Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies and Why by Laurence Gonzales

I have written before about my love of travel and adventure books. Often, these are more accurately about misadventure – an expedition gone wrong, a plane crash, a shipwreck. Some people live, some die. Why did Robert Falcon Scott lose every member of his expedition, while Edmund Shackleton brought all of his crewmembers – including a stowaway – home safely? Why do experienced climbers die on “beginner” mountains while four-year-olds, lost in the woods, are found unharmed? Deep Survival attempts to answer some of those questions by looking at what goes into making someone a survivor.

Gonzales has lived a fascinating life and has ample experience to bring to this subject, but this isn’t a book about survival techniques. You won’t find tips on how to navigate by the stars, how to find water in the desert or keep warm in a blizzard. You will learn how we create emotional bookmarks, how we create mental maps that guide us, even when we don’t realize it. You’ll learn the importance of Positive Mental Attitude, even if the experts can’t tell you exactly what comprises that attitude. These things are actually far more important, because they are lessons that you can apply to your everyday life.

The accident stories are enlightening – it’s obvious that we don’t always take “the wilderness” very seriously. He talks with John Gray, the only guide licensed to take backpackers into Glacier National Park:

People set off from their Winnebagos in the vast Logan Pass Visitor Center parking lot, a place where it can snow 12 inches in August. They walk with their kids and their cameras right out along the Continental Divide for the beautiful views. “They’re just clueless when they start,” he said to me. “They don’t even realize that being in the mountains you have to be prepared. A ton of people take off up there without proper equipment and it rapidly becomes a life-threatening situation. This year at Granite Park Chalet we gave away every garbage bag we had to people who had come up without proper clothes and were hypothermic. We could warm them up, but the garbage bag was the only thing we could give them for the walk back down.”

We tend to treat the great outdoors like an amusement park. There are national park horror stories about people want to have their kid’s picture taken with a bear or on the back of a moose. Even Gonzales talks about leaving a ski lodge, planning on a short nature walk, and nearly getting caught in a 2-day ice storm because they didn’t turn back when the weather got suddenly threatening. He relates a conversation with a lifeguard on a beach in Hawaii, where he was planning to dive right in and enjoy the surf: turns out, he was walking through a particularly dangerous area, and the lifeguard explained how he could have easily ended up shredded on the nearby lava rocks. Obviously, the first steps to surviving are knowing where you are and where you’re going and paying attention to the world around you.

I’ve already recommended this book to colleagues at work. In fact, it immediately occurred to me that you could easily turn these ideas into useful suggestions at the office; the same ideas can also apply to your personal life. We create an emotional bookmark when something goes well – that feeling of elation and excitement when you close a big sale or kiss a new lover isn’t all that different from the feeling of riding a monster wave or reaching the summit of mountain. But sometimes we try to recreate that feeling, we follow that mental map, even though our current terrain is very different. Instead of adjusting our map to reality, we push blindly forward, trying to make reality fit our map, with tragic consequences.

Even without the pop psychology slant on it, the book is full of interesting stories about how people manage to survive in the most difficult circumstances. It’s the story behind the stories, and it’s certain to inform my reading of other adventure literature. You can order Deep Survival on

Have you been lost in the wilderness or have a survival story of your own?

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