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  • Otilia

When the survival instinct does kick in…or it doesn’t

Updated: Apr 4, 2019

Yes, I have been putting together a list of quotes for as many circumstances as I can imagine. Obviously, I can’t cover everything, but in the same way I like to organize my working space when assembling a sofa - placing the tools around me to be handy in case I need them, I am organizing my head space so that I can quickly reach out for a quote when in need and find the anchor that keeps me on my path. I know there are a lot of wise people out there who wrote their thoughts down and they can help me get where I am heading, so why not to use their helping hand? If things go awry, I have two types of quotes readily available - the ones that tell me to back out and those that need to remind me about the survival instinct.

Sadly enough, most of the time we give up only because we don’t know we can do it. It also happens that we give up because we want to be safe. My friend Churchill clearly noticed the latter behavior in others and nicely summarized “To try to be safe everywhere is to be strong nowhere.” But there are circumstances where it really makes sense to stop and knowing when to stop and choose between trying again and never have the chance to try anything else again, is not giving up. I am thinking about Lincoln Hall way of framing this: “To survive as a mountaineer, the most important skill is knowing when to draw the line”. I also heard it from Chris Warner and other famous mountaineers and in my simple mind I am thinking there are moments when the mountain just wants to be left alone, and we all should respect this. A promise I make to myself: don’t throw caution to the wind.

The survival stories are always inspiring. On Everest there are called miracles - I prefer to call them stories about “when survival instinct kicks in”. Lincoln Hall’s story is one of the most famous. Hall was left for dead at an altitude of 8700 meters while descending from the summit on May 25th, 2006. He had fallen ill from a form of altitude sickness that caused him to hallucinate and become confused. He survived for 12 hours until found by a team making a summit attempt: “Not dead, not sleeping, but sitting cross legged, in the process of changing his shirt. He had his down suit unzipped to the waist, his arms out of the sleeves, was wearing no hat, no gloves, no sunglasses, had no oxygen mask, regulator, ice axe, oxygen, no sleeping bag, no mattress, no food nor water bottle.” (Myles Osborne). How did he manage to survive despite losing one toe and the tips of eight fingers, Hall attributed his survival partly to his training in deep-breathing meditation and his decades of mountaineering experience, which had "hard-wired" him never to give up. So, does survival instinct kicks in because of our strong mind or because of a fit body, or both? Can’t help not asking myself why the survival instinct did not kick in in the case of one of the veteran mountaineers - the New Zealander Robert Hall. He did all seven summits and climbed Everest five times. Don’t think anyone could be more fit than him. What happened then? Why wasn’t he able to push through and find his way down? More questions from the same horrific expedition: why did Beck Weathers - with one only ascent in his pocket - Vinson Massif in Antarctica, survived and Yasuko Namba - the second Japanese woman to summit all the seven summits did not? After one night in a bivouac, Beck Weathers made it to Camp IV, despite hard to imagine pain as his right arm was amputated, he lost all his fingers on the left one and his nose was entirely reconstructed.

We are all different and we can’t know in advance who we really are.

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