Sunday, June 13, 2010

Survival story

A couple weeks ago, I ran into a fellow named Brian Gawley. He's the author of "Lost 65.5 hours in Olympic National Park: My story of survival." It's a long title, but an interesting story, and one worth reading. 

This is a textbook example of how to get into trouble without even trying. Brian is a distance runner who has done several marathons. To help with his training, he likes to take what he calls "psycho" hikes — long distances at very fast pace — in the mountains. The altitude and pace help with physical conditioning, and he had done several 20-mile hikes at high elevation before, covering the ground at a blinding pace. To be able to do that, he travels light. Running shorts, t-shirt, a couple of granola bars and a water bottle comprise his total load of gear. 

One of the sneaky problems with life is that it, if you succeed at activities often enough, you can be lulled into a false sense of security. Brian had always succeeded at these psycho hikes in the past, so he had fallen into the trap of thinking that nothing could go wrong. But it did.

On the day of his fateful survival incident, he set off as usual on a 20+mile out and back hike, following a well established trail. In fact, part of the trail was a paved lane. After the pavement petered out, the rest of the trail was excellent and well marked. You couldn't miss it with your eyes closed. Or could you?

Brian got a late start, but figured that his pace would put him back at his car before dark. You know what they say about the best laid plans … 

Deep forest, tall mountains, late season all combined to bring on sudden darkness after the sun set — and Brian was still several miles from his car. He thought he was a lot closer than he actually was, and that error in calculation caused him to press on even though he could hardly see the trail in the growing darkness. 

And then it happened — he took a tumble off the side of the trail, injured himself, and then couldn't find the trail again. He wandered deeper into trouble and farther from the trail that he was now desperately searching for. 

In the telling of his tale, Brian Gawley spells out, step-by-step how easy it is to get deeper and deeper into trouble. It's so easy that it happens to hundreds of people every year. Many of them survive. Some don't. Brian was one of the lucky ones. 

I'm glad I got a chance to meet Brian and read his story. If you want to get a copy of his self-published book, it's available on Amazon as a "real" book, or on Kindle as an e-book. Go to to find some other links. 

The upshot of the whole thing is that it's the little things that kill you. 
  • It's the lack of understanding the concept that you might have to spend an unplanned night or two in the wilds, and the corresponding lack of preparation to do that. 
  • It's the failure to let people know exactly where you're going, what you're doing, when you'll be back — filing a "flight plan" so to speak. 
  • It's the lack of understanding basic survival techniques and fundamental concepts that open the door to making bad decisions — such as not stopping to make an overnight camp before it gets dark. 
Those are the things that will kill you.

When I met Brian Gawley, he was attending a presentation I was giving about my own survival book, Rich Johnson's Guide to wilderness Survival. He sat on the front row, and I noticed him nodding in agreement as I spoke. He had been through the kind of Hell that my book is intended to help people avoid. I'm glad he made it out alive. I'm glad he took the time to write about his experiences. 

Most of all, I hope my book will help others prevent  that kind of thing from happening to them. I seriously recommend that you get my book and make a study of it. It might save your life. It's available on You can also link to my website at

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