Surviving Survival School: Learning what to do when the matches get soaked, a bear claws the tent or the car won't start (Fitness, May/June 1994)
Lunch, if you could call it that, was on Mother Nature: a handful of waxy, sweet milkweed blossoms, three wild rose petals, and a couple of cupfuls of water, carefully doctored against parasites with a slug of aerobic oxygen. "We're living a paleo lifestyle," Rob, one of the instructors, explained. "Think of the time back in Boulder as celebrating a kill. Now we're on the move again, being nomadic, en route to the next kill. Then we'll feast." And when would that be? "It could be tonight. It could be tomorrow. I don't know."
One thing was certain: I sure as hell hadn't known what I was getting into when I signed up for a seven-day walkabout with Boulder Outdoor Survival School, a.k.a. BOSS. And now, after 11 milkweed blossoms and an unknown number of miles bushwacked through an anonymous section of Utah wilderness, it was too late to sign out. There was really only one viable option: Keep going—and keep an eye out for more milkweed.
Although I didn't realize it then, I had in fact just passed the first and most difficult obstacle in a survival situation, namely, accepting and adapting to the surroundings. It didn't matter that I was a thin-blooded Easterner, more accustomed to the sea-level smog of New York City than the crystalline air and mile-high base altitude of Utah's Canyon Country; nor did it matter that my exercise habits over the past six weeks had been literally pedestrian (I walked about three miles to work at a brisk clip, swam a third of a mile a couple times a week, and had taken my first step aerobics class four days before getting on the plane). Attitude, it turns out, is almost everything in wilderness survival.
That's not a lesson that's easily taught. It's something you learn on your own. Still, programs offered by such organizations as Outward Bound and BOSS, which has been labeled "the most challenging and toughest school in the nation," can create a situation in which you test and enhance your physical and mental skills. It's not comfortable and it can be dangerous, but you do know that someone doesn’t really want you to die – at least, not on their watch. Call it survival with a safety net.
BOSS specializes in primitive living skills, those techniques used by paleolithic peoples all over the world. Consequently, their survival philosophy maximizes natural resources and minimizes dependence on modern technology. That was what appealed to me and the other seven people who enrolled in the walkabout. Although we came from all different parts of the country, had backgrounds ranging from financial analyst to dental hygienist to policeman, and our ages skipped from 15 to 47, we all had the same reason for taking the course: We had spent enough time in the wilderness to experience the effects of Murphy's Law and we wanted to learn what to do when the matches get soaked, a bear shreds the tent or the car won't start.
I could have opted to imbibe a concentrated dose of primitive technology in BOSS's somewhat sedentary skills course but I wanted to explore the breathtakingly beautiful backcountry, so I traded knowledge for mileage. What I unwittingly got thrown in was "impact."
Impact is the first part of any walkabout course. It's designed to test your endurance—physical, mental, emotional, and even social—by throwing you into a constantly changing environment with minimal instruction, no information and even less sympathy. It started under a copiously shedding cottonwood tree, which rained sticky white fibers on us as we rolled our belongings in a blanket, tied it into a backpack of sorts and then said goodbye to it. Gimlet-eyed instructors wandered around, ostensibly on hand to teach the duplicitous knot that holds the pack together but also to ferret out contraband—raisins, Milky Way bars, toilet paper, matches, flashlights, watches or sunglasses. It reminded me of bootcamp.
Our impact allowables consisted of whatever could be tied around your waist—and you had to decide which to take. "We've had 110 degree temperatures during the day and had canteens freeze on us at night," said Scott, one of the instructors (like the characters in Jean Auel's Earth's Children series, all the BOSS principals sported one-syllable names). "A camera and film—boy, just try to eat that," said Roy. "You can take a journal if you think you'll have any thoughts you want to remember," said Rob. Thanks, guys, you're a bunch of princes.
Amid the exasperating refrain "We can't make that decision for you," I spread out my down-filled ski jacket, stuffed the sleeves with a pair of long johns, an expedition-weight capilene top and a fleece pullover, jammed the pockets with an extra pair of wool socks, a knit hat, and an extra kerchief, put sunscreen and lipsaver (it's arid extra dry out there) in a pants pocket, and attached my one-cup capacity tin mug to my belt. I was wearing a t-shirt, sports bra, nylon jogging shorts, loose-fitting jeans, two pairs of socks and beautiful new chocolate-and-green Raichle boots. Two hours later, they were a uniform dirt brown.
And then we got lost. I think. The instructors weren't saying.
At any rate, night fell and it was decided to make camp on top of a sagebrush-covered hillock. Making camp consisted of stumbling down the slope in the moonlight to the creek, drinking lots of water, then stumbling back up. The temperature was plummeting and I throw off as much body heat as an ice cube. Already, I'd learned that you don't get something for nothing—at least, not on a BOSS course—so I sidled up to Keith, a bulky, sweet-mannered Texan, and offered to share my fleece pullover as a pillow if he'd share his body warmth. I chose well—Keith was a radiator, and I needed one, in spite of donning every stitch of extra clothing and using my extra socks for mittens. I'd also chosen the camp's loudest snorer but that, too, proved useful; after making a post-moonset trip into the sagebrush, I found my way back by listening for Keith.
Not surprisingly, breakfast was spartan: water and milkweed, where we could find it. (Unfortunately, it was not the season for the milkweed pods, whose corms taste like a combination of cucumber and honeydew.) "I thought we were promised 1,500 calories a day," Dick, the financial analyst, said plaintively. "You were," someone else cracked. "You just weren't told which day."
"Today's lesson is getting hot and dry," Rob announced. With water scarce and no canteens except our stomachs, he was right. At a breath-robbing pace, we clambered up through sage and juniper scrub, marched along barren watercourses, shuffled through sand so bright I could barely look up, and swatted our way among willows that promised water but didn't deliver. As the sun pinned us in its relentless glare, I learned that you didn't stop for breath until you reached the top of a hill, that putting pebbles in your mouth would help you salivate, that as long as the shadow of the person in front of you kept moving so did you, that just because it was hot was no reason to stop, that there wasn't any point in mentioning lunch. "We eat when we find it," Rob said.
We halted at the bottom of a 1,000-foot slickrock cliff. We could save a couple of hours by scaling it, Scott said, otherwise we'd have to bushwhack around. But it was our decision. They couldn't make it for us. We chose to go for it.
Slickrock isn't really slippery, but it sure is smooth. You can walk along wind-scored ledges in a modified crouch but you don't have anything to grab if you lose your balance. In some circumstances, fooling around on slickrock could be a lot of fun. Not now.
Halfway up the cliff face, I started a traverse across a bulge and made the mistake of looking down. The wind gusts were tugging at my hat and slamming into my chest. I imagined them plucking me off the crumbling ledge and hurling me down below. I tried to begin the traverse, put my foot out, took it back. Once, twice, three times, like a cautious version of the hokey-pokey. I couldn't force myself forward. I was stuck.
It never occurred to me to ask the instructors for help. Maybe I wasn't in the mood for more BOSS cryptospeak, maybe I assumed they wouldn't help anyway. I'd have to get myself out of there, using my own wits. I stared at the ledge and tried to visualize my moves, as I had so often in other sports. The screen was blank.
But that's when I realized that if I couldn't lead, I could follow. "Evy," I said to the woman behind me, "I'm stuck. You go first."
Luckily, Evy had other demons. Or maybe I neutralized mine by naming it. In any case, she inched out, I practically crawled into her back pocket and we both made it to the top.
And, miracle of miracles, there were our blanket packs, and a bunch of bananas, and a couple of gallons of Gatorade and our food supplies. The instructors became human. Impact was over.
Over the next five days, we continued to tramp through landscapes of monumental beauty. I learned to make a friction fire with a bow drill and spindle like African bushmen, to catch trout with my bare hands and gut it with an obsidian blade, to brush my teeth with a cottonwood twig (its astringent qualities help fight plaque), and to tend to other needs with sagebrush and sand. I ate cattails (pretty good), munched squawberries (delicious!), and took advantage of the abundant stands of milkweed to stock up on the blossoms.
Despite my initial trepidation, I loved the day and night I spent solo at the end of the course. I'd been allotted an area along the Escalante river, enclosed by jagged cliffs of red rock and spanning the full range of ecological zones from sagebrush desert to willow thickets. I chose my campsite, aired my blanket and gave myself a good scrubdown in the river. I'd had all sorts of plans for fervid activity—making cordage of milkweed fiber, working on primitive tools, practicing my knife craft, even sketching (we were allowed to bring a few personal items in our blanket packs). Instead, I spent the afternoon sitting under the shade of a cottonwood tree, watching the shadows shift on the red rock cliffs in utter peace and contentment.
I think of all the lessons I'd learned on the course, the one that resonated most deeply was my epiphany on the slickrock cliff. I had never conceived of anyone doing what we had done, especially under conditions of scant water and no food, yet I had done it. I had been pushed beyond my known limits—and still had not reached my limits, physical or mental. I'll probably always prefer a Thermarest mattress pad to hard ground and toilet paper to sagebrush, but I now know I can be quite comfortable in the wilderness without them.
The shadows lengthened. When the sun slid below the cliff rim, I sparked a fire with a nest of scrunched-up sagebrush fibers and my bow drill. I crouched by the coals and ate my primitive food ration—a soup of lentils and rice that I'd spiked with the sharp cresses I’d gathered by the river. I settled into my blanket roll and watched the stars prick through the velvet vault above. It was then that I heard the first harbinger of civilization—the faint echo of a jet plane far overhead.
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