1. PERCEIVE, BELIEVE
Survivors don't fall into the deadly traps of either denial or immobilizing fear. Many people who might have escaped the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, died because they waited obediently for help instead of trying to get out on their own. Others panicked. Panic doesn't necessarily mean screaming and running around. Often it means simply doing nothing; accident investigators of survivable airline crashes often find people dead in their seats with their seat belts still fastened. Survivors, conversely, admit their condition: I'm really in trouble and I'm going to have to get myself out of it. Those first minutes after an accident are filled with crucial insights. A true survivor's perceptions and cognitive functions work at a heightened level in the face of danger. Energized by the threat, survivors notice an extraordinary clarity of detail in their environment. Moreover, they immediately believe the clear evidence of their senses. Joe Simpson, a British climber who had just topped out on a 21,000-foot (6,400-meter) mountain in Peru, fell and broke his leg. His first thought was that perhaps he'd only sprained it. But within a few seconds, he told himself, "I've broken my leg, that's it, I'm dead." Survivors don't candy-coat the truth. Only by accepting the grim seriousness of his injury was Simpson able to take on the harrowing challenges ahead of him.
2. STAY CALM
In the initial crisis, survivors are not ruled by fear; instead, they make use of it. Their fear often feels like (and turns into) anger, which motivates them and makes them think sharply. Aron Ralston, the hiker who had to cut off his hand to free himself from a boulder that had trapped him in a slot canyon in Utah, initially panicked and began slamming himself against the rock that had crushed his hand. But very quickly he stopped, deepened his breathing, and began considering his options. He spent five days progressing through the stages necessary to convince him of what decisive action he had to take to save his life. At a deep level, survivors understand the need to stay cool. They are ever on guard against the mutiny of too much emotion. And, having squarely faced the gravity of their predicaments, they also manage suffering well. In Touching the Void, Joe Simpson's account of his ordeal in Peru, he writes that he could "adjust to the steady pain" of his fractured leg snagging obstacles on his descent. James Stockdale, a fighter pilot who was shot down in Vietnam and spent eight years in the Hanoi Hilton, as his prison camp was dubbed, believes that "familiarization with pain" is a vital part of the survivor's tool kit: "You have to practice hurting. There is no question about it."
3. THINK, ANALYZE, PLAN
Longer-term survivors quickly organize, set up routines, and institute discipline. In groups, a leader emerges. Solo survivors often report hearing a disembodied, rational voice that arrives to take control of the situation. While the phenomenon of hearing voices might indicate an emotional breakdown under ordinary circumstances, it is easily explainable in terms of the two main modes in which the brain functions: emotion and cognition. In cases of extreme danger, emotion tends to take over. But survivors push emotion aside and put cognition in charge. They perceive themselves as being split into two people, and they "obey" the rational one.
Steve Callahan, a sailor and boat designer, was on a solo voyage in the Atlantic in 1982 when his small sailboat encountered trouble and sank. Adrift for 76 days in a five-and-a-half-foot (1.5-meter) life raft, he experienced his survival voyage as taking place under the command of a "captain," who gave him his orders and kept him on his water ration, even as his own mutinous spirit complained. His captain routinely lectured "the crew."
Thus under strict control, he was able to push away thoughts that his situation was hopelesshe had to drift 1,800 miles (2,897 kilometers) to landfall in the Caribbeanand take the necessary first steps of the survival journey: to think clearly, analyze his situation, and formulate a plan.
Secrets of Survival
Contributing Editor Laurence Gonzales has made a career out of deconstructing perilous, often deadly, ordeals in the wilderness. Here, the sultan of survival talks about the beginnings of his morbid curiosity, what's to be learned from history's great survivors and why people rest aluminum ladders on electrical wires in our online Q&A >>
Find out the nine other traits of successful survivors in the November 2003 issue of Adventure.
The CO2 Chronicles
John Spies didn't think much of our plan, which involved crawling deep into various caves containing unknown quantities of poisonous gas while breathing oxygen out of backpack-mounted tanks. The pure O2 was to be delivered by flexible plastic tubing and released through two little nubbins that fit in the nostrils. The entire rig looked very much like the sort of outfit worn by emphysema sufferers and seemed, to John Spies, entirely inadequate for the purposes of exploring "bad air" caves. Additionally, the tubes fit over the face in such a way that those wearing them did not look at all like heroic explorers equipped to "push" caves beyond previously explored depths. Instead, when properly fitted, the pinkish nasal cannulas made me and my four expeditionary colleagues look like a gathering of chipmunks.
Spies, 48, who was born in Australia, has a passion for exploring and preserving the caves of Thailand. "Where are you going first?" he asked.
"Blind Fish Cave," said Mark Cosslett, the photographer who'd organized this expedition to push the caves of northern Thailand. "You want to come along?"
Spies, a David Bowie look-alike with a sense of humor so dry it might be described as desiccated, said: "You guys can go into the bad-air caves. Me, I have a wife. I have kids. My dog just had puppies."
I was taking notes, and Spies said, "They say you write funny, mate. Well, I'm thinking Blind Fish Cave ought to work just fine for you. Slow death by suffocation. Bloody hilarious, that."
I was with three other companions. Will Gadd, a professional outdoor athlete, was shooting video. Maria Cashin, our safety officer, works as a cave guide in Alberta, Canada, and is adept at underground rescue work. Richard Borowsky, a professor at New York University, was our scientific justification for pushing the caves. He studies cave fish all over the planet and has a need to sometimes get past the bad air to the places where the fish can be found.
"Blind Fish nearly killed me the last time I was in it," Spies said.
"What happened?" I asked.
We were discussing this matter of local bad-air caves in the agreeably relaxed Cave Lodge, a hostelry in the Pang Mapha district of the Mae Hong Son province in northern Thailand, which is about halfway between Chiang Mai and the border of Burma. This is the hill country, a landscape of closely set ridges rising 2,000 to 6,000 feet (610 to 1,829 meters) and more. The heavily wooded mountains have helped preserve the independence (or at least the autonomy) of the northern Thai peoples for centuries.
A few hundred years ago, various ethnic minorities, sometimes called hill tribes, started moving across the Burmese border and into the area. They live peaceful, seminomadic lives and have become, in recent years, persons of interest to tourists from all over the world. Related by culture and language, these hill tribesthe Karen, for examplecan sometimes be differentiated one from the other by the color of their clothes. There are, for instance, the Black Karen, the Red Karen, and the White Karen.
The same forbidding topography that allows the hill tribes to wander freely across borders in the region has also produced caves in absurd abundance. Water cascades down drainages, falls free, then drops into the major river valleys about 4,000 feet (1,219 meters) below. Much of the underlying rock is limestone, what is called a karst formation, and this combination of water and limestone and vegetation has riddled the land with caves. Groundwater, flowing over decaying plant life, picks up carbon dioxide and forms a weak carbonic acid, which, over time, dissolves limestone. You've seen the process essentially happening in reverse in high school chemistry: A bit of limestone dropped into a beaker of carbonic acid breaks down into a precipitate called calcite while carbon dioxide is released. In the Pang Mapha district, over the course of the millennia, carbonic acid has worked its way into cracks in the limestone and hollowed out caves both great and small.
You can see the results on any detailed topo map of the area: Good-size rivers and creeks simply disappear while others seem to appear out of nowhere, which suggests that a considerable amount of water runs underground. As the water drops deeper into the Earth, the upper levels of the cave are left relatively dry. Since 1981, Australian teams have recorded more than 200 caves in Pang Mapha, and there are, according to Spies, dozens and perhaps hundreds more that are undocumented.
Spies, the proprietor of the Cave Lodge, has been exploring local caves since 1977. He probably knows more about the myriad caverns of the Pang Mapha district than anyone else. And he wasn't ever going into Blind Fish Cave again.
"Several years ago," he said, "myself and a few others were trying to shoot photos of the cave fish. They're in a shallow pool in a big room at the bottom of a huge pile of breakdown." Breakdown is just what it sounds like: a big pile of rocks that have broken off from the ceiling of the cave. "We climbed down the breakdown. One of the women accidentally stepped in the water and muddied up the pool where the fish are. So we waited about an hour for the water to clear. We were breathing hard, really hyperventilating. It's not like altitude, where you can catch your breath if you stop. In a bad-air cave, you stand still and still can't breathe. It's like you're drowning in air."
The air had been good at the top of the breakdown, about 25 feet above the pool. They could just climb up the rocks and be out of the bad air in a matter of minutes. "Except," Spies said, "that day the cave started breathing out: The bad air rose up the breakdown and followed us through some very tight crawls and we were scrambling, racing for our lives. We were racing the bad air. I really thought I was going to die."
"We have oxygen for a situation like that," said Will.
"Oh, well, then you should have no trouble at all," John Spies said. "You're standing there, drowning in air, you have a pounding headache, your judgment is impaired, but you have a little damn tube in your nose. No worries."
Thailand's Toxic Caves
Join Photographer Mark Cosslett on an expedition into northern Thailand's labyrinth of caves. Utilizing a specialized breathing device, Cosslett and his fellow explorers pushed to new depths to discover blind river fish, lost coffins and the spooky effects of CO2. Enter gallery >>
Find out what happens to Cahill and his crew in the "bad air" in the November 2003 issue of Adventure.
Emperors at the End of the Earth
After so many years of Antarctic reading, I am eager to visit the region of James Clark Ross's epochal discoveries, including the live volcano that he named Mount Erebus and the daunting ramparts of the Great Barrier, a vast ice plateau at the south end of the Ross Sea that forbade farther navigation toward the Pole and thus became the starting point for most polar expeditions of the late 19th and early 20th centuriesthe so-called heroic age of Antarctic exploration. Among Ross's finds were the first "great penguins" ever brought back from Terra Australis Incognita for the enlightenment of the Known World.
In the days before icebreaker travel, a Ross Sea journey (other than tour flights to McMurdo and the South Pole station) was all but impossible to arrange. But by 2001, zoologist Victor Emanuel had organized a group of birders eager to be part of an emperor penguin safari, and I signed on at once. Setting out from Tasmania aboard the Kapitan Khlebnikov, we would sail nearly a thousand miles (1,609 kilometers) to Macquarie Island, a subantarctic stronghold of marine birds and mammals, and to the Ross Sea a few days later. Ours would be the first voyage by an American bird-tour company to the remote colonies of the great emperor.
Just why I wished to make the long journey to the ice was an intricate question. "To see the emperor penguin" was not good enough. I might mutter uncomfortably that Antarctica is monumental, an astonishment. Perhaps (if pressed) I might declare that its excruciating purity and vast healing silence ring with creation, ancient and yet new and fresh beyond imagining. More than any region left on Earth, I plead, Antarctica is immaculate, a white fastness of pristine air and ice and virgin glacier at the farthest end of Earth, where frigid seas abound in marine creatures in a diversity still marvelously intactall true, all true. Yet there is something else.
A low-pressure front of heavy wind and rain is forecast for the region. The ship flees before it, for the ice is still thick in those Ross Sea approaches that must be penetrated if we are to reach Terra Nova Bay and the redoubts of the emperor penguin before their colonies disperse into the ocean. Clearing Point Hurd in early afternoon, the Kapitan Khlebnikov moves out of Macquarie's lee into the wind, as the steep-sided rock ridge in her wakethe lonely summit of unimaginable drowned mountainssubsides gradually into the sea.
By mid-afternoon, the sinking island far astern is smothered by incoming mists. Leaned against the bulkhead out of the wind, I am eased into near somnolence by the ship's roll, watching the birds gather from the distances to glide across the blue churning of the wake.
In the ocean deep beneath the hull is a dark realm of plateaus and abysses created by the rupturing of the Earth's crust. From marine charts on the bridge, I roughly estimate the time when the ship will pass over the Macquarie trench; that hour comes in mid-afternoon. The knowledge that an astonishing abyss lies three miles below is stirring. The lone sentinel island, the eastering seas, the infinite horizons all around the ocean sky: All is beautiful and wild and freethe beauty "that is inconceivable because it runs through all eternity," as one Antarctic chronicler described it.
Oddly, time draws to a stop, as in that moment at the crest of the flood, the lunar pause before the slow turn of the tide toward its ebb. Out of that suspended moment, like a held breath, rises again the question of how and why this corpus with my attached name and history came to fetch up here in just this moment of a fleeting life, on a lone vessel in the farthest reaches of the Southern Ocean, bound for an ice-locked continent a thousand miles (1,609 kilometers) beyond the horizon.
For the rest of Peter Matthiessen's voyage to the white continent, check out November 2003 issue of Adventure.
There's a splash as I dunk my head under the surface, then a quick, deepening whoosh, like that of a car window sealing shut. For a moment, the ocean seems silent, but then I start detecting noisesair bubbles, a wave breaking overhead, a series of light clicks. Crab claws? Fish teeth? Loudest of all is the sound of my own breathing, hollow and detached in the snorkel. Gradually, my world is reduced to just this rhythmic sound and a flood of color: darting fish in lemon yellow and electric blue; red and white coral; swimming pool-blue water. Wonderfully alone, I'm deep in a state of aqua hypnosis. After a whiletwo minutes? twenty?I pop my head out of the water. Typically, here in the Caribbean, this is when the Jacques Cousteau film ends and the Miami Vice episode begins. But nothing about Isla Mona, some 45 miles (72 kilometers) off the west coast of Puerto Rico, is typical. There are no Jet Skis or condos, no tiki bars playing "Cheeseburger in Paradise" through speakers cleverly disguised as fallen coconuts.
Bobbing beside me is an inflatable kayak that I scootch aboard, joining my girlfriend, Anne. Together we paddle toward Playa de Pájaros, an expanse of golden sand backed by gargantuan boulders and listing palms.
The cliffs rising up behind it are pocked with the toothy entrances of caves. Our tent, on the beach, is the only one in sight. We were dropped off this morning, after a bumpy, three-hour charter boat trip from the town of Cabo Rojo. The captain steered with his feet and blasted salsa music at an innards-rattling volumean excellent seasickness preventive, he maintained. Now the boat is gone, and the island is ours for a week.
TINY DINOS, ENDLESS CAVES
Mona, an uninhabited nature reserve managed by the Puerto Rican government, is quite possibly the wildest island left in the Caribbean. A flat-topped mass of limestone that was thrust up from the sea beginning in the late Pliocene, the isle looks like it should be patrolled by dinosaurs, and it is, more or less: Witness the Mona iguana, with the size and locomotion style of a chunky toddler. Even today, 500 years after Columbus sampled the island's melons ("Most delicious," he noted in his log), Mona still feels lost. Fewer than 4,000 people visit each year. Even if Anne and I hiked six miles to the island's other designated camping area, at Playa Sardinera, we'd be hard-pressed to assemble enough players for an oceanside game of Nerf football.
And then there are the caves. Twelve major labyrinths, totaling nearly five million square feet, riddle the four-by-seven-mile island, making it one of the most cavernous places on Earth. Illuminated through natural skylights and windows, pleasingly low in dankness and claustrophobia-inducing tight spaces, these fragile caves can be explored by neophytespeople like mewithout special equipment.
Mona's biology is similarly off the charts, having run amok in finest Darwinian island tradition. Researchers have been gaga over the place since Harold Anthony, a biologist for New York's American Museum of Natural History, conducted the first modern scientific exploration of it in 1926, employing the then-popular "shoot first, ask taxonomic questions later" school of field research. The island boasts 270 species of fish, 400 species of plants and trees, and more than 800 species of birds and land animals, including red-footed boobies and the Mona blind snake.
All of this begs the question, Why don't more people know about Mona, easily one of the best adventure destinations in the Caribbean? Perhaps because it is part of Puerto Rico, itself a badly underappreciated island. There, travelers can paddle the bioluminescent bay of Las Cabezas de San Juan, explore the karst caverns of the Río Camuy Cave Park, and rappel into a waterfall-filled canyon in the rain forest of El Yunque. We did all of the above before coming to Mona, and they were adventures easily reachedjust a four-hour flight from New York City, no passports required.
Visit Mona Island on a guided tour, or get dropped off by a charter boatand play castaway. Unlike most U.S. parks, Mona doesn't offer a premasticated experience of fenced-off vista points and well-signed interpretive trails. It's a place where you simply explore: Set out to see what you can see, find what you can find. Then return to camp to lie back in your hammock, Nalgene-bottle vodka tonic in hand, and watch the evening hermit crab commute.
Get the rest of the Mona Island immersion in the November 2003 issue of Adventure.