How Do I Respond in Crisis Situations?

by Loren Sangbeto




The August 2008 issue of the National Geographic Adventure magazine published an article titled "How to Survive (Almost) Anything: 14 Survival Skills". It talks about the qualities that are very useful in life-threatening or other crisis situations to overcome the difficulties. It is a list of 14 skills that are necessary to survive almost any adversity.


After reading the essay, I reflected on my own life thus far and realized that I have also encountered some serious crisis situations in the past. I decided to enumerate them and evaluate each situation in the light of these 14 skills and see how I have fared. This article outlines the 14 skills in some detail as an introduction and then evaluates each one of my crisis situations.

The 14 Survival Skills Needed in a Crisis

The following is a brief summary of the 14 skills that the Adventure magazine discusses. The summary may be a bit cryptic, without examples. Hence, for a fuller understanding, please read the original article here.

1. Do the Next Right Thing
Survivors possess the capacity to break down the problem they are faced with into small, manageable tasks. Each step must be as simple as possible. Simple directed action is the key to regaining normal mental functioning. 

2. Control Your Destiny
One's habitual way of reacting to everyday events has a bearing on surviving a crisis. Some people see themselves as being largely in control of whatever happens to them, whether good or bad; they have an internal locus of control. Those having an external locus believe that things are done to them by outside forces or happen by chance. Research shows that those with a strong internal locus fare better in a crisis.
3. Avoid Denial
It is important to be aware of our tendency to engage in wishful thinking. Doing so can help avoid certain crises, eg a hiker in denial will continue walking even after losing the trail, assuming he’ll regain it eventually.
4. Use a Mantra
In a long and difficult survival situation a mantra is helpful. Find a phrase that will keep your mind focused on surviving, eg "I will until".

5. Think Positive

People who think positively and who are willing to admit mistakes overcome obstacles more easily.

6. Understand Linked Systems

In complex systems small changes can cause large and unpredictable effects. By analysing the situation in its complexity we may realise that we are taking a larger risk than seems to be the case.

7. Don’t Celebrate the Summit

Most climbing accidents happen on the descent. Don't let the half-way point lull you into letting down your guard when you’re already tired and stressed.

8. Get Outside Your Comfort Zone

Your brain becomes more adaptable with every new challenge you face. Although training and equipment are important, another crucial factor is what’s in your mind. It is good to make a conscious effort to learn new things and to leave your comfort zones.

9. Risk vs Reward

When facing a hazard, always ask: What is the desired reward and what is the potential cost?

10. Trust Your Instincts
Nonverbal communication conveys essential information, which we ignore at our peril. 

11. Know Plan B

When undertaking anything risky, always have a bailout plan. It’s important to establish specific parameters by which to make the decision to bail out. Then, when you’re not thinking straight due to exhaustion or stress, you’ll still make the appropriate decision.

12. Help Others

You can improve your own chances of survival in a crisis situation by tending to others, empowering yourself by changing from victim to rescuer.

13. Be Cool

Survival often depends on quickly regaining emotional equilibrium, which allows you to assess the situation and to work out what the new rules are, and what needs to be done.

14. Surrender, but Don’t Give Up

Surrender is the key to survival. Once you surrender and let go of the outcome, this frees you to act rationally. It helps you to activate that inner core which says: "I may die. I’ll probably die. But I’m going to keep going anyway."


Analysis of My Crisis Situations

The following sections describe some of the crisis situations I have found myself in and how I feel I have responded to them in terms of the 14 skills outlined above.

1. I come upon a grizzly bear on the Chilkoot Trail in Alaska

The Chilkoot trail is a 53-kilometre trail from Whitehorse in the Yukon to Skagway in Alaska. The trail starts from Lake Bennet in Whitehorse, goes over the Chilkoot pass to Alaska. I decided to start from the 'Log Cabin' instead of Lake Bennet in order to cut down some 6 kms of the trek due to the heaviness of my pack. This route joins the main trail after some 12 kms of lonely trek because most people start from Lake Bennet.

After I had walked for nearly 3 hours, I suddenly found myself staring with wide-open eyes at a young bear, which was peering at me as I emerged from behind a boulder. The bear was barely 15 metres from me. As soon as it saw me, it withdrew behind the rocks and went out of sight. I stopped in my tracks and withdrew behind the boulder again, considering whether it is wise to move forward as I thought that the mother bear may be close by. I didn't feel any fear yet but only a heightened sense of alertness. I remembered that one is supposed to give space to the bear by moving well away from it. So, I retreated some 30 metres along the trail and came to a spot in the open with a good view of the scenery in front. I removed my backpack and kept it nearby. Then, as I surveyed the scene in front of me, I saw this huge Grizzly bear some 50 metres in front of me, up on the slopes, standing on its hind legs and looking down at me. It seemed about 9 feet tall standing up.

My first reaction was one of shock at the immensity of this creature at such close range. At the same time, it occurred to me that I must get out of sight of this animal as soon as possible. So, I slowly bent down and picked up my backpack again and then turned my back to the animal and started to walk off into the bush. I would have barely walked for 10 seconds when I heard the bear charging down the hill. My heart seemed to stop for a moment as I turned around to face the bear. The only thought that crossed my mind at that moment was 'Oh, God, what a stupid way to die!'. As I stood looking at the bear charging towards me, it suddenly turned right and sped off into the forest barely 15 metres from me, with the young one hard on its heels. I watched them disappear into the distance.

I felt an instant sense of relief and the offer of a new lease of life. I considered for a minute whether to continue my trek. But I realized that only now I felt the fear of being alone in this wilderness of big animals. Within a minute, I abandoned my trek and started re-tracing my way back to the highway. That was the end of my Chilkoot trail trek.

Analysis of my Response

When I came upon the bear, I remained cool (13) internally instead of wanting to flee in panic. I had calmly considered what I should do to survive this situation and slowly moved out of sight of the animal.

When the bear charged me, I felt that it was the end and did surrender (14) mentally. But I did not give up (14) because I had turned around to face it and perhaps might have struggled with it if it pounced on me.

On the other hand, I failed to have a Plan B (11) in the event of something unexpected happening during my 3-day trek. Even though it was common knowledge that there are bears in the region, I had not prepared for such an eventuality. Having never encountered a big carnivorous animal in the wild before, I had no idea of what its impact would be on my psyche. I had no fear venturing out alone because I had been lulled into complacency by the benign images of wild bears I had seen on television. I had also not properly prepared myself as to what was the next right thing to do (1) when you are faced with a bear. I came to know later that turning my back to get out of the bear's sight was not the correct action. But the primary reason for my unpreparedness was that I had felt no fear about going alone into the forest.

This was an incident where all action happened instinctively without much thinking as the events happened too quickly and there was not much time to think.

2. I lose my way on the descent from Cotopaxi refugio in Ecuador

Cotopaxi (5897m) is considered one of the world's highest active volcanoes and is some 75 kilometres south of Ecuador's capital city of Quito. The refugio for the climb to the top of Cotopaxi is at 4800 m (15744 ft) and is reachable by a hiking and motorable trail.


My friend Brigid and I got up to the refugio on Feb 12, 2007 sometime around 2 pm. I reckoned that we had just about 45 minutes to spend there before starting our way back down the mountain to our hostel in Tambopaxi, which is at about 3750m. So, I had mentally made a note that we must leave latest by 2.45 pm because that will get us to the hostel just in time as the darkness sets in about 6.15 pm. But Brigid was busy in conversation with some fellow-Germans as the clock showed 2.45 pm. I suggested to her that I will start going down and that she can catch up with me on the way down as she is a faster walker than me. But she insisted that she wanted to walk down with me and requested me to wait for her. I couldn't say 'No' and so I waited.


Finally, when we left the refugio on our way down, it was 3.45 pm. I felt that we would have difficulties getting to Tambopaxi in time but consoled myself that Brigid is a 'mountain girl' as she has spent much time in Switzerland and so must know what she is doing. Brigid decided to go straight down the slope instead of following the zig-zag trail. We made great time and reached the valley floor at 5.15 pm. I was impressed because I knew that the trail on the valley floor to our hostel in Tambopaxi was only 75 minutes walk from here. I thought that I had worried unnecessarily.


We walked along the trail to Tambopaxi for ten minutes and then Brigid decided to leave the trail and cut across the valley floor towards the distant thatched huts, which we took for our hostel. We walked briskly and reached the river gorge and looked at the thatched huts on the other side. To our shock, we realized that it was not our hostel and that we have not seen these huts in the two days that we have been in Tambopaxi. In other words, we didn't know where we were. It was 6.15 pm and darkness was already starting to set in. Brigid said immediately that we were in the wrong valley and that we need to climb the high hill in front of us and go over the other side to get to our hostel. Not only that, she started to hike up the hill in fading light.


It didn't make sense to me. I believed that we were in the correct valley and needed to go further to our right around the hill on the valley floor to our hostel. In the morning, before we left the hostel, I had got my bearings regarding where our hostel was. If I stood with my back to the hostel with Mt.Cotopaxi to my right, then Mt.Ruminahui would be behind the hostel and Mt.Sinchalogua in front, across the valley. I stood now with Cotopaxi to my right, but clouds obscured the view so that one didn't know where Ruminahui or Sinchologua were.


I suggested to Brigid that we get back to the trail again and go further right where I believed the hostel was. Brigid agreed to get to the trail but scoffed at the idea of going right. She started going left on the trail. I followed her as I wasn't entirely sure of where our hostel was and also because I didn't want to be left alone.


We walked briskly in darkness by now for about an hour on the wide trail. I was convinced that we were heading in the wrong direction. It seemed to me that we were doomed to spend the night out in the open at 12000 ft without water, food and adequate protection on my part.  At the same time,  I also had the conviction that Life has always been good to me and that something will happen and deliver us to the hotel.


Suddenly we came upon a large body of water to our far right. Closer inspection showed that it was the same lake we had hiked to that morning. Even though it was dark all round, I felt elated because I knew that it meant that I was right all along and now we had a known reference point. Once we were sure that it was Lake Limpiopunga, I felt more confident of my own sense of topography. I said to Brigid that we must slowly retrace our way back along the trail without losing it in the darkness. It was 7.45 pm then. I was sure that we will reach the hostel, albeit slowly, by about 10 pm. Though it was quite dark, to my surprise, I found that the light from the stars was reflected by the whitish sand on the trail, allowing us to stay on the trail. By about 9 pm, we were met on the trail by our hostel staff who came looking for us, as they got worried. We reached the safety of the hostel by about 9.15 pm.


Analysis of my Response


When we came to the huts in the enveloping darkness and found that it was not our hostel and with neither of us recognizing the features as something we had seen before, I did not panic. Instead, I did the next right thing (1) by trying to get my bearings to find out where we were. I also reasoned correctly that we needed to go further on to our right. In contrast, Brigid tried to climb the hill in front, which was anyway impossible in the darkness and also reasoned wrongly that we were in the wrong valley. She wanted to act without considering the situation.


I remained cool (13) even though there was an apprehension that we might have to spend the night out in the cold, windy valley at 12000 feet without adequate protection. But I remained positive in my thinking (5) and believed that we could still get to the hostel that night by working hard towards getting a knowledge of our correct bearings and remaining on the trail.


I failed in not having a Plan B (11) when we left that morning from the hostel. The morning was nice and sunny and I had left with a small sandwich for lunch and just a jacket as protection, which was not too good for colder conditions. So, when the situation changed and I went up to the refugio, I had not provided for a long day. However, if I had left the refugio alone at 2.45 pm, I would very likely have made it to the hostel by 6.30 pm easily and not really had any of the problems.

3. My worldview is challenged by the collapse of communism in 1991

I had been a Marxist since sometime in 1976, when I studied the many voluminous works of Marx, Engels, Lenin and MaoZeDong. Even though I lived in a liberal, democratic and capitalist society like Australia from 1980 onwards, I continued to remain a communist at heart. Then, in 1989-90, the Berlin Wall came down and eastern Europe walked away from communism, followed by the collapse of the mighty Soviet Union in 1991. China had already abandoned the socialist economic model since 1980. So, it was a real crisis in my worldview. As far as I could see, the world had rejected communism. I had the option of ignoring reality and remaining a communist or re-evaluating my worldview in the light of events and formulating a new worldview.

By 1992, I had analyzed the events leading to the collapse of communism and moved away from it in my worldview.


Analysis of my Response


The main reason for the crisis related to my being a communist was living in denial (3). My studies between 1976 and 1990 showed the undemocratic practices of all communist states and their penchant for lying and re-writing history to suit the party's needs. Living in Australia showed me the vibrancy and humane outlook of modern capitalist societies, not to speak of the affluence of material life. Still, I just 'looked' at it but did not 'see' it. I preferred to live in denial, like all well-meaning communists do. One can also say that re-evaluation would have required me to face the challenges posed by the vibrancy of capitalism and get out of my comfort zone (8) of believing that all is well with communism.


Once the crisis struck home with great power in 1990, I had the courage to do the next right thing (1). I had the courage and honesty to admit that I was wrong and spend a year re-evaluating my worldview. I arrived at a new and acceptable outlook for myself that felt comfortable.


Marxism always taught the importance of understanding linked systems (6). So, did science, which I pursued for a living. But the authoritarian outlook of communism teaches you to apply this principle to everything else except itself. Had I applied this principle courageously when doubts arose in my mind in the late 1970s, I might have denounced communism long before 1992.

4. I lose $5.5 million in the stock market crash of 2001 - 02

The crash in the US stock market between 2001 and 2002 had a big impact on me. It qualifies to be called a crisis because I saw myself lose 5.5 million dollars of my portfolio value in two years. This is big money in anyone's vocabulary, much more so for someone like me, who made it through hard work. However, this was a crisis which lasted a few years and called for slow, logical actions rather than instinctive responses.


The US stock market started crashing due to the bust of the dotcom boom in mid 2000. I watched the value of my primary stock holding, Cisco, go down gradually from $80 all the way down to about $8.50 in two years. My portfolio value slumped to 20% of its highest value before I started taking hold of the situation and acting on it. It was traumatic, as I watched millions evaporate without my doing anything about it.

It was 2005 by the time I put in place some corrective action.


Analysis of my Response


Not understanding Linked Systems (6) is the main reason for this crisis. I had been totally ignorant of the linkage between Cisco's high stock price and its heavy dependence on the dotcom business. My money was heavily invested in technology and I failed to understand that diversification is necessary to weather market crashes. I mistook stock holdings for real money, whereas in reality, it is real money in hand only when you sell it and secure the cash. Till I came to the US in 1993, I had no idea of what the stock market is all about. Once I came to the US in 1993, all I had seen was the stupendous rise of the US stock market day after day for 7 years, till mid 2000. Whenever the market went down by 200 or even 500 points, it would recoup it in a matter of a week at the most. So, I had assumed that it was not something that long-term investors like me need to worry about.


I was also in denial (3) because I kept thinking that Cisco will return to its high stock price in a year or two. Even when some analysts wrote that it will take Cisco 17 years to get back to $80, I refused to look at the reasons behind it.


I did not do the next right thing (1) when the market crash started. Even when there was sufficient evidence that I should act, I did not act on it. The correct action would have been to study and understand the principles behind the stock market and sell Cisco and diversify my portfolio to reduce the risk inherent in my portfolio. I started doing the right thing only after I lost 80% of all the big money I made.

5. I get mugged at knife point in Brazil

I was walking down a rather busy road at 10.30 pm towards my hotel in the city of Curitiba in southern Brazil. Though motor vehicles were plying the road, there was hardly anyone on the sidewalks at this time of the night. My hotel was still some 15 minutes' walk away. It was then that I saw a couple of young men walking towards me on the sidewalk.

They came close to me and suddenly one of them put his left hand around my neck in a vice-like grip and pulled out a knife and pointed it close to my heart, threatening to stab me. The other young man just stood nearby, not doing anything. He didn't try to pull my backpack away or try to pull my wallet out of my back pocket.

I was taken aback for a split second, but surprisingly, I didn't feel any fear. Somehow, my instincts told me that it was a bluff and that he is not really going to stab me. I don't know what made me feel that way. So, instead of panicking, I resisted him and struggled free of his grip and moved away from him a few metres towards the edge of the road. But the young man with the knife did not give up. He pounced on me again and grabbed my neck once more and threatened to stab me again. His partner simply stood by once again and I wriggled free once more. This time I found myself on the road.

Cars were passing by all the time. Now, suddenly, a woman behind me at some distance screamed and shouted something in Portuguese and that made the two young men abandon their mugging attempts on me and walk away briskly. I saw the woman scream and run away.

I realized that the danger had passed. I debated whether to walk the remaining distance to the hotel or look for a cab. I decided to walk it and eventually reached the hotel safely without further incidents.

Analysis of my Response

Most of the action happened so quickly that all my response was instinctive. Even though I had always thought that I would flee in fear giving up all my possessions if I am mugged at knife point, in reality I found that I was not afraid at all. Instead, I resisted and succeeded at it. In some sense, I could say that I trusted my instincts (10) and acted.

I remained cool (13) all through the incident. I did not feel any fear at all in spite of a knife being pointed at my heart.

One could argue that I took an unnecessary risk in walking alone late at night in a city in Brazil and that the reward of the experience is not worth the risk (9) involved. But then, Curitiba is one of the safer cities in Brazil and even my Brazilian friends were surprised that it happened to me in Curitiba. So, I think it was just bad luck, rather than a mistake on my part.


July 2008


My Crisis Points

by Tad Boniecki




What we call a 'crisis' is actually a subjective judgement. If you don't think you are having a crisis (though you might escape death purely by luck) then you aren't having one. Other people could regard a number of my experiences as 'crises' though I do not see them that way, and vice versa. It's like when people say I am brave to walk alone in the mountains - to me there is no courage involved.


It would be a big mistake to see a crisis as being necessarily a physical emergency. Thus divorce, bereavement, losing one's job, having a mental breakdown, and going bankrupt are crises, just as much as a medical emergency, car accident, a crime scenario or a wilderness misadventure. I define a crisis as whatever we perceive as a major threat to us or to something important in our life.


Looking at the crises of Sangbeto, I noticed that in no case did anything bad actually happen (losing money is not so bad provided one still has more than one needs). The same is true of my four crises. When the things we fear come to pass it is usually not as bad as what we feared.


I think that point 11 in the Adventure article needs enlarging. Not only is Plan B one of the most important of all the survival tips, but one needs to think of Plan B before setting off into the wilderness, jumping out of the plane or investing in a business venture. In the case of a wilderness expedition, this may involve taking a mobile phone, getting information about alternative routes and refuges, or leaving word to say where you are going. Obviously, clothes and equipment appropriate for a possible emergency should be part of one's preparations. Note that in crisis situations both our access to information and our room to manoeuvre are normally reduced, hence the importance of having a prior Plan B. Another weakness is that Point 10 seems to refer only to interpersonal communication. I think it should be given a far broader interpretation to include our suspicions that something is not as it should be, or that the situation is more dangerous than it seems.


One could also add to the list: getting necessary information (both before and during the crisis), being flexible, being resourceful, using lateral thinking, asking for help, making decisions and being able to act without sufficient knowledge of outcomes, being in the moment, seeing it as a challenge to grow from rather than as a problem, and taking a holistic approach ie seeing the wider picture.


It is interesting to look at the death of Christopher McCandless in "Into the Wild". This is a true story that has been made into a book and a film. It is a rare and interesting instance of non-survival that has been well documented in his diary by the person in question. Christopher ventured alone into Alaska, and while he was clever and resourceful, he perished due to a combination of poisoning, lack of food and a river in spring-time flood. Firstly, he was in denial of the dangers of making a solo incursion into the wilderness. Secondly, he did not balance the risks with the rewards of his adventure. Thirdly, he failed to understand the linked system of climate and river water height. Fourthly, and crucially, he had no Plan B, no alternative means of survival other than wading across a river.


Unlike Christopher, my life has been fairly uneventful. Yet I was surprised that I managed to list eleven crises, four of which are described below.


1) 1976 I nearly bow to my father's pressure to go to study in Cleveland.


My parents lived in Paris during 1976. By the time I joined them for a few weeks that hot summer I had been out of university for some 18 months. There was a maths degree to my name, but it did not qualify me for any specific position. I had not found a proper job, as I didn't know what to do with myself. While I was in Paris, my father put considerable pressure on me to go to Cleveland, Ohio to do a PhD in large-scale system modelling, a subject I knew almost nothing about. He was enthusiastically involved with environmental projects at the time and he wanted to draw me into this activity. My father was in close contact with an academic who co-wrote the second report to the Club of Rome, Professor Mesarovic in Cleveland. It seemed likely that I would be able to enrol in the degree because of this personal connection. The idea was that doing the PhD would place me at the cutting edge of environmental science and that I would subsequently get a job in Australia using my new qualification. I succumbed to this pressure and began making arrangements to go. However, the decision tormented me. On reflection I realised that the long separation from Carla, my partner whom I loved, would do great harm to me emotionally and possibly end our relationship. The prospect of living in Cleveland didn't appeal and neither was I keen on the course itself. On top of this, I had serious doubts whether I was intellectually capable of doing it. So before returning to Australia I changed my mind. My father was furious.


This was a basic crisis for me in that it related to the direction of my life. It's hard to guess how my life might have turned out had I gone to Cleveland, but in hindsight, I doubt that a PhD in system modelling would have made me employable in Australia. So had I bowed to my father's ideas I would probably have been no better off work-wise after finishing the PhD than before it. To make matters worse, I did not really have an interest in the proposed area of study. It was my father's passion, not mine.


The challenge for me in this crisis was to control my destiny (2), rather than letting my father or circumstances dictate what course my life would take. In the end, I resolved to make a concerted effort to find a job back in Australia, which is what I did. I sent off 74 job applications and soon began my career in computing. Clearly, the essential thing was to create Plan B (11), and this I did. The stumbling block I faced during my crisis was that I did not have any counter-proposal to make in answer to my father's solution. To make the right decision I needed to not be in denial (3) regarding the effect that going to Cleveland for 2-3 years would have on my relationship with Carla. I also needed to balance the gains versus the costs of taking up the PhD (9). Making the right decision was largely a matter of following my heart (10), ie putting my relationship with Carla first.


I had created this crisis in the first place by neglecting to take charge of my life (2) and by not doing the next right thing (1). Before I arrived in Paris I had no life plan, not even Plan A, let alone Plan B. In effect I was in denial (3) regarding the need to do something about the direction of my life.


2) 1985 I am caught by darkness in the rainforest


Carla and I were staying at Binna Burra, a lodge set in a rainforest on the Queensland-NSW border. This morning I set out by myself to reach a mountain called Egg Rock, which is visible from the Lodge and less than 2 km in a straight line. I had tried to reach (and climb) this mountain two days earlier, but had abandoned the attempt due to being delayed by a lantana thicket. Setting out at 9.40, I took a trail map, a jumper and an orange, with no other food or water and no compass. There is no trail leading to Egg Rock, so I planned to bush-bash. I started out on one of the trails then switched to following a mostly dry creek bed. Seeing that my progress was too slow, I abandoned the goal of reaching Egg Rock. I was happy to just get a river walk up Bellbird Creek. At one point I noticed a piece of coloured plastic on a log inches from my hand. It was a two-metre yellow-grey snake. This gave me a shock. I don't think I felt any fear at the time, as it happened so suddenly and the snake was not aggressive. I don't know whether it was poisonous or not, but you don't muck around with snakes in Australia. I retreated.


I continued up a fairly steep hill covered by ferns and fallen logs. I was now more careful, spreading the ferns with a stick to make sure I didn't step on a snake. Proceeding laboriously, I reached the Lower Bellbird Track at 4.15. Now I made an unwise decision - to bush-bash my way to another track. I knew that the Bellbird Track wound around and I wanted to find a short-cut. This idea looked OK on my map but a topographical feature stood in the way: a cliff. I reached its base and walked along it to find a breach or a climbable section. Soon I was faced with the choice of going back down or negotiating a tricky section of the escarpment. I decided for the latter. By using a handy root I crossed the difficult part, where I couldn't rest my weight on my feet. A little further on, it became even more difficult and I was forced to turn back. At this point, considerations of reality intruded: it was 5.45 - fifteen minutes till it got dark. I belatedly realised that there was no chance I would make it back to the lodge by 6.15, as I had promised Carla. I became determined to get back down to the track as quickly as possible. As if to protest this decision, my legs suddenly gave way like rubber. I briefly got cramps in both. I pushed on, keeping my bottom on the ground and using my arms to propel myself. Inevitably, I had to cross the same ledge that was so difficult on the way up. I couldn't find my root - there seemed to be nothing to hang onto. I waited for inspiration to come. Presently, I did find a root, though probably not the same one. I let my feet drop, hanging on only to this one support, with a six metre almost-sheer drop below me. The root began to give way, but I somehow negotiated the crossing before it could expire. I continued downwards with an iron resolve to reach the track before darkness.


Now a 20 metre wide thicket of lianas blocked my progress. Since I was on an incline I adopted a seat-of-the-pants method of descent. If lianas rose up above me I would flatten them with my legs and continue sliding. At 6 I was back at the track and noticed I had lost my jumper, which I had tied around my waist. It was a cloudy moonlit night, so I could see the track just well enough to stay on it. More good luck soon followed in the form of a sign. However, I could not read it, as it was now dark. Fortunately, it was incised, so that I was able to trace the letters with my fingers. It said, "Binna Burra 3.7 km", this at 6.15, so all I had to do now was follow the path. By far my greatest fear was Carla's wrath at my lateness and her loss of trust in me. I didn't fear the dark, despite some unidentified loud noises, the possibility of snakes on the track and the risk of falling off the path (which I did once). At one point I thought I saw torches but they were glow-worms.


Scratched, bruised, parched and exhausted, I reached the lodge at 7. To my great relief and surprise, Carla had not been very worried and wasn't angry at me at all. One of the staff had planned to mount a search party for me at 7.30. My first desire was to have the orange juice I had been dreaming about. I drank six glasses then two "poppers" and some water.


Up until 4.15 my walk had been fine - difficult in places but not a cause for anxiety. Later on, my main fears were spending a night outdoors (it rained heavily later that evening), the embarrassment of being rescued and Carla's reaction. I had felt very forlorn stuck on that cliff and I knew then that only my own efforts and determination would get me out of the mess I had gotten myself into. My mantra during the crisis was, "You got yourself into this, now get yourself out of it" (4). I felt at all times that I was in control of my destiny (2).


Overall, I stayed focused and was determined to find the path in the near-darkness (1) and remained positive, believing I would get home that evening (5). I stayed cool and was not afraid, though, maybe I should have been (13). I created this crisis by thinking I could navigate through the national park without using the trails and I had given no thought to the timing of nightfall until just before it happened (3). I had pushed the risk factor unnecessarily without commensurate rewards (9), not to mention the stress and worry I caused Carla. I failed to have a realistic Plan B (11) and even my Plan A was pretty vague. Overall, I was lucky I didn't get into more trouble than I did.


3) 2005 Climbing Mt Castor


I was walking in the Alps, doing the Tour of Monte Rosa, a mountain on the border of Switzerland and Italy. Having summitted the Breithorn that same morning, I decided to do another solo climb. So I continued walking on the hard snow of the glacier for about 4 km, to the base of the 19 th highest mountain in the Alps, Mt Castor. I kept up a good pace and became tired as the ascent steepened. Stopping a few times to catch my breath, I soon reached what I call a "no fall zone", where a close focus on properly planting my crampons was required. The snow slope steepened further, reaching about 45 degrees. Then, unexpectedly, I was on the summit ridge, which is about 40 metres long and 30 cm wide. I felt anxious walking this gauntlet, as there were 45 degree snow slopes on both sides of the narrow ridge. A fall down either side looked potentially fatal. A largish crevasse was on the right, though I didn't see it at the time. Now my mind was highly focused - on taking the next step without stumbling. I applied the rule, "Don't look up, don't look down. Just find a safe place to put the next step." (4) This is truly 'being in the moment' and indeed it worked well for me. There is no time to be frightened when you are purely focused on putting down your foot. It reminds me that all forms of fear amount to living in the future, rather than in the present.


I reached the summit of Castor (4226 m) and stood just beyond the peak, where there is room to pause and look around. This climb was the highpoint not only of 2005, but of all my mountain excursions of this lifetime. I had been higher before, but I'd never been on such a spectacular mountain. Doing two 4000 m peaks in one morning with more than 1000 m of ascent in the snow was tough - quite enough for my level of fitness.


As I was considering the prospect of descending the way I had come up (not without anxiety), I met Cor and Ruud, whom Carla later dubbed my "guardian angels". These two are highly experienced but friendly Dutch climbers, to whom going up Castor was just a morning stroll. They had bigger plans. Ruud told me that my planned descent to the Ayas refuge was dangerous in the afternoon due to melting snow bridges on the crevasses. Indeed, it was so sunny that I was soon too warm walking in just a skivvy and denim jeans. There was no wind and the next day I woke up badly sunburnt. Ruud kindly suggested that I follow them down to the Quintino Sella Refuge, where I had planned to go the next day. One of the benefits of walking alone is that you can make quick changes of plan, so I took their advice. The path on the yonder side of Castor was extremely inviting, wending its way up and down crests just above the clouds.


At one point in the descent they told me to jump over a one metre wide crevasse. Had I been walking alone I would not have suspected any danger. I naively asked Ruud why the crevasse was not marked as part of track maintenance. He replied that there was no maintenance of tracks on glaciers. The first climber of the season establishes the track and it disappears after a snow-fall. Soon we descended into the clouds and visibility was about 30 m. At 2.30 we arrived at the Quintino Sella Refuge, at 3585 m. I put my heel spur into the snow for 25 minutes and watched the little birds foraging for scraps. I nearly forgot to have lunch but managed to score a delicious ham roll from the welcoming lady at the counter. I bought us all vini caldi and asked Ruud a heap of questions about mountaineering. He told me that it is dangerous to walk alone on glaciers due to invisible crevasses. He also advised me to get an ice axe and to do a climbing course.


On the ascent I did the next right thing (1) and trusted my instinct that I would be able to negotiate the narrow ridge (10). The balance of risk and reward (9) was tricky, as it looked dangerous, but the reward was the highlight of all my mountaineering. I didn't overly celebrate the summit but took Ruud's advice regarding the descent (7), which was the right thing to do (1). I let them make Plan B (11) for me. I kept my cool throughout (13).


On setting out I was in denial (3) of the objective dangers - falling down the slope or disappearing into a crevasse. In particular, I had neglected to provide myself with an ice axe and a roped companion, which is standard practice for glacier travel. That morning I had no Plan B (11), neither for the ascent nor for the descent. Even Plan A - to climb Castor - was improvised. If not for the good fortune of meeting Ruud and Cor, this adventure could have finished badly for me.


4) 2007 The theft of my camera in Croatia


In Croatia, Carla and I took a ferry from Dubrovnik to Cavat, a small town on the coast with a scenic bay. It was a beautiful day and we went for a pleasant walk along the shore. Presently, we sat down on a bench for a few minutes, before continuing on the promenade. As we ambled on I suddenly got a shock. No camera. I must have put it down somewhere, but where? I felt panic, or close to it. Then I remembered that I had put the camera down on the ground next to the bench, as carrying the heavy digital SLR over the past few weeks had worn me down. We rushed back to the bench, which was about 100 metres behind us. No camera. There were now two possibilities, either a tourist had picked it up, or it had been taken by a thief. If it was the former then I had some chance of getting it back.


We did all we could think of to retrieve the camera (1), but it soon became clear that my expensive camera, with 1200 photos, was irretrievably lost (3). I could not believe that I had done something so utterly stupid, especially after having heard two nearly identical stories from other tourists. I had been so convinced it would not happen to me. In fact, I had been paranoid about losing my camera during the past seven weeks. Only today, on our last full day of the trip, did I relax, and in a matter of five minutes, the camera was lost.


I took it as a lesson to let go of material things. Past a certain age, life is a catalogue of loss. The challenge is to absorb loss without letting it ruin one's peace of mind. I also took it as a lesson not to be so attached to taking photos, to my equipment, nor to being an artistic photographer. To take myself less seriously. It also illustrates how easily possessions can come to own me. It even occurred to me that I may have subconsciously wanted to lose the camera in order to learn to let go. Beyond this, it was a lesson in enjoying life, in enjoying our day in Cavat despite my misadventure. I decided that I would not allow this incident to spoil the trip and not even to spoil the afternoon (5). Carla said that she admired me for not letting it spoil my day, despite the obvious upset and my being rattled. I am pleased that I was able to contain the upset in my mind and still enjoy what was present. I actively sought to dampen my strong feeling of loss. We went for another walk after lunch, and I managed to derive pleasure from this. I stayed cool (13) and managed to surrender to the inevitable, while not giving up in my efforts to regain the camera (14).


I kept replaying the event in my mind and wondered what if I hadn't sat down on the bench, or not put down the camera etc. These obsessive thoughts were useless and I tried to suppress them. The recurring thoughts were a kind of denial of reality (3). Luckily, I had a Plan B - a pocket camera I carried in case of theft or malfunction of my main one (11).


This may seem like a minor event, but at the time it was a powerful shock. Being a keen photographer, I was deeply upset to lose my prized camera, and even more so about the thousand photos from the best part of the trip. I was as much shocked by the suddenness and seeming impossibility of the event as by the loss itself. What confused me was that the camera bag with the heavy telephoto lens was still around my neck.


As I look back on the loss of the camera it does not look like a disaster any more. It's just something that happened and is part of my experience, but not that much feeling is attached to it anymore. It's easy to make peace with the incident seeing I got a better camera (a model upgrade) as a result. Yet it's odd how the emotions have drained out of the memory of something that was quite traumatic at the time.


August 2008

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