Book Review; Deep Survival By Lawrence Gonzales

I found Deep Survival to be a riveting read.   Its given me a lot to think about, and I devoured it almost in its entirety over the last two hours of my flight from RDU to SLC on my way to Telluride, CO.  I have this desire to digest it some, and thought a short blog post would be the way for me to do just that.

Image result for deep survival by laurence gonzales

Laurence Gonzales, the book’s author, is a contributing editor for National Geographic Adventure Magazine, has written for Harper’s and Conde Nast Traveler among other publications.  He is a pilot, a climber, and an overall seeker of adventure.

His story begins with his Father’s nearly improbable survival during WWII when his B-17 was hit and his parachute didn’t open.  After falling 5 miles out of the sky, a soldiers gun misfired, and instead of being shot upon landing, spent time in a Nazi concentration camp…. and survived it all!

Gonzales grew  up entertained by his Father’s tales of adventure and survival, which shaped him as an adult and eventually led him to explore who survives and why.

The book is broken into two chapters; “How Accidents Happen,” and “Survival.”

He relays his findings through several stories full of both survivors, and those who did not.  From failed plane landings, to climbers struck by lightening, people stranded out at sea, and hikers lost in the woods.

A few of his ideas stand out to me.  Many of these tragic adventures follow a pattern.  We our minds create the world we live, in a way.  Its like when you ask a child to draw a girl.  Many children will draw an image of a “girl” that their brain has created, rather than an actual person.  Maybe the child draws a ponytail, a dress, long hair, its a version of a girl that their brains make up-just a standard go-to image, rather than really seeing a girl and drawing what’s actually there.  We also tend to create standard-go to- adventures from past experiences.  Maybe we hiked that mountain last summer and the weather was beautiful, so we strike out on a hike expecting the same to be true, or maybe we sort of check the weather but see that there is just a small chance of storms, pushing it aside for our previous mental image.  Then as we get up to the top of a mountain an electrical storm strikes… that’s one way that accidents happen.

Another is overconfidence, he writes that often its the newbie of the group that survives over the hardened adventurer whose hubris leads them to be underprepared.

I know I have fallen into that in the past.  Growing up we used to travel to the White Mountains in NH every summer.  My dad and I would hike Mt Washington, and usually my mom and younger sisters would drive to the top and meet us up there.  We always checked the weather, and my dad would carry extra jackets and food etc, but as the child I never really thought about the planning.  On stormy years we would skip the hike, so in my memory I could only recall any number of times hiking up in beautiful weather.  My experience never really having bad weather (because we prepared) Mt Washington was just a long fun hike that we would go up, and as I got older would race each other down.  There is a wall, a memorial to all the lost souls up there on the mountain, both recovered and never seen again.  I never gave it much thought as a kid-it was always sunny, maybe windy so those people must have gone off trail, or in the winter during a storm.

Fast forward to my senior year of high school.  A friend of mine had relatives that lived about 30 min from Mt Washington so we decided to drive up one weekend and hike and hang out.  It was close to 100 degrees out and we spent the first day swimming in a lake.  We slept in the second day after staying up way too late, saw the weather outside was in the 90s again and headed to Mt Washington…. in our cotton t shirts and shorts.  Had we actually checked the weather report we would have known that there were storms that afternoon, and we were hiking right into them.  With no jackets, no extra food, no plan we hit a freezing cold hail storm just as we got above treeline.  Being stubborn 18 year olds with no concept of our own mortality we pushed on, past hikers bundled up in their waterproof and puffy jackets. Fortunately at the top there is a building with a cafeteria and a gift shop.  We didn’t have enough money to take the tram back down, we were frozen and hungry, trying to warm our numb hands under the hand dryer.  This was before the advent of cell phones, so we decided there was only one plan of action…. to run back down to stay warm.  Fortunately the storm passed and the hail and clouds moved on, but needless to say… we could have ended up on that memorial wall…

It goes on to talk about the personalities of survivors.  There are a handful of traits, and these aren’t all of them;

  1. Keeping your head about you.  Many people panic and give into the feeling they need to do anything it takes to- get off the mountain, get out of the woods, get off the life boat.  Needless to say with out a plan or keeping a somewhat level head you can burn out all your energy before you even figure out what to do.  Our basic instinct is to do what our brains tell us will make this uncomfortable situation end asap.
  2. Not freezing up.  Deer in headlights die for a reason.  If you can’t move away from danger; well being in the way of an avalanche is not something many can come back from.
  3. Living in the moment.  If you are in a survival situation people who accept it and start taking the necessary steps to survive in their new reality fare better.  Think Tom Hanks in Castaway.   When he accepts the situation and starts building a place to live and starts fishing, his chances of survival went up.  People who realize that they might not be rescued right away have better chances of surviving emergency situations.
  4. While you are making the here and now your new reality, keeping hope or praying is essential to survival.
  5. Staying alive for someone else.  Many people stay alive for their kids or spouses because they want to see them again… or they think about the pain their death would cause their loved ones.
  6. Trusting your gut.  He said over and over he interviewed survivors that said before they got stuck in a survival situation many of them said they had really bad feelings in their gut.
  7. Having someone you feel you need to care for.  Doctors and nurses tend to survive in places of life or death because they are compelled to keep others alive, which in turn keeps them alive.   Wheather its giving them a reason to live, or keeping them level headed so they can’t panic, caring for someone else can keep you from panicking and doing something to endanger your life.

Not that I have ever been faced with imminent death, but I would like to think that I have several of these instincts.  I do not freeze when things happen.  I have left friends high and dry in the water when someone yelled “shark” after seeing a fin.  I jokingly say I have a strong will to live, but I don’t wait around, I bailed so fast out of that water.  I mean have you ever watched Shark Week on TV? The NC coast is displayed prominently during that week!   It turned out to be a porpose,  but I didn’t wait around to find out if that fin has teeth on the end of it or not.

I do try to listen to my gut.  In general I am an emotionally reactive person in my real life, but in more dangerous situations I am surprisingly level headed.

I would definitely recommend this book to every adventurer and outdoors person.  Even if you already know a lot about survival, the stories are very entertaining.

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