The survival expert Bear Grylls has recently starred in an amazing series of TV survival programs which are full of both survival and success tips. He introduced this episode as follows:
“I am Bear Grylls. I have survived some of the world’s toughest environments. Now, I’m in Alaska, one of the world’s last great wildernesses and one mistake here can be fatal. My mission – to show you the skills you need to survive here.”
Alaska’s landscape is made up of endless coastline, deep forest and huge glaciers. Seventeen of the highest mountains in the USA are in Alaska.
Mountaineers, skiers and hikers visit every year to enjoy the wilderness but with the thrills comes danger. Over 20 people die every year.
Bear was placed by helicopter on top of a mountain in the role of a lost skier. All he had was a knife, a water bottle, skis, a flint, an intrepid camera crew and a woolly hat! He would have to find his own way back to safety.
He described what happened next:
“I am 9000 feet up and there is nothing but snow and rock for miles and miles. My best chance of survival is to head downwards.
“The biggest threat to skiers is avalanche. They kill around forty people every year in North America. One wrong turn and the whole mountain side could come crashing down on you. You need to know how to avoid them.
“The key with avalanches is to read the snow and you can use the ski pole in front of you just to test the snow to see whether it is compacted or whether it is in layers.
“What you want is when you push it in, it is nice and consistent but if you push it down and it like suddenly drops a little bit, it’s a sign it’s in layers and that’s the dangerous stuff.
“Avalanches are often triggered by inexperienced skiers and snow boarders who come to enjoy the forty feet of virgin snow which can often fall here.”
In early 2006 a snow boarder from Anchorage triggered a 200ft wide avalanche on a slope just like the one Bear was on. His body was eventually recovered three months later. He had fallen 1600 feet.
“Where there is a risk of avalanche, always carry a beacon. They transmit a signal which a rescue service can follow.
“I’ve descended at least 5000 feet now and at last I’m leaving the high snow faces behind There is so much rock that it is becoming impossible to ski any further. All these skis are going to do is slow me down. I’m better off without them.”
Bear dumped the skis but kept one of the poles.
“Below me is a glacier, literally a river of ice, and like a river this glacier flows downhill. If I can get to it, it should lead me out of the mountains.
“To get to the glacier I need to follow this ridge and it’s not easy and the temperature is dropping fast. Temperatures here in Alaska can reach as low as minus 60 degrees and frostbite is always a danger in the mountains.
“The bits to watch out for are your extremities – your hands, your feet and your face. The signs you are getting frostbite is that your skin goes this waxy red colour and eventually black. Frostbite is a really horrible and painful thing.
“This ridge has led me to a north facing slope. This gets less sunlight so it is still covered in snow. The weather is not looking so good. Getting caught out in bad weather can be fatal.
“I need to get down fast but the slope below me is nearly 300 feet. I am going to use a technique called ‘glissade’.”
To perform the glissade, you dig in your ice axe to control the speed of your descent. If you don’t dig in the axe enough you will go too fast. If you dig it in too deep, it can get ripped out of your hand.
Bear used half a ski stick as he had no axe and descended at about 50 miles per hour clinging desperately to the stick. He continued his account:
“I’ve reached a glacier. There are over 100 thousand of these in Alaska. They form the largest fresh water reservoir on earth but they are full of crevasses often covered by layers of snow. You need to be roped to a partner to cross them safely.
“My luck is in. There is solid ground running alongside the glacier. But at the bottom of the glacier there is a forty foot waterfall.
“There is an ice tunnel into the glacier which could lead me out. Check the ice is solid before you go in. There could be over 200 feet of ice above me and it could crash down at any moment. Only go through such a tunnel as a last resort. The further you go in the harder it is to go back.”
I’m not sure what the camera crew had to say about this little adventure!
Then, Bear saw daylight ahead. It showed his way out:
“I have never been so relieved. Finally, I am off the glacier!”
He took his ski boots off but kept the inner shoes on. He drank some water which looked dirty but the brown colour was glacial silt or pulverised rock. Bear commented: “This water should be good to drink.”
He continued to move downwards: “Now I am off the mountain, I need to keep heading down to find food and shelter.”
He was dive bombed by seagulls who were protecting their eggs which are packed with protein, vitamins and minerals but he was out of luck and only found stones which looked like eggs. However, he was far from discouraged:
“The landscape is beginning to open up and I can see the tree line ahead and I am almost in the forest. I can see a thick forest and deep gorge and there might be a river at the bottom of that. Most Alaskan villages are along rivers.”
He was now in bear country.
Brown bears can grow up to nine feet tall, weigh up to 1100 pounds and can tear a man apart. When rangers found the remains of a hiker’s body, who was recently killed, there were two empty shells on the ground but the bullets had not been enough to stop the bear.
Big groups rarely get attacked because they make lots of noise. Hunters are more likely to be attacked because they are sneaking round quietly on their own.