It was just one of those things than can happen so easily around camp. George accidentally cut his arm.
Ordinarily, it would be a small matter requiring a bit of first aid treatment. But these were not ordinary circumstances. The time was 150 years ago, and George Donner was the leader of a pioneer company headed west toward the Sacramento Valley. The party, including women and children, were caught by an early snowfall in the Sierra Mountains, and they began to starve and suffer from exposure. It was a poor time for the slip of a hand to carry a sharp blade into one’s arm.
Small problems, such as the slip of a hand, have enormous consequences in a survival situation. In George Donner’s case, with poor nutrition, inadequate sanitation, and limited medical attention, his wound lingered and became infected. Over time, he grew so weak that when the rescue party finally arrived they couldn’t save him.
But the consequences didn’t stop there. When it became clear that George was not strong enough to be carried to safety by the rescue team, his devoted wife Tamsen chose to stay by his side rather than leave him. On that day, the Grim Reaper bought two for the price of one.
The story of the Donner Party is instructive. During the trip West, a number of small individual mistakes were made by members of the wagon train that, taken alone, were seemingly inconsequential. But in the end, those small slip-ups along the trail resulted in delays that put the group behind schedule. Errors in judgment took a toll. Equipment breakdowns slowed the pace. Each day of getting out of camp late put the travelers behind schedule, and the accumulation of these minor mistakes ultimately trapped the pioneer company in the early snow of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
And then there was the matter of George’s wound.
What is really at issue here is not the injury itself. That is only an example of how small things have a huge impact in a survival situation. Minor details make a major difference between a pleasant outdoor experience and a full-blown life-and-death survival incident. So the first step is to pay attention to the details and constantly be aware of what’s going on.