Bear Grylls is the star in a series of TV programs which contain survival and success tips. In one episode, he visited the Moab desert. He explained his purpose:
“Thousands of tourists come here to experience the most dangerous desert in America but it is a place from which some never return. My mission – to show you the skills you need to survive here.”
The Moab desert in Utah, North America is 3600 square miles of canyons, arches and sheer cliffs. Every year, over a million people visit this wilderness. Take one wrong turn and you could get lost for good.
Bear was taken into the Moab by helicopter to be placed in the position of a stranded hiker. All he had with him was a water bottle, a knife and a flint:
“I am going to show you how to survive in one of the toughest places on earth. The thermal updraft is so powerful here that it is too dangerous to land the chopper. There is only one way down – to abseil.”
The chopper hovered at 100 feet. Bear could already feel the heat from the desert floor. He crossed himself and abseiled down. The helicopter disappeared into the distance. Bear commented:
“I am stranded 4000 feet above sea level on a rocky table top called a mesa and it’s utterly desolate here and it is very, very hot – it’s well over 110 F.
“The biggest killer in these deserts is heat stroke and dehydration and they both come on so quickly.
“In this situation the best advice is to stay put; get into the shade and wait to be rescued but sometimes help doesn’t come so I am going to find my own way out.
“I know that two huge rivers run through the Moab, the Colorado and the Green. Finding one of them is going to be the key to getting out.
“This whole desert is going to be full of canyons and dry river beds and if I get down to one of these and follow it, it should eventually lead to a river and civilisation.
“Plants need water so signs of vegetation will show me that water could be nearby but, apart from the sage brush, I can’t see any at all.”
However, Bear could see the rim of a canyon in the distance He would find shade at the bottom and possibly water. There might be streams that would lead down to rivers.
His priority was to get off the mesa or table top – easier said than done on crumbly, sandstone rock. The descent is often the dangerous part of a climb. The risk when coming down a steep face is climbing into a position where you can’t go up or down.
This is called getting rim rot. One man in that area got rim rot. He hung on for as long as he could and then fell to his death.
You can, if stuck, jump quite a distance by keeping your feet together, your knees slightly bent and rolling when you land so that your legs and back take some of the force. Bear made a jump of about fifteen feet. He landed and rolled successfully.
“It is the middle of the day and the sun is now at its hottest so I have to get to the safety of the shade of that canyon as soon as possible. Just being at 110F your body loses about a litre of water every hour and that is before you even start thinking about walking or climbing or moving.
“The longer I am exposed to the full strength of the sun, the greater the danger and the most important part of the body to keep cool is the head and the brain.”
Bear cut his T shirt to create a head dress like that of Lawrence of Arabia:
“This will keep the sun off me and save me getting burnt to death. The body’s internal temperature is usually 98.6F. Once the body’s core temperature hits 105F, you’ve got heat stroke. When this happens, you become confused; the body goes into convulsions and you could fall into a coma.
“This whole place really is Mother Nature at her most unforgiving and this desert has to be one of the hardest places in the world just to stay alive any period of time.”
Bear came across a canyon which he needed for the shade and water at the bottom. The water might lead to a river and then to civilization. Finding a way down could be his only chance of survival.
Bear could not find a way down on one side but climbed a giant boulder that bridged the gap to get to the other side. When climbing always try to keep three points of contact and use your leg strength rather than your arms.
These boulders can be unstable. Utah climber, Aron Ralston, was trapped by a boulder like this when it fell on him in a remote canyon in May 2003. He had to cut his own arm off with a penknife just below the elbow to escape.
Bear made it across but still could not find a way down. Search and rescue have a saying in these parts: “A lost hiker is down in 12 hours and dead in 24.”
Eventually, he did find a way down. The shade in the canyons means that the temperature is 20 degrees less than on the desert floor above.
One way to find water is to look for clumps of vegetation and water hungry plants like tamarisks. Sure enough he found a water source nearby but it was stagnant and polluted. Drinking just one drop could cause serious illness.
If he followed the water it could bring him to a river. At some points he had to swim and came to a log jam which was caused by a flash flood. It was too unstable to climb over. The temperature of the water was about 50F.
If he was trapped in the water for just two hours, the body’s core temperature would fall below 95F and hypothermia would set in.
Before attempting to swim under a log jam, breathe deeply and slowly to get rid of the carbon dioxide in your body and to lower your heart rate. Then go for it and keep calm.
Bear tried this and got to where he could see some light but then had to turn back. Four minutes is the maximum time any one can hold their breath under water unless you practice regularly. In water this cold, Bear would struggle to hold his breath for more than 30 seconds.
He got through on his second attempt and swam onwards. He came to a dead end. However, there was a way out up a gap in the canyon wall. It was narrow enough to use a ‘chimney climb’ – a technique originally used for getting out of wells.
Put one leg in front and one behind keeping the pressure in both directions. Eventually, Bear reached the top and jammed his fist between two rocks to pull himself up and finish the climb.
His plan to follow the canyon down to a river had failed and he was now back into the furnace of the desert and had still not found fresh water. Before he could make a new plan, he needed to get back into the shade.
The nearest shade was a rocky outcrop about an hour’s hike away. He might find a cave there.
He was getting a bad head ache – half from dehydration and half from the glare of the sun. The history of desert travel is littered with stories of dehydrated hikers.
In Northern Mexico, the Tarahumara tribe can move up to 50 miles a day in the heat of the desert by taking in a mouthful of water and not swallowing it. As they breathe in through their noses the water keeps the incoming air hydrated.
Bear tried this and found it difficult not to drink the mouthful of water. However, he thought the technique worked to a certain extent.
But even his headdress was getting roasting hot in the midday heat – so he took it off and urinated on it. His urine was yellow – a sign that he was dehydrated. The wet headgear would keep his head smelly but cooler; it was on fire and extreme measures were necessary.
He still needed to get into the shade. He found a shady cave and lobbed some rocks in to scare out any snakes. Snakes die if they are out in the hottest part of the day. Like humans, they have to have shade.
Bear decided to rest in the shade and to move on in the early morning next day. This is the best time to travel in the desert. His main priority next morning was to find some water.
When you get up in the wild, shake out your clothing and tip out your boots since scorpions love to get into cool shady places.
If you find a scorpion crawling across you, you could use your thumb and index finger to grasp it on either side of the sting at the end. Only do this if you are an expert and have a quick and steady hand!
He was down to his last few drops of water. He listened for bees and insects or mosquitoes – they always live close to water.
He eventually found some water filtering through the rock and created a small reservoir to trap the water in. It looked murky but was probably slightly better quality than tap water.
He used a trumpet flower as drinking straw. Native Americans used it as a pipe because it has a hollow stem. He drank slowly. Guzzling can make you vomit. He filled his canteen and moved on refreshed.
He needed to find another plan for getting out of the desert. From high ground he could look out for the vegetation which would signal there was a river.
He saw a line of vegetation which strongly suggested the presence of a river. But he needed to find some food to give the energy to reach the river. He found two birds eggs.
Bird dropping, feathers and a broken egg shell gave away their location. All birds eggs are edible. Even the shell is a good source of calcium. He ate one egg raw with its shell but there is a risk of catching salmonella so he cooked the second one by breaking it onto a flat rock.
The heat must have been about 120F. The egg fried quickly and he scraped it up with his knife. One egg provided him with about 80 calories and with important minerals like zinc and iron.
The river vegetation he saw on the horizon was still about a day’s hike away but when the landscape is uneven it is easy to go round in circles. Bear used a local plant to keep him heading in a straight line
These are compass cactuses which usually grow towards the south. If several point the same way, you can be confident they are pointing south:
“If I always know where south is, I can keep myself in a straight line while I’m heading for that river.”
Bear was missing his family: “This whole landscape is so huge and it makes you feel pretty small and for the first time on this journey I am really missing my wife and two little boys and I wish they could be here to see this because it is just beautiful.”
The Moab is part of the great basin desert, the highest desert in the US and the furthest north. It experiences extreme changes in temperature. At night it can drop as low as 40 F.
It was now getting cooler and soon would be cold. Bear collected firewood taking care not to disturb any snakes. He then went hunting. Dusk is a good time for hunting snakes since they are nocturnal hunters.
The Moab is home to a dozen different types of snake and they are all edible. To catch a snake, use a rock to stun it and then pin its head to the ground with a stick and crush its skull.
He came across a little rattler. The rattler was a ‘faded midget’ which is highly venomous. The snake made a rattling noise to warn off predators. Its poison could kill you if you were bitten and did not get treatment.
The ‘faded midget’ is a protected species so Bear would go hungry that night.
Mountain lions do their hunting in the dark as well. Bear needed a fire to keep warm and to ward off predators like the lion. Fire is a great morale booster in the wilderness.
In the night, Bear heard some rattling outside his cave. He banged his water bottle as snakes don’t like vibrations. Next day, he moved on:
“I’ve been travelling for three days through the Moab desert in search of a river and, at last, I can see signs that I am getting closer.”
He entered an area of dense vegetation and emerged to see a large river with a wind mill on the other side. The only river this size would be the Colorado – one of the most dangerous rivers in America:
“It may look placid but beneath the surface runs a powerful current. Every year unsuspecting tourists are swept away and drowned and along its edges are murky pools that could conceal quicksand.”
Quicksand forms when a sandy area gets waterlogged. The sand and water mix to make a sludge that can suck you in.
Bear demonstrated how to escape from quicksand and how to cross a fast flowing river.
You escape from quicksand by not struggling. Lean forward and draw your arms out and put them on the ground in front of you then wriggle your way forward, pulling out one leg at a time, until you can do a monkey crawl forwards.
You cross a fast flowing river with a bed of quicksand by swimming rather than wading. You swim diagonally forward with the current which is deceptively strong in a river like the Colorado.
Bear reached the other side and then headed off looking for civilisation along the banks. He commented:
“If I’ve learned anything out here, it is just how fast this arid, parched, burning desert can sap the life out of you and, on your own, they say that only the strong and the lucky survive and I don’t feel very strong. In fact I feel pretty wiped out but I do feel lucky and for me it is definitely time to start heading home.”
Bear had spotted a house and headed toward the door.
We can learn several valuable survival and success lessons from this adventure:
Sometimes it is best to stay calm and do nothing. Just wait for help. If you panic and start rushing about without knowing what you are doing, you could make your situation much worse.
Sometimes it is best not to rely on others to help you. They may not show up. Just rely on yourself to get out of a tough situation. Believe in your own ability.
The power of knowledge is enormous. It can help you stay alive and it can help you achieve your goals like getting a healthy drink of water or climbing down a cliff face safely. Keep learning.
Have a workable plan and follow it. If you reach a dead end change your plan.
Make health and safety your priority. Understand what your body can and cannot take. Be aware of possible dangers and find solutions to deal with them.
Learn the skills which can help you survive and achieve your goals before you undertake anything dangerous.
If necessary, take extreme measures like taking a leak on your head covering.
Look for signs that you are on the right path.
Appreciate the beauty of tough environments but be grateful you don’t live there!
If stuck and sinking in quicksand or any other overwhelming problem, keep calm and deal with one thing at a time, step by step.
Don’t struggle against the current unless you have to and stay above the traps which can pull you down and stop your progress entirely.
Knowledge and steady consistent action can help you solve most problems. So keep learning and keep moving. Bear Grylls provides a great role model for this.