Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Surviving out there

Carolyn Dorn

Last month a friend wrote me:

I'm currently carrying with me full-time that story re the family that went missing in Oregon; mother and two children finally rescued by helicopter; father died trying to walk out for help. A thousand Kims -- but this was the son etc. of a couple [I knew through friends.] ... Worse, [my son] and I had been on that road getting shuttled back from a raft trip on the Rogue River. It's not one I'd like to drive anytime.

Many people felt all this as we followed news of the search from the Kim family, though few of us had so much reason to feel close to the story. Because I'm a person who tries to go out to the wild places as often as I can, I think about these things a lot.

Yesterday a much happier story broke, that of 52-year-old Carolyn Dorn who went missing in the New Mexico desert and was fortunate enough to be found by hikers, weeks after searchers had given up on her. I was reminded of a column that Tom Stienstra of the San Francisco Chronicle published after the Kim tragedy offering expert advice on survival if folks are ever so unfortunate as to find themselves lost in remote wilderness.

Let's look at what Carolyn Dorn did in the light of that advice -- she may have been foolhardy, have lacked good sense in going out in the first place, but she seems to have done some of the right things and thus helped herself survive. Steinstra's advice in bold type; Dorn behavior follows.

Stop and stay put. Dorn did this, somewhat involuntarily as the Gila River rose, preventing her moving. It didn't help as much as it might have as her trail had grown cold before the search started and she hadn't told anyone where she was going. But she probably saved her life by not plunging into the raging river

Personal protection: clothing, shelter, fire, and meet them in that order. Dorn's gear seems to have been inadequate by contemporary standards -- she wore cotton and had what is described as a "child's tent" -- but she clearly used what she had. " ... She pitched her tent and huddled beneath a rock formation, bracing against waves of snow storms, heavy rains and plummeting temperatures." And though she didn't carry a stove, she managed to build fires, until she had scavenged all the local wood supply and was burning her "wilderness survival guide." I'm reminded that Dorn is 52; I'm only a little older and her equipment is what I would have used to camp in my youth.

Signaling. Not much help if no one is looking for you.

Sustenance: water and food. Water is extremely important and food not so important. "She ran out of food after the second week and began scrounging for plants to eat, according to her rescuers. Her supply of clean water ended around week three, so she turned to the river and snow for fluids, they said." She lost a lot of weight, but that wasn't what endangered her. According to one of the hikers who found her: "After she waited awhile, she got scared of getting even more wet than she was. She got weak from the lack of food, which made her even more worried." This sounds like she retained one very smart thought: hypothermia was more likely to kill her than starvation!

Travel: maps, compass, watch. No mention of Dorn having any of these. Or a GPS, not that one of those is any use in true wild places without a map and the ability to read one. But since she followed rule one -- staying put -- these might not have helped much.

Health: psychological. Seems like she held together fairly well. When the hikers found her, what she most wanted to be left with while they went for help, in addition to food, was a book! Almost anything she could have done that she didn't do before she was found was more likely to have killed her than saved her.

Of course the whole episode goes back to what has to be rule one for folks who intentionally put themselves in wild places: tell someone where you are going and when you expect to be back. Give friends and rescuers some chance to find you!

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