Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Why we do stupid things in the outdoors

Last Saturday, a young woman from Bend left Devil’s Lake Trailhead at 1 p.m. intending to summit both South and Middle Sister.

She was totally unprepared for being out after dark, even though she left with only about 5-1/2 hours of good daylight left. She had no emergency blanket or rations.

The 20-year-old is a runner and obviously very fit; she did something like 25 miles in rough terrain in the dark to get to Three Creek Road, where a woodcutter found her the next morning and gave her and her dog a lift into town.

A few months back, an experienced ultra runner got lost in the canyons and chapparal of San Diego County on a “short” training run. She was missing for days and nearly died. She copped to the fact that she had been in a hurry to get her training in and violated her own pre-run routine and emergency preparation.

Why do capable people do such dumb things, things that risk their lives and the lives of those who turn out to rescue them?

A book I read recently has some great insights into this phenomenon, which happens over and over and over again. It’s called “Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why” by Laurence Gonzales.

There’s a lot to this book and any thumbnail necessarily gives it short shrift, but one of the basic points is this: The mind creates “emotional bookmarks” based on strong positive or negative experiences. Our mind goes to those when we make decisions and the emotional feedback we get overrides our rational mind, our good sense.

In the case of highly trained and capable athletes, the emotional bookmark flags the great feeling they get from their training, which can be downright addictive (in the chemical as well as the emotional sense). The desire to get out there and do the run, the trek, the climb, overrides the rational caution flags: it’s too late to start; I don’t have my emergency kit together; I’m not sure of the route.

We are all susceptible to this phenomenon; people whose skill and fitness have got them out of trouble in the past even more so than the average bear. We all like to think “Man, I’d never do anything that STUPID,” but the truth is, you just might, if the emotional bookmark grabs you hard enough.

There’s a lot in the book about the kind of mindset that gets people through survival situations, but the most important lesson in “Deep Survival” is to be aware of the tricks we play on ourselves that get us into those situations in the first place.

Slow down. Recognize when your desires — to just get out there, to make it to that peak, to try to beat the dark to get past that one last drainage — are letting you slide into a dangerous situation.
It’s important to understand that it’s not about smart/stupid. “I’m too smart to do that” is the kind of hubris that leads to unexpected trouble.

Great book; recommend it highly. Combine it with Gavin de Becker’s “The Gift of Fear” and you get a much better understanding of the interplay between thought and emotion that can literally mean the difference between life and death.

Jim Cornelius, Editor

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