Are you prepared for a natural disaster?
A hard lesson learned, the Alex Theissen story
6 hrs in the trail, 2 hrs past his turn-around time and with storms coming in the valley, Alex Theissen was on the borderline of losing it. What had began like a unremarkable spring outing within the White Mountain tops was going south rapidly and the possibilities of staying the night uncovered in the timberline, with rapidly declining temps with nothing more than a little hard cheddar cheese along with a foil survival blanket was becoming an unwanted reality.
The imminent feeling of danger is familiar to anyone stranded on the windward shoreline with a hurricane brewing, confused in a maze of cycle trails or getting caught, like Theissen with an exposed ridge with bad weather coming. Oftentimes, what goes on next may be the crux moment in which survival or real disaster develops. Within the situation of Theissen, survival began using the acronym, S.T.O.P. Sit … Think …Observe … Plan …Rather than giving into his panic response, Theissen sat for a moment, got his bearings and acted in a way that likely saved his life. What follows is a briefing on what went through his mind … it’s a lesson that applies to hunters, hikers, boaters and others who find themselves exposed and unprepared in declining or already cold temperatures.
Shelter / Warmth
In cold temps, exposure can kill before anything else. In Theissen’s situation, remaining above the timberline was not wise so getting below it was his first priority. Next he will have to find or create shelter, and lastly (if at all possible) create warmth.
While it’s past the scope of this article , to explain shelter making or fire building at length (shelter are available in tree wells, in snow caves, as well as in the hollows of river banks. You are less likely to find safe & warm shelter in winter than summer time, none-the-less evergreens will frequently yield dry needles, pitch bark can frequently be found when the snow-pack isn’t so deep, reserves of grass and dry leaves are available beneath trees, rock overhangs as well as in tree wells), needless to say, that without either, possibility of survival drops drastically.
What Theissen did was look for a root cavity that provided both shelter and warmth, he then sealed it as completely as he possibly could with packed snow, and separated himself from the ground using evergreen boughs. He managed to build a fire, and although it really never developed completely, it did allow him a some amount of comfort and localized warmth.
Theissen knew he couldn’t find his way back to the trailhead with the snow covering everything. And it must be stressed that there is NO way he should have attempted it at All… even climbing down towards the treeline would be a challenge. Needless to say, he had to make sure that it stays this way.
Route finding is dependent on visibility thus traveling during the night, with a white-out or perhaps in heavily wooded terrain increases the likelihood of losing your way. It’s essential in these conditions to consider, observe and plan … and also to acknowledge it’s not necessarily prudent to do something. It’s often easier to stay there than to run around in unfamiliar terrain jeopardizing your safety and risking losing your way completely.
By marking his return path to the ridgeline, and traveling only so far as needed to make sure shelter, Theissen understood that when visibility came back he’d have the ability to find his way back towards the trailhead.
If all went well, Theissen would hole up for that evening in the makeshift shelter and go out the next morning. This is of course if he wasn’t lost. If he were lost, doing something to help his likelihood of being found would be his next priority. Experts agree the three following elements will raise the likelihood of getting found..
Visibility – produced by smudge fires, markers, signals
Positioning – on ridgelines, open riverbanks, by the treeline
Mobility (or lack of) – stationary targets are easier to locate
Had Theissen been lost, he’d have came back towards the ridgeline when conditions permitted, produced visibility (placed an indication within the snow, set his foil blanket, built a smudge fire …) and never moved from that area.
It hardly needs stated, that if you have fuel and a way to light it, the snow and ice you are encircled with really are a viable supply of hydration. Otherwise, you will find other sources. Considering how cold it is, water is often available underneath the snow pack towards the bottom of streams and also at river bends. Animals, and fowl will make sure parts of swamps and ponds are ice-free. In the alpine, the sun can be effective enough to produce ice-melt against dark rocks.
Your food can be a more challenging problem, but of course is essential if you want to survive. Cold temperatures requires more calories to be burned, and while you’ll be able to live days without food, hunger is debilitating and reduces the physiques potential to deal with cold and the opportunity to cope.
There’s valid reason why survival literature frequently describes frozen landscapes as arid … there isn’t much alive, and there is very little to consume. And I don’t have to tell you that getting out of the cold earlier than later makes sense. Once you have hydrated yourself, eaten, and have enough shelter/warmth to survive, then all efforts have to be put on getting found or realistically and systematically finding your way out. One dies of starvation sooner in the winter months than summer time.
The story ended well, because Theissen’s storm passed by 3am and the vast amount of snow reflected the moonlight. There is enough light for Theissen to get to the ridge line and discover the marked descent by the break of morning. The day before he’d stupidly made the decision to disregard his turn-around time. Every decision that he had made after that was the correct one, by early mid-day the very next day he was back at his vehicle hungry tired, and embarassed…but alive.