Thursday, February 27, 2014

Survival Story

Part of our year-long survival research project involved living in a cave. As it turned out, finding the right cave became a survival incident for us. Here's what happened.

In the middle of winter, Becky and I drove into the exotic slickrock desert to find the cave we were going to live in. Before actually moving into the cave, we wanted to recon the area. Caves are generally not indicated on topographic maps, unless they are important caves like Carlsbad Caverns. Our cave was not one of those, so we needed to put our boots on the ground and go search for it.

On a frosty morning, we headed down the canyon where we had been told there was a suitable cave. Figuring that we would be back at the car by mid-afternoon, we left all of our camping gear in the trunk and headed out wearing only our regular outdoor clothes — mid-weight jackets, blue jeans, and lightweight hiking boots.

I’ll pause here just long enough to say that this is exactly how many real survival incidents begin. People think they’re just going for a short day hike, so they take no survival equipment with them, intending to be back in camp before nightfall. Then something happens and they don’t make it back. That’s what happened to us.

We knew that the cave we wanted to recon was about five miles down the canyon. Unfortunately, Becky was wearing new boots, and by about mile-4 her feet were starting to blister. By the time we reached the cave, she felt like she was walking on hot coals. Our hike had been slow, and that pretty well ate up the day. Winter at that latitude means short days and long nights, and as Becky took her last painful steps toward the cave, we had about an hour of sunlight left. It was clear that she was not going to be able to hike back to the car that day.

The good news was that the cave was high enough up the slope from the streambed that it was out of the coldest zone at the bottom of the canyon. The bad news was that no matter how far up the slope the cave was, the night was going to be sub-freezing and we had nothing but our clothes to keep us warm. No tent, no sleeping bag, nothing.

As the last daylight left the canyon floor, ice was already starting to form along the edges of the stream. Before morning, the entire stream would be frozen over.

I could almost imagine the headlines; “Would-be survival instructor and his wife found dead of hypothermia.” This was not the way I wanted to start my career. There was only one thing to do — I had to use the last few minutes of sunlight to get a fire going and turn the cave into a suitable survival shelter. In cold weather, a cave can be like an icebox, so I decided to make a hot rock bed that would keep us warm all night.

While Becky scooped sand out of an area of the cave floor measuring about 6 feet long by 4 feet wide, I collected firewood. Then I gathered up a bunch of stones and placed them in the hollowed depression that Becky had finished. The firewood went in next, and as night fell pitch black outside, our blaze was lighting up the interior of the cave. We let it burn for about an hour, to heat up the stones, then I scraped the sand back over the bed of hot rocks. The heat rose up through the sand, and we slept on that warm spot of ground and it kept us comfortable all night. Well, maybe comfortable is too nice a word, but even though we had to roll over constantly during the night to stay toasty on all sides, at least we were warm, which beats the heck out of making the headlines.

The lesson in all this is that you need to be prepared to stay longer than anticipated. It can happen to anyone. And knowing some special survival techniques can help keep you alive when your plans run amok.

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