Tag Archives: mountain bike

Introduction to Survival Psychology

IMG_7880It’s late October and you and your buddy are amazed by the unseasonably good weather. To enjoy the day, you decide to go on a mountain bike ride. You pack light since you won’t be gone long so you throw in a few bottles of water to go on the frame, some trail mix and your cell phone.

You ride hard, pushing each other. The scenery and weather are so great that you lose track of time and before you know it, the sun starts to set.  Moments later, disaster strikes. Dodging your buddy on a turn, you both tumble down a steep hill and break your leg. Your bike partner is shaken and bruised and both bikes sit below you in a tangled mess. Even at your weight, there’s no way your buddy can haul you out. You are several miles from your car.

You’re almost out of water, the snacks got left in the car, and your cell phone isn’t getting a signal.

Introduction to Survival Psychology

So often we have focus on how survival skills increase your odds of staying alive. With that, you need to understand it takes much more than the knowledge and skills of building shelters, finding food, and creating fires to live successfully through a survival situation.

There are numerous cases where people with little or no survival training have managed to survive life-threatening circumstances while others with survival training have used their skills and died. In a majority of thecases where someone comes home verticle and not horizontal, it can be attributed to positive mental attitude. Combining skills with a solid understanding of how you will react to a situation improves your capability to survive. In addition, placing yourself in scenarios, where you have to endure hardship, will strengthen your resilience. The key ingredient in any survival situation is the mental attitude of those involved. Having survival skills is important; having the will to survive is essential.

Stress and Survival

Technically there is good stress (eustress) and bad stress (distress). Stress can be described as our reaction to pressure. It is the name given to the experience we have as we physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually respond to life’s tensions.

The Need for Stress in Survival

We need stress because it has many positive benefits. Stress provides us with challenges and the drive to move beyond our current situation. It gives us chances to leverage our strengths. Stress can confirm our ability to handle intense pressure without breaking and tests our adaptability and flexibility to situations. All of this is known as eustress.

Too much stress can take its toll and create dangerous situations for the survivor. Too much stress leads to distress. Distress causes an uncomfortable tension that we try to escape and, preferably, avoid.

Below are common signs of distress often found in survivors when faced with too much stress:

  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Angry outbursts
  • Forgetfulness
  • Low energy level
  • Constant worrying
  • Propensity for mistakes
  • Thoughts about death or suicide
  • Trouble getting along with others
  • Withdrawing from others
  • Hiding from responsibilities

Carelessness.

If not controlled, stress can be destructive. Not only does it discourage the survivor, but can be a catalyst of bad decisions. Feeling the need to rush, take unnecessary chances, or taking short cuts can all lead to disaster. When faced with a life or death situation, the human brain uses the Cerebellum to harness the capability to be rational. When immediate danger arrises, the ability to be rational is bypassed and hijacked by the Amygdala, the part of the brain that offers few options. With the Amygdala flee, freeze, or fight are the only real options. Any of these three can be the wrong decision. A survivor under new and uncertain stress can panic and forget all training. Key to your survival is your ability to manage the inevitable stresses you will encounter. The survivor works with stress instead of the other way around. A possible way to prevent Amygdala hijack is by practicing immediate action drills. This is discussed further in the lectures on video.

Survival Stressors

Any event can lead to stress. Chaos tells us that multiple events create a survival situation. These events are not stress, but they produce it and are called “stressors.”

Stressors are the obvious cause while stress is the response. Once the body recognizes the presence of a stressor, it then begins to act to protect itself.

In response to a stressor, the body prepares either to “fight, freeze, or flee.” This preparation involves an internal SOS sent throughout the body. As the body responds to this SOS, several actions take place. The body releases stored fuels (sugar and fats) to provide quick energy; breathing rate increases to supply more oxygen to the blood; muscle tension increases to prepare for action; blood clotting mechanisms are activated to reduce bleeding from cuts; senses become more acute (hearing becomes more sensitive, eyes become big, smell becomes sharper) so that you are more aware of your surrounding; and heart rate and blood pressure rise to provide more blood to the muscles. This protective posture lets a person cope with potential dangers; however, a person cannot maintain such a level of alertness indefinitely.

The cumulative effect of minor stressors can be a major distress if they all happen too close together. A survivor’s body will already or soon will be subject to physical exhaustion or possibly injury. After awhile resistance to stress wears down and the sources of stress continue (or increase), eventually a state of exhaustion arrives. At this point, the ability to resist stress or use it in a positive way gives out and signs of distress appear. Anticipating stressors and developing strategies to cope with them are two ingredients in the effective management of stress. It is therefore essential that the survivor in a survival setting be aware of the types of stressors that will be encountered.

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Injury, Illness, or Death

Injury, illness, and death are real possibilities a survivor has to face. Perhaps nothing is more stressful than being alone in an unfamiliar environment where you could die from an accident or have witnessed the death of someone else.

Illness and injury can also add to stress by limiting your ability to maneuver, get food and drink, find shelter, and defend yourself. Even if illness and injury don’t lead to death, they add to stress through the pain and discomfort they generate. It is only by controlling the stress associated with the vulnerability to injury, illness, and death that a survivor can have the courage to take the risks associated with survival tasks.

Uncertainly and Lack of Control

We are control freaks. We manage our time, set expectations for others, and chase after goals. We check sports scores through smart devices and and expect updates on major news stories. Some people have trouble operating in settings where everything is not clear-cut. The only guarantee in a survival situation is that nothing is guaranteed. It can be extremely stressful operating on limited information in a setting where you have limited control of your surroundings. This uncertainty and lack of control also adds to the stress of being ill, injured, or killed.

Environment

You are at the bottom of the food chain. Even as a seasoned outdoorsman your modern body was not built to withstand the environment for long term. Get over it, deal with it, and do something about it. Even under the most ideal circumstances, nature is quite formidable. In survival, you will have to contend with the stressors of weather, terrain, and the variety of creatures inhabiting an area. Heat, cold, rain, winds, mountains, swamps, deserts, insects, dangerous reptiles, and other animals are just a few of the challenges awaiting the survivor working to stay alive. Depending on how a survivor handles the stress of the environment, the immediate surroundings in the Comfort and Explorer Zones can be either a source of food and protection or can be a cause of extreme discomfort leading to injury, illness, or death.

Hunger and Thirst

The general rule is 3 days without water and 3 weeks without food. Without food and water a person will weaken and eventually die. Thus, getting and preserving food and water takes on increasing importance as the length of time in a survival setting increases. For a survivor used to having his provisions in the pack, foraging can be a big source of stress.

Fatigue

Forcing yourself to continue surviving is not easy as you grow more tired. It is possible to become so fatigued that the act of just staying awake is stressful in itself. Rest is important, but in cold weather when the body is not able to keep its self warm, going to sleep can be a death sentence. Getting food, warmth and hydrated will allow you to take breaks and sleep, but only after you have everything else squared away.

Isolation

There are some advantages to facing adversity with others. As outdoor enthusiasts we learn individual skills, but we often work as part of a community. Being in contact with others also provides a greater sense of security and a feeling someone is available to help if problems occur. A significant stressor in survival situations is that often a person or team has to rely solely on its own resources.

The survival stressors mentioned in this section are by no means the only ones you may face. Remember, what is stressful to one person may not be stressful to another. Your experiences, training, personal outlook on life, physical and mental conditioning, and level of self-confidence contribute to what you will find stressful in a survival environment. The object is not to avoid stress, but rather to manage the stressors of survival and make them work for you.

Summary

You have to make up your mind today that when you get into a survival situation you are going to make it back. Practice your skills in controlled environments, but you need to get out there and work when the odds are against you. Setting up a shelter in the wind, lighting fires in the rain, or fasting for a few days just so you know you can endure hunger will better prepare you when you face an actual situation.

 

Portait of a Deadman

"Portrait of a Dead Man"
When I took this, I honestly thought it would be one of the last pictures of me alive. Then I changed acceptance to commitment

In the fall of 2003 I decided to do a overland trip by mountain bike in the back country of Big Bend National Park. Don’t let those four letters, (P, A, R, K) fool you. There are areas in most of our national parks that are rugged and desolate. Big Bend has many of these. People die here, and I was almost one of those statistics.

I’ve never really shared this story in whole with anybody, and as I blog, I still may not….we will see.

Throughout 2003 my soul was undergoing some radical changes. I was beginning to live from my heart. I was regaining that masculine love of the outdoors that had become vacant and dormant for a season. I was becoming more of a leader in my home and fighting for the hearts of those I loved. I attribute a great deal of this to the work of John Eldridge in “Wild at Heart”, a book I bought on a whim and actually altered my entire life.

My plan was to bicycle from Rio Grand Village on the east end of Big Bend to Castolon, on thewest side of the park using the old River Road. This trip would take me down rugged back country roads through the old Mariscal Mining district, the Dominguez Trail, continuing on the River Road’s west side, and eventually to Castalon, where I would rest and then make the trip back the same way I came.

Rio Grande to Fresno (Mariscal Mines)

As an avid biker I was physically well prepared for the trip. At the time I was riding up to 200 miles of trails each week. I was riding a 2003 Specialized Stump Jumper with a Yakima trailer. I headed out with tent, food, and water. I knew I would have to resupply so I had supplies dropped for me at Castalon and knew which watering points were known to be active. I planned to have two days water with me at all times.

Fresno (Mariscal Mines) to Castolon

The trip began questionably from the beginning. For starters, after arriving at the park and camping in Rio Grande Village, I failed to get any sleep at all. There was a “star party” going on. I stayed up until sunrise with several astronomy students learning various stars and constellations.

The second moment of failure was when I found I could not park as close to the trailhead as I expected. I had to add additional miles to my already long trip. I had planned to do the entire route in 5-7 days, so I saw the setback as a minor inconvenience.

A larger inconvenience though came at the hands of nature. I knew there had been a flood in the area a week prior to my trip, and in fact was counting on that to fill the springs and arroyos that I would need for water.

What I failed to realize is the damage flash floods can do to the roads and trails I would be pulling a 60 pound trailer on. I struggled miserably with the load and at times had to push my bike through river gravel that would vary between 3 to 8 inches in depth. It took nearly a full day to get to my “planned” lunch stop at the fork between Glen Spring and Mariscal. At this point I was exhausted and dehydrated. I spent the evening trying to rehydrate and take in some energy.

Dragging water and other supplies. Only thing missing in the pic is my water bladder that also worked as a head rest...for a time.

My body immediately rejected the Top Ramen noodles I had prepared. I set up a tent and tried to rest my aching muscles. The only thing I could keep in me was dehydrated ice cream my wife gave me as a joke.

The next morning I felt better, even though I didn’t rest well. I was able to eat some oatmeal, and my urine was returning to clear, signaling that I was rehydrating. I loaded up the tent and returned to the trail. At the fork between Fresno and Solis, the road became a bit better. I no longer had to deal with as much gravel and was able to pick up speed.

I had over-estimated my water needs so I was doing okay in spite of not hitting my next refill point. The trail still required more effort than I had expected and I pulled into Fresno around 3 pm. I decided to stay there even though it put me a day behind schedule. Again as I tried to eat I couldn’t keep anything down.

I set up my tent and decided that I would rest and then re-evaluate the trip when my head was not pounding. It was when I was pulling my tent out of the trailer I discovered in horror that at some point my water bladder had busted. With exception of a tiny bit in my bike mounted water bottles, nearly all my water had either escaped the trailer, or was captured in my tent, clothing, etc. I immediately started consuming as much water from the soaked items I could. I knew at that moment my world was going to be different and if I was going to make it out, I would need to be thinking clearly. I knew this was now a life and death situation.

Looking at the map I had two options. Continue west towards an intermittent spring about a day (on the map) and take my chances on water being there, or head back two-days to where I knew water would be. From what water I could not drink, I was able to fill two bike bottles with water and a partially filled Camelback. Technically it was a lot less than I had been consuming per day. (I had been consuming 1-2 qts per hour…. I now only had water for a few hours, not days.)

At 3 am as the sky was dark and temperatures dropped below freezing, I began my trek back towards civilization. I walked bike and trailer along the path on a moonless night with only a small headlamp I brought along for reading and other camp duties. At the time I was an avid night rider and spent most of my time on the trails after dark when the trails were vacant. I had purposely left all four of my trail lights at home to save weight and remove the temptation of traveling at night, where I felt I was more prone to injury.

As the sun rose in the east, I began to ride for a bit before the temperatures began to climb. The desert is odd in that even-though we had sub freezing temps at night, it would quickly climb to a blistering and mind altering oven in just a few hours of daylight. When I began to feel the increase of the suns rays on my body, I stopped and created a shelter using the bike, tent, and trailer. The wind was picking up and I was concerned that the combination of heat and wind would steal away any moisture my body was trying to conserve. I laid myself under the lean-to, tried to conserve energy, and when not sleeping, kept myself busy studying the map and writing in my journal.

Around 10 pm I began my trek again. I had a bit of rest and in spite of having less than a water bottle left, I felt ready to go. The temps had only dropped into the 80s at this point, but I wanted to get moving. At this point I was pushing through the thick gravel again. I know I wasn’t as aware of my location and surrounding as I should have been but I remember that I resolved to keep to the right side of the road. This way, if I went down the wrong fork, I would wind up at the river. If I stayed my course, even in the confusion, I would be headed back to Rio Grand Village. Somewhere around midnight I drank my last drop of water.

At 645 the next morning I knew I was going to live. I was out of water, severely dehydrated, and barely moving on the bike. It was in a gulch that as I passed through I was gifted with thousands (and thousands) of Monarch Butterflies migrating along my path. I can’t explain it, and maybe it was a private moment for me, but I knew I was going to make it.

Pressing on through the heat I finally made it back to Rio Grande Village, although I have no idea what time it was but knew it was late afternoon. I walked into the store near the camp ground and drank a Gatoraid before paying for it. I think the clerk could tell what was up and never even questioned me. I spent the rest of the day and evening recuperating and the next morning I headed home.

I lived because I had a bit of training and most of all I decided I was going to live. The difference between survivors and non-survivors is having the ability to crawl with-in your self and decide to live. The last stage of dying is acceptance. The last stage of surviving is commitment.