like a freeze-dried twig. Trying to stay alive, especially high in the hills in the middle of winter, can become an unbearable ordeal few ever live to tell about. But some do, somehow.
by Todd Lawson
Take, for instance, Australian mountaineer Lincoln Hall – after summiting Everest on May 25, 2006, Hall’s journey took a serious turn for the worse minutes into the descent. At 28,000 feet he simply stopped moving as altitude sickness began seeping into his brain. Hall apparently turned to one of the sherpas in his team and simply said, “I need to lie down – I need to sleep.” Twelve hours later, left for dead by a team unable to convince him to move, Hall was found in the very same spot, shockingly, very much alive.
Daniel Mazur, another Everest climber, spotted Hall on his way to the summit and later recalled the scene to the press: “Sitting to our left, about two feet from a 10,000 foot drop, was a man. Not dead, not sleeping, but sitting cross-legged in the process of changing his shirt. He had his down suit unzipped to the waist, his arms out of the sleeves, was wearing no hat, no gloves, no sunglasses, no oxygen mask or regulator, no sleeping bag, no food nor water bottle.”
“Here was a gentleman, apparently lucid, who had spent the night without oxygen at 8600m without proper equipment and barely clothed. And alive.”
Mazur recounts that Hall looked up and said, “I imagine you’re surprised to see me here.” A shocking statement coming from a near-dead man. Mazur says, “Here was a gentleman, apparently lucid, who had spent the night without oxygen at 8600m without proper equipment and barely clothed. And alive.”
How Hall managed to stay alive in the death zone with so little might be a mystery, but the possibility of surviving a night, or even an extended End-of-the-World Apocalypse, in the mountains can be a reality.
“As long as you’ve got good food, and good powder, you should be able to stick it out until spring,” says Whistler mountain guide Brian Jones, half-joking. As owner of Canada West Mountain School, Jones has guided clients on all seven summits, lost count of the number of peaks he’s climbed, and had his fair share of scary winter survival experiences. He believes surviving a winter in the hills can be done, provided you’ve got your head screwed on straight.
“Survival isn’t physical or about being the strongest,” Jones says. “Survival is a mental game. Humans have been doing it forever and it all comes back to this: if you dig deep within, you can do it. We come from a species that is incredibly adaptable. If you keep telling yourself, ‘I can do this,’ and never give up, you have a good chance of actually doing it.”
“Don’t get too excited however – you can’t just wing it in the wilderness. Mother Nature’s wicked Coast Mountain landscape has claimed many a wayward skier, injured mountaineer and lost tourist.”
Don’t get too excited however – you can’t just wing it in the wilderness. Mother Nature’s wicked Coast Mountain landscape has claimed many a wayward skier, injured mountaineer and lost tourist. As Louis Pasteur once said, “Chance favours the well-prepared mind.” So if you pack smart and are willing to learn (and practice) some wilderness survival techniques, the mountains can provide a safe haven to live out the rest of your days with as much untracked pow as you can handle. The first lesson is to save the turns for the alpine and head to the trees for the nighttime surviving – you most definitely don’t want to have a Lincoln Hall-like overnight epic in the high alpine.
“The lower you go, the better off you’re going to be because that’s where all of the animals and food will be,” says Jones, who once endured a raging five–day storm, foodless and with little water at 8500 feet in the Waddington Range. “If you’re not prepared with the proper equipment or don’t have a food cache, you’re definitely looking at true survival. If you’re really desperate you can catch Whiskey Jacks. Squirrels and rabbits are quite difficult to hunt down but if you really need to eat, you’re going to find a way to make a snare and catch that rabbit. Hunting and foraging for food is going to be the biggest challenge for sure.”
In the end, winter survival mostly comes down to the basics – food, water, shelter. So if the zombies come at you, or the plague or whatever, there may be a future if you head for the hills. Just remember to walk before you start to run.
“Living off the land is a lot harder than it seems,” says Jones. “If you truly think this is a long-term situation, the key thing is to focus on one day at a time, one hour at a time, one step at a time.”
And hopefully one turn at a time. It’s the Apocalypse Pow, ride on.