Dealing with Nature –  Part 5:  But What if You Couldn’t Get Out?

I wondered if I would pique your interest with any of this.  Most photographers I have met here in SoCal give this almost no thought.  To the contrary, those I knew back in the Rockies thought about it all the time and were generally prepared mentally and equipmentally to deal with almost anything.  Perhaps that is because in that country, from Montana down to New Mexico, there exist far more places where the hope of rescue is slim if no one knows to come looking, and the places where adventures can be seriously life-threatening are far more common.

But that does not mean that such dangers do not exist here as well; they are just more isolated.  The serious landscape photographers, in search of new and exciting images, are precisely the ones to often find themselves in such places, and, unfortunately, in such trouble because they had no expectation of it beyond a pleasant hike in the beautiful country and the acquisition of some stunning images.

Here, too many weekend pathfinders think of the mountains and deserts as if they were just on a Disneyland adventure ride where it is exciting and thrilling in a vicarious sort of way, but where the apparent dangers are not real.  Yet, just this past week on the news, was a couple who were rescued barely in time (and by blind luck) and another instance involving a lone hiker who whose body was found too late.  Not one of them thought it would ever happen to them.  But it did.  Let me assure you, the dangers can be real even here in la-la land.

Big Pine Creek for blog

Taken along Big Pine Creek on the trail back to the site of the Palisades Glacier.  It was on the road to this trail my student below got stuck.  Further down this trail is a gorgeous glacial cirque but where the footing can be treacherous and requires constant attention.  On one workshop a student looking for a shot stepped off the trail and slipped down toward the creek, fortunately with only cuts and scrapes.  But it could have been far worse; had he made it all the way to the Glacier and THEN had he had a broken bone or seriously twisted ankle, and had he not had the help of other students to get out, the situation could have turned dire pretty quickly.  Even sending a person out for help would mean likely at least spending a night.

On a workshop into the eastern Sierras I had a participant with a flashy new 4WD leave the group on his own, with one other person, to go try out some of the roads into the mountains where he promptly discovered, to his surprise and in contradiction to the salesman’s assurances, that his spiffy 4-wheeler was not a tank.  Fortunately, they were not a long walk from the main road so help was relatively close and it was still early in the day.  But the road they were on could have taken them far into the backcountry where getting stuck could have turned very, very serious.  They had not bothered to tell anyone else what they intended or where they were headed or when they expected to be back.  Trust me, the next day we had a true “come to Jesus” meeting where the rules I thought I had spelled out earlier, were reinforced a bit more clearly and graphically.

Never forget this: when your vehicle will take you further into the wilds than you can walk out in a day (assuming you know where to go) you have just put yourself and any companions in potential trouble.  If it goes bad, it is on you.

So, after reading the little adventure of the previous post, some readers asked me what I would have done if Nikko and I had not been able to extricate the vehicle, or if the incoming storm arrived early or the vehicle was damaged and, for whatever reasons, the result was that we were really stuck there?  So let’s think about that.

Once it was obvious that we were not going to move the vehicle by ourselves, then the situation changes abruptly.  The next steps depend on the answer to the question as to whether we can expect anyone to come looking for us (or stumble upon us) in the relatively near future.  When you are off truly exploring new (to you) roads or trails, it is unlikely you would have left precise itinerary since you are making this up as you go along.  When truly exploring to areas, my Rocky Mountain photo friends are always prepared to have to bivouac in place.  Are you?

Nevertheless, a general idea of your working area and a time of expected return along with a description of the vehicle would be enough to get a rescue mounted the next day.  If that were the case, then we could reasonably expect rescue within a couple of days, especially, if we helped the rescuers to find us.   However, if that rescue effort is at least a day away,  don’t waste time or energy right now with trying to signal anyone.  You’ll need every scarp of energy you have to make it through this first night.

If no one knew where we were going or when we expected to return, then we might not be missed until it was too late for us and exposure or dehydration killed us.  It might be weeks before anyone else tried that road and if the weather turned bad, our survival would be in serious question if we had no way to extend our survival or get to help.

For sake of this entry, let’s assume for now that you have all gotten the message about leaving word of your plans and then sticking to them, and rescue can be expected in 2-3 days.  I have noted before and it is worth repeating, your car will be much easier to spot than you will, so staying with the car is almost always the best thing to do.  It provides a waterproof shelter and windbreak.  And if your engine still runs, it can, with proper rationing, provide enough heat to keep you from freezing (assuming you have proper clothing or blankets) for several days.  Unless you are intimately familiar with the local terrain and environment, trying to strike out across country can be suicidal.

California mountains near big bear for blog

Taken in the Big Bear area with a 500mm lens.  In the center distance is a ledge road winding into the mountains.  If a vehicle broke down there, the inhabitants would have to hike from there to the main road where this shot is from (a lot closer than where the ledge road forked off from its primary forest service road.  That would likely take more than a day and anyone doing that would have to be prepared for it. 

In our case we were on a road that branched from another road that led to a town.  If we absolutely had to leave the car, the trail would have been easy to follow though it would have probably taken a couple of days if the snow was getting deeper.  But trekking through the snow at night is less than brilliant, so we’d have needed to at least spend that first night at the car.  The first thing is to lay out and take stock of your resources; i.e. what do you have available from your survival/emergency gear, recovery gear, and even your photo gear, that you can bring into play to serve your survival needs?

Remember the triage of needs:  (1) maintaining body temp, (2) staying hydrated, (3) if you expect the arduous hike out such as what would be necessitated by the terrain in the above shot, then maintaining your energy reserves becomes important, and (4) making yourselves easy to find for any rescuers if you expect them to be looking.

As an aside, although I said where we were there was no cell phone coverage, it might have been worth the effort to hike to some higher ground and see if you could at least get a text message out since you need far less signal strength for a text than for a voice transmission.  If that worked, then after getting word out and an acknowledgement of your message, you’d be better backtracking to the car and wait for help. The better you were able to pinpoint your location in the message, or at the site of your shelter, the sooner that help will arrive.  Now you only need to stay alive and help them find you.

OK, back to the situation at hand.  Assuming your vehicle is not totaled, burned up, or at the bottom of a steep cliff, it will be the best spot for at least this first night.  So to get you through the night, miserable but alive, you will need to maintain core body temperature and stay hydrated.  Question 1: will the car start even if it cannot be moved?  If so, and if you have plenty of gas, you can ration that fuel with short, 10 minute periods of running the heater in the car.  Make sure the exhaust pipe is clear so that CO (Carbon Monoxide) does not enter or build up in the cab, which could be fatal for you.

Do you have plenty of water on board?  If so then you are all set to spend a very uncomfortable — but very survivable — first night.   But if any of those conditions (a car you can shelter in, enough fuel for running the heater, and several days of water) is not true, then you will need to take some affirmative action to solve it.  So question # 2 is, what time is it, or, more importantly, how long will it be until sundown, which will tell you how long you have to prepare for the night.  If the sun is still high you have plenty of time, but if it is low in the sky time is limited so it is more serious.  Stumbling around in the dark when you are already upset by the situation, is dangerous.  So how much time do you have?  Your hand can tell you.

Hold your hand at arms length away from you toward the sun, turn your palm inward, fingers together, and note how many finger-widths the sun is from the point where it will fall behind the terrain or trees.  Each finger width will give you approximately 15 minutes of sunlight to use. Put on a good hat or cap and gloves since you lose a huge proportion of body heat out through your head and exposed extremities.  As the sun goes down conserving body heat (and replacing it) becomes a life and death issue.

If the car cannot help provide warmth then you will need to start a fire.  That fire will also help if you need water for hydration but we’ll get to that in a moment.  Remember for a fire you will need tinder (the fine easy to start material that will then ignite…) some kindling (small finger sized DRY twigs or other flammables) which will then ignite the real fuel (arm thickness dry wood.)  Remember a few paragraphs above I asked what time it was, well that is now critical because you will need to gather the materials for your fire while you can still clearly see.  It is easier to STAY warm than to let yourself get chilled and try to re-warm your body, so time is now an important element in your actions.

So while there is still enough light for you to see, gather enough DRY material to get the fire going and to last through the night, roughly a pile of fuel logs about three feet wide by three feet tall and kindling equal to a couple of the logs.  Now, does your kit contain fire starting tinder material?  If not, you will need to create a tinder bundle from dry grasses, leaves, fine wood shavings, and resin filled “fat wood” you can find, or any paper you may have in the vehicle.  Are you beginning to see that movies and TV may have lied to you about how easy it is to do this unless you are well equipped and well-practiced at it?

But there is more to consider.  Do you have an ignition source to start the tinder going?  A match or lighter?  Even the cigarette lighter can work.  Sparks from your battery can do the job.  Or, if you have it, a ferrocerium rod and anything with a good sharp edge such as your knife or even broken glass or screwdriver blade it will make the process easier — not as good as a lighter or match but still fairly easy..  Let’s dispel another myth right now.  Unless you have a propane torch handy, starting a fire requires some tools and materials.  Even primitive tribes carried with them – and often held sacred – the materials to start a fire.  Perfect sticks for the “spindle” part of a bow or hand drill were prized and when found, gathered and kept safe.  Mountain men carried their flint and steel and char cloth with them.  NONE of them simply sat down to a pile of wood and magically started a fire with nothing to ignite it that was most likely not brought with them.  Just remember, none of those implements were designed to set a log on fire; they were designed only to set the tinder or tinder-bundle on fire.

While we’re in the myth-busting mode, let’s deal with a myth for photographers having to do with igniting a fire with a magnifying glass made from a photographic lens.  First of all, to use a magnifying glass of any type to ignite a fire needs good strong clear-sky sunlight, the higher in the sky the better.  Does it work?  You bet, and it is quite fast if you have good sun and good combustible material and all the variables are in your favor.  Once the sun starts to drop in the sky, however, it becomes much harder.  By the time the sun is near the horizon, using the lens from a planetary telescope will not get your fire going.  And, while we’re at it, tiny lenses like the one on a Swiss Army Knife, are not going to do it either. That little lens is great for finding that irritating splinter, but not so great as a reliable fire starter.  You will need a lens at least 2” to 3” in diameter to do this easily and even then, it’s easier during mid-day.  (BTW, a large (8×10) Fresnel lens will do it too.) But… when it is overcast or dark, you better have a plan B ready to go.

Now, as to the trope of using a photo lens or lens element:  it’s true that the front objective of a photo lens (The front-most lens element in the lens body) is normally a simplex or duplex lens that could be used.  But… it must be removed from the lens body.  Can you do that and without damaging the lens beyond repair?  Take a good look at the screws holding it together… your automotive or construction screw drivers are not going to work.  Counting on just grabbing your camera lens, with its complex arrangements of elements and groups, and focusing a hot spot to start something on fire, is almost certainly going to leave you with the prospect of a very cold night.

Don’t fight it. Don’t ruin a good lens.  Just toss a good lighter in your kit and be done with it.  As we said before, this is an emergency.  It is not a test of your 1840s-vintage mountain man skills, it is the 21st century, so take advantage of that chronology with your emergency/survival prep.  It is not what the preppers call a SHTF (fecal matter impacting the rotary air moving device) situation where you are on your own for months or even forever.  It is, instead, a relatively short term scenario, so your list of supplies and equipment is not extensive.  But this is not the time for cheap tools and equipment that may break the first time it is under stress. You are going to have enough to deal with without adding the frustration of failure after failure to get a fire going.  Since, even if it was the 1840s, you would have brought fire making supplies in your “possibles” bag, welcome yourself to modern times and carry a lighter or some “strike anywhere” matches along with the kindling and fuel gathering gear.

(If you’d like a little tutorial on how to do that, let me know.)

Once you have an ember glowing and smoking, gently envelope it in the tinder being careful not to smother it, blow softly on it until you get a flame, then place it under the first layer of kindling and then add kindling as needed to get a sustainable flame then add fuel, being careful to allow a flow of oxygen and not to allow the kindling or fuel logs to collapse and crush the beginning fire.

Once the fire is started and burning on its own, you can rig a space/emergency blanket from your survival/emergency kit to help reflect heat into the car like an oven. And now it is time to think about hydration.  And let’s dispel another myth right now.  Do not think that eating snow is the obvious and simple solution.  In fact, eating snow can speed up your demise.  Here’s why.  First, typical snow is about 10% water and 90% air.  That means you would have to eat a lot of snow to properly hydrate yourself even if you are not burning energy with other activities.

But it gets worse; eating snow is also an energy loser.  Your body has to burn energy in order to warm itself after the injection of cold snow.  It may already be struggling with the temperature issue and putting cold stuff inside will accelerate your energy drain.  Plus, it will accelerate your mental and motor functions losses as your body takes the warming blood from all extremities – including your brain – to keep the heart and lungs functioning.

Snow can be a source of water, even if an inefficient one, but you need to melt it first and drink it already warmed if possible and, better yet, with some bouillon cubes for at least a little protein.  That is why my pack (shown in part 4) contained the steel canteen cup, and why making a fire is essential even for hydration when snow is readily available, as counter intuitive as that may be.  And be further warned, old snow will be filled with debris and pathogens as harmful to you as drinking from a contaminated stream. Of course, if it is summer, you don’t even have that option available.  So, again, don’t fight it or try to be a hero, bring water with you.

When the short term survival issues (core body temperature and hydration) are dealt with, now you could think about food; not because you are likely to starve but because food is a major morale booster.  Being hungry is not pleasant under the best of situations; in an emergency if it chips away at your morale and dedication to survival, it can indirectly be deadly.  Protein for energy, carbs to help keep you warm, all contribute to getting you through this.  Forget hunting and trapping and fishing for a one or two day situation and just put protein or granola bars in your car sufficient for 2-3 days (6-9 bars per person) and if you have a way to heat water, some bouillon cubes..

So you made it through the night, certainly miserable, a little cold to be sure, but you woke up and discovered somewhat surprisingly, that you were alive and had made it.  Now with a whole day, there are some critical decisions to make.  So we’ll tackle those in the next post.



About ndking

Commercial Photographer and Professor of Photography at San Diego City College
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