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Lost in the Wild
Exploring the Art and Science of Survival
By Laurence Gonzales

Seventy-one million Americans enter the wilderness each year—and an increasing number of them can't find their way back out. Investigating the art and science of survival, Laurence Gonzales interviewed rescuers, scientists, and survivors and learned that staying alive requires more than starting a fire without matches. To survive, you must beat the enemy within.

When Ken Killip set out on the trail in Colorado's Rocky Mountain National Park at dawn on August 8, 1998, he had the nagging sense that he should not have come. A group of friends had planned the three-day fishing trip, but the others had gradually dropped out until only Killip and his friend John York were left. Killip wondered if he should drop out himself but decided to go ahead with the trip.

From the trailhead at Milner Pass, their route would follow the Continental Divide south for four miles [6.5 kilometers], climbing 2,000 feet [610 meters] to the top of Mount Ida. There, at an altitude of 12,889 feet [3,929 meters], they'd turn east, descend into the Gorge Lakes drainage, and hike two miles [3.2 kilometers] to Rock Lake.

While six miles [9.6 kilometers] doesn't sound like much, the tiny lake sits at the edge of Forest Canyon, a densely wooded wilderness in the Big Thompson River valley. "It's one of the most remote areas in the park," district ranger Doug Ridley would later say. "It's pretty unforgiving."

At 48, Killip had plenty of outdoor experience. He had been with the Parker Fire Protection District just south of Denver for 24 years. He'd even had some survival training in the military. But he'd never been in a place quite so rugged, and before long the altitude and pace began to wear him down. He fell behind, and York had to keep stopping.

After five or six hours, York told Killip to meet him at Rock Lake and then went on alone. Splitting up is never a good idea, but Killip didn't want to slow down his friend. Both men had maps, but Killip's compass was in the pocket of a shirt that York now carried.

Soon a lightning storm came rolling in, and Killip descended from the exposed ridge to wait it out. By the time the lightning had passed, it was late afternoon. It continued to rain, but Killip shouldered his pack and started up the steep slope, convinced he was climbing Mount Ida.

When Killip at last reached the top and turned east, his first glance into the drainage told him that something was wrong: The Gorge Lakes should have appeared as a string of pearls far below, but there were no lakes. And the large rock shelf that York had told him to expect was not there. In fact, Killip had not reached the summit of Mount Ida. He was looking down a parallel drainage about a mile [1.6 kilometers] to the north.

It was after 5 p.m., and the sun was getting low behind him. The temperature had begun to drop. He'd been in motion for more than ten hours and had drunk the last of his water three hours earlier.

It was a crucial moment. Killip was now teetering on the invisible dividing line between two worlds: He was in a state of only minor geographical confusion, for he could still turn back. But by the simple act of putting one foot in front of the other, he could very quickly cross over into the state of being genuinely lost. ...

As darkness and rain fell around him, Killip started down the unfamiliar drainage. In a short while, he found himself blundering through dense timber in total darkness. A chance flicker of lightning ignited reflections on a pond. Parched with thirst, Killip headed for it. He used his pump to filter some water and prepared to spend the night.

Killip had food, but York had the tent. Killip carried garbage bags in his pack but didn't use them for shelter. Although he needed a fire, he knew that open fires weren't permitted in that part of the park. And, as a firefighter, he reasoned, he of all people should follow the rules. Still, he was able to rest, rehydrate, and even heat a meal on his camp stove.

When he awoke on the second day, Killip felt somewhat refreshed. At that point, he still had the option of retracing his steps to his car. But he was determined to find his way to Rock Lake. He began bushwhacking through forest so dense that he sometimes had to remove his backpack to squeeze between the trees. ...

By afternoon, Killip's circle of confusion had expanded to such an extent that he had no means of finding his way to any known location. He was now profoundly lost.

Convinced that he was getting close to Rock Lake, he began scrambling up a steep scree slope to get a better view. About halfway up, he lost his footing and began to tumble down the long grade, arresting himself only by chance. His injuries were sobering: severely pulled muscles in his shoulder, ligament and cartilage damage in his knees, and two sprained ankles.

Killip dragged himself a short distance to a small pond, where he had no choice but to remain through another rainy night. Again he made no shelter or fire. ...

Killip awoke sore and frustrated. Although he had no idea in what direction he was going, he told himself that he could still return to his car. He began limping through the forest. Though he didn't know it, he passed within a quarter mile of Rock Lake.

Eventually, he began struggling up another rocky slope, which later analysis showed to be 12,718-foot [3,877-meter] Terra Tomah Mountain. But an approaching storm forced him back down to the tree line, where he took shelter among the rocks and passed out with one arm wrapped around a tree trunk.

It was past midnight when he awoke, wet and shivering, to find hailstones covering the ground to a depth of 12 inches [31 centimeters]. His fatigue was so severe that he had slept through a driving hailstorm.

When he'd set out on August 8, Killip had been a healthy, competent, well-equipped hiker. His pack contained everything he needed to survive at least a week in the wild.

Now, just over two days after taking his wrong turn off the Continental Divide, he was huddled on an icy mountainside, exhausted, hungry, injured, and slipping dangerously toward hypothermia. What had begun as a small error in navigation had progressed, step-by-step, to a full-blown battle for survival.

Get the full story—and survival basics—in the November/December 2001 issue of Adventure.(Subscribe today!)

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Forum: Your Survival Tales and Tips
Share your personal wilderness survival story. What worked when you were lost? What didn't? What advice would you give others?

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Six Ways to Weather the Mountain
A mountain safety expert uses cautionary search-and-rescue tales to show you how not to become the subject of a cautionary search-and-rescue tale.

Lost at Sea: A Survivor's Tale
A sailor's gripping story of a sinking yacht, deaths by shark bite, and, finally, rescue.

Rescue News
The National Association for Search and Rescue News Updates page links to the latest survival stories.

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  The Dark Skies of Sudan
By Philip Caputo

The aid pilots of East Africa wing into war zones, execute low-altitude airdrops, and evacuate wounded rebel soldiers. Whether their motives are missionary or mercenary, all are ultimately sucked into the vortex of an epic—and tragic—struggle.

Airspeed: 200 knots. The clouds part to reveal Nile River tributaries coiling back on themselves, and the tree-speckled savannas and malarial swamps of southern Sudan. Gradually, the C-130 Hercules I'm flying in descends from its cruising altitude down to a thousand feet [305 meters].

Below are dome-shaped mud-and-wattle huts, the brindled backs of cattle, a robed herdsman. Ahead, a big white X marks the drop zone, over which, in a moment, more than 16 tons of maize are to fall.

There is the Africa tourists know—antelope herds, tawny lions, stately processions of elephants—and then there's the Africa passing below us, the real one. This is the Africa Africans have to live with, boiling with intractable civil wars, groaning under oppressive governments, suffering from hunger, epidemics—all the biblical curses and probably a few the Bible's authors hadn't thought of.

Sudan, the biggest country on the continent (as big as the United States east of the Mississippi), has all those afflictions in proportion to its size. The mostly black southern Sudanese, either Christian or animist, have been fighting the mostly Arab, Muslim northerners, who rule this vast country, for the majority of the 45 years since Sudan gained independence from Great Britain. More than two million people have died, if not from bombs and bullets then from the famines and diseases spawned by the conspiracy of war, drought, and flood.

The United Nations classifies southern Sudan as a region in a state of chronic emergency and has been flying food, medicine, clothing, and other assistance into the south for a dozen years.

I am aboard one such relief flight, called Foxtrot-12, carrying food to the southern Sudan village of Wang Kai. This old C-130, once flown by the CIA, is now a cargo carrier on contract to the United Nations. It flies out of the dusty, flyblown, rubbish-strewn Kenyan frontier town of Lokichokio, the main air base for the UN aid program Operation Lifeline Sudan.

An airdrop is not a simple maneuver. At an altitude of only 700 feet [213 meters], the Herc has to be slowed to "stall plus 20"—meaning 20 knots above the speed at which the wings stop working—and its nose brought up precisely eight degrees, turning the plane into a kind of airborne chute.

I watch the altimeter as it winds downward: 1,000 feet [305 meters] . . . 880 feet [268 meters] . . . Captain Bob Potyok turns tightly to make his pass, one hand on the wheel, the other on the throttle levers.

The "door open" light flashes on the instrument panel. Away aft, the rear hatch drops, revealing a square of sky, against which the two loadmasters, tethered to the plane by static lines, stand silhouetted.

The cargo bay is filled with two long rows of pallets piled high with white sacks marked with the World Food Programme's initials in blue letters. Potyok pulls back on the wheel, adjusts the flaps. The huge plane tilts upward, the loadmasters jerk the restraining hooks, and half the cargo tumbles out, the sacks falling like giant snowflakes.

Potyok makes a tight turn to check the drop. It's on the money. Another pass, and again the nose goes up. Potyok calls to the loadmasters through his radio headset, "Commence drop! Go, go, go!" And the second half slides out, the pallets rattling on metal rollers.

"Load away," the chief loadmaster informs the pilot as another blizzard of maize falls through the sky. The second drop is as accurate as the first. Then Potyok throttles up and the Herc lumbers back to cruising altitude for the return trip to Lokichokio—or Loki, as it's called by the pilots. The crew starts lunch as the autopilot takes over.

The bush pilots who fly humanitarian aid into Sudan are a varied lot, ranging from shady buccaneers to airborne do-gooders to workaday aviators like Potyok, a 59-year-old Canadian and a veteran of the African skies. ("Ethiopia, Rwanda, Angola, Sudan: all the fun spots," he laughs, lighting a cigarette as we wing south at 20,000 feet [6,096 meters].) What they all have in common is a willingness and an ability to fly in conditions that would give the average commercial-airline pilot chest pains.

Get the full story in the November/December 2001 issue of Adventure. (Subscribe today!)

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Related Web Sites

Africa Photos, Maps, Wallpapers, and More
National Geographic's online Africa resources—all on one page.

Sudan Facts and Maps
Get the basics online from the National Geographic Atlas of the World.

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  Scaling St. Lucia's Petit Piton
Part of Our Guide to the Lesser Antilles Islands in the November/December 2001 issue of Adventure.
By Tony Perrottet

Off the map for most Caribbean sun seekers, the islands of the Lesser Antilles offer boundless potential for adventure. Showcasing St. Lucia, the Grenadines, Grenada, the Virgin Islands, and Petit St. Vincent, we tell you the best places to climb volcanic spires, sail between uninhabited isles, hike to hidden waterfalls, sea kayak in turquoise waters, and explore multicolored reefs. Lesser? Hardly.

Here, an excerpt of our look at St. Lucia's eminently climbable jungle volcano:

On the succulent green island of St. Lucia, the two great spires known as the Pitons—Le Gros, "fat," and Le Petit, "skinny"—loom large in every sense. Rising in sheer walls from the waters of the Caribbean, they dominate the rugged southern coast of the island as completely as the Eiffel Tower does Paris. They also turn up on virtually every postcard, bar painting, T-shirt, and even beer label in St. Lucia (the local brew? Piton).

Travel writers have spent months of their lives racking their brains for the mot juste to describe them. (Giant green breasts? Dunce caps? Derek Walcott, an island poet who was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1992, settled for "horns.")

The Carib Indians, who inhabited the isle some 500 years ago, reputedly paid tribute to the Pitons by offering up the occasional human sacrifice. However you look at it, they are a mythic presence.

Mythic—but seemingly aloof and distant. Objects to be admired from afar as two of the Caribbean's great symbols.

On a recent visit, though, I learned that it was actually possible to climb the Pitons. Gros Piton—at 2,618 feet [798 meters], the taller of the pair—is routinely scaled in the drier months of the year; there's a well-worn trail leading to the summit. Even the far steeper Petit Piton (2,438 feet/743 meters) could be climbed, St. Lucians swore.

Once I'd heard that, I couldn't get the prospect out of my head. From poolside at my hotel in Soufrière—the somnolent, French-Creole village where I had set up shop—I spent hours gazing at Petit Piton through my telephoto camera lens, trying to identify a route up its flanks.

But, even if possible, would an ascent be legal—or, for that matter, safe? Some people I asked said that authorities had banned visitors from climbing Petit Piton ever since "a few foreigners" were killed en route to the top. My guidebook glumly mentioned that, indeed, several hikers had "fallen off" the mountain in recent years. Some travel Web sites warned that the peak was especially risky in the rain, due to mud slides, slippery slopes, and falling rocks.

Finally I tracked down a Forestry Department official, who told me, "I wouldn't say it's illegal. But if you do it, it's absolutely at your own risk."

It all sounded quite insane to me, yet the St. Lucians I met in Soufrière's sunbaked central plaza had a much more positive view. The climb was reasonably safe and could be done without any special expertise, they said.

In fact, there was a whole incipient industry of underground guides in Soufrière who took hikers to the peak. Of course it could be done, my sources confided—for a fee. It wasn't long before I scored a referral.

Alexander, who liked to hang around the town's seedier cafés, was a towering, gangly Rasta whose dreadlocks flopped about like a head of black spinach. He was entirely blasé about the dangers.

"I have climbed the Petit Piton 300 times," he boasted, flashing a brilliant white grin. "Once, I climbed the Petit and the Gros Pitons on the same day. Can you imagine such an incredible feat? That is why they call me Alexander the Great."

As we sat in the plaza, every now and again an admiring fellow "beach boy" would yell out to him from a distance: "Alessandah! Alessandah da Great!" Either Alexander had great PR or he really had climbed the Piton a few times.

"I hear several climbers have died climbing Petit Piton," I ventured airily. "You know, when it rains."

"Propaganda!" Alexander bellowed. "Damn government lies. They want to break the people of Soufrière, rob our employment."

"Nobody has died?"

"Not with Alexander!" he thundered. "I am the best guide! I have never lost a tourist! Even this one fat pig I took. An Englishman. He takes six hours to climb the Piton, but even he is OK. I have to push him up by the ass, but even he reaches the top!"

For a mere hundred dollars [U.S.], Alexander promised to meet me here at dawn the next day and take me to the summit of the pinnacle.

"Don't worry," he said, assessing the sky. "It will not rain."

I woke up before dawn the next day and lay in bed—listening to raindrops pelting the ground outside. But by the time I'd knocked back a cup of coffee, the sky was clearing.

Alexander turned up on time in the plaza, sitting in an old black Toyota with his driver—Simon, of Simon Says Taxi Service—an islander with a Chicago Bulls shirt and lavish gold jewelry.

Alexander himself spurned such decadent accoutrements. My guide was wearing shorts and flip-flops. "To show I am a professional," he said, leaning forward and pointing to his bare feet. Then Alexander slumped back and sat staring out of his dark sunglasses at the road with a fixed, beatific smile that suggested a serious recent intake of local herbs.

Ten minutes later, as the rising sun was turning the sky pale, we stopped by an unmarked roadway and said farewell to Simon. Alexander marched into the rain forest—and immediately lost the trail.

This was not a good sign.

Get the full story and an Adventure Guide to St. Lucia—all part of our inside guide to the Lesser Antilles—in the November/December 2001 issue of Adventure. (Subscribe Today!)

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  Trips: Florida's Dry Tortugas National Park
By David Herndon

Seventy miles [113 kilometers] from Key West, Dry Tortugas National Park has more moats than bars. It also has 200 square miles [520 square kilometers] of the most pristine ocean wilderness in America.

For two hours, you're zipping along on a catamaran out of Key West, passing nothing but blue water and a few uninhabited islets. Then, 60-some miles [95-odd kilometers] west of your starting point, a brick-colored mass begins growing—and growing—on the horizon.

Ultimately, the image resolves into a huge fortress set on a spit of sand—Buckingham Palace plopped onto Gilligan's Island.

In terms of brawn alone (the largest masonry structure in the Americas!), it's plain to see why the 11-acre [4.5-hectare] Fort Jefferson on 16-acre [6.5-hectare] Garden Key was known in the mid-19th century as the "Gibraltar of the Gulf": A military force controlling these waters could guard the shipping lanes linking Jamaica, Cuba, New Orleans, and the East Coast; it could help defend the Union from the bellicose British and rebellious Confederates.

For a time, the fortress served as a prison where Union deserters and others suffered relentless heat, mosquitoes, and yellow fever. The monolith, which, oddly, is surrounded by a moat despite being built on an island, is so weighty that it has compressed the island's underlying coral like Styrofoam—Garden Key's not as lofty as it used to be.

Today, the fort has become the home base of Dry Tortugas National Park, which in July became part of the biggest marine reserve in North America—the second largest in the world, after Australia's Great Barrier Reef.

The park has the most pristine waters in the Florida Keys and the healthiest reefs to be found in the contiguous United States. Birders, fishermen, and divers know it as a place where you can see things you just don't see anywhere else.

The ideal tools for a three-day jaunt to Fort Jefferson: a sit-on-top kayak, some snorkeling gear, and basic camping equipment.

Dry Tortugas may be the most remote national park in the lower 48—it is, after all, 70 miles [113 kilometers] from the nearest road—but it's easily reached by ferry.

On this day, a couple hundred folks disembark, but only a few are camping; the rest will catch the return ferry this afternoon. My new buddy Tim Calver—half photographer, half fish—helps me cart our gear and provisions (BYO water) to a beachside campsite that's set among the palms, shielded from prevailing winds by sea grapes.

Our first mission is to get wet. Donning fins, masks, and snorkels, we enter the blue world of the harbor. I notice my shadow ten feet [three meters] below, only it can't be my shadow because it's going the other way. A four-foot [1.2-meter] nurse shark.

Soon I find myself hovering over a stingray with a five-foot [1.5-meter] wingspan and a four-foot [1.2-meter] tail. It turns to face me, starts digging in the sand as if to hide, then wheels and takes off in a whoosh. An encounter with a torpedo of a barracuda concludes our reconnaissance. At sunset, we witness the spectacle of a ray breaking the surface and flying, a move I've never seen before.

I like this place.

For the full story—and an Adventure Guide to the Florida Keys and Dry Tortugas—pick up the November/December 2001 issue of Adventure. (Only U.S. $12 a Year!)

Adventure Online Extra
Photo Gallery: Dry Tortugas—America's Ultimate Water Park
See photographer Tim Calver's shots for this Adventure article, and find out how he got them.

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Related Web Site

Florida Keys Photos and Audio
National Geographic photographs and commentary from National Public Radio's Frank Deford tell of an archipelago on the edge.

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November/December 2001:
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