Lost in mountains

Ever take a shortcut that didn’t turn out quite right? This is an example of a shortcut that became fatal: a warning tale for anyone driving in the winter, who decides they know a better way. This also applies in the summer, when heat can be just as deadly.

Survival Excerpt from The Green Beret Survival Guide

In 2006 a family of four departed Seattle after a Thanksgiving visit and drove south to go home to San Francisco, with a stop at a resort along the coast of Oregon.  I’ve driven the Seattle-San Francisco route several times, both by Interstate and along the coast, so I’m familiar with the territory.  Let me chronicle their journey, while pointing out where mistakes were made.

They left Portland on Saturday morning, heading for a lodge near Gold Beach, Oregon.  There were two roads they could have turned off on as they went down I-5:  Route 38, which Google Maps suggests, or Route 42, further south.  Regardless, anyone who has tried to cross the mountains along the northern California Coast knows how difficult any road through them is at any time of year.

This is the first problem:  a failure to appreciate the time of year, late November, and the terrain, mountainous.  Always a dangerous combination and a failure to do an Area Study.

They missed the turn off for Route 42.  This is a mistake, pure and simple.  But don’t compound one mistake with more.  Instead of turning back, they consulted the paper map they had and saw a road that seemed to go through the mountains to the coast.  It was only after they got trapped for four days did they note the fine print in the corner of the map:  “Not all roads advisable.  Check weather conditions.”  Another mistake.  

Remember you know my Rule of Seven?  What are we up to now?

They took the road.  Here’s something you need to understand:  in different parts of the country, the word ‘road’ takes on different meanings.  In Northern Maine, it often means unimproved logging roads.  They were on a hard road, but it was narrow and curving.  They also passed at least three signs warning:  “Bear Camp Mountain Road May Be Blocked By Snowdrifts.”  This is not a case of a generic warning, “don’t wrap the plastic from your laundry around your head” but a very specific warning.  

Yet, they continued on.

One of the hardest decisions to make is often the decision to stop and turn around.  To not do something.  When your flight at the airport gets canceled, consider that it might be for mechanical reasons and while the airline is being overly cautious, it’s better than you being dead.  Pilots often have to make weather decisions or take off decisions weighing safety against the schedule.  The deadliest airline crash ever, between two 747s, occurred because one pilot, a senior one at that, was in a rush to stick to schedule.

As they drove up into the mountains, they encountered falling snow.  Again, rather than continue on to higher elevations, where the snow would be worse, they should have turned back.  As you gain altitude, temperature drops roughly 6.4 degrees Celsius or 3.5 degrees Fahrenheit every 1,000 feet (a little tidbit from Winter Warfare training with 10th Special Forces; or via Wikipedia). This is why you have that temperature gauge on your dashboard. People driving from Denver to Colorado Springs often fail to take into account the rise in altitude near Monument at they go down I-25.  

In darkness, despite increasing snowfall and decreasing temperatures, they drove on.

The falling snow contributed to the next mistake.  A spray painted sign on the road itself indicated which way to turn to go to the coast.  Because snow covered it, they didn’t see it.  They took wrong turn onto a logging road.

Another mistake, not the family’s fault: the gate to the logging road should have been locked. But because of concerns about locking in hunters, it hadn’t been.  Since locking the gate was an SOP, failure to do so, was a major failure.

They finally could go no further and stopped.  They kept warm by running the car’s engine.  This indicates they did not go into survival mode immediately.  The fuel was a precious, non-renewable resource.

Eventually they ran out of fuel.  They then made a fire of wood and magazines.

Then they made a fire of the tires, trying to use the black smoke as a signal.

It took four days for a missing persons report to be issued when co-workers of the father noticed him not showing up.  Thus, they had not made sure they had a point of contact who had their itinerary and when they would be checking in.  Those lost days were critical.

Backtracking, authorities found they had used a credit card at a local restaurant.  The search started from that point.  Once more, let someone know your itinerary, when you can be considered overdue, and at least your planned route.  Searchers can work off of that.

Finally, the father decided to go for help.  He left, wearing clothes that were inadequate for the terrain and weather, but it was all he had.  His next mistake was believing he knew where they were and where the nearest town was (he was off, much as the Uruguayan team was on the other side of the Andes, not the one they thought).  But then he made an even bigger mistake by leaving the road and striking out cross-country.  In the Area Study in the Survival Guide I suggest checking out cross-country routes in various terrain. The mountains along the coast of Oregon and Northern California are extraordinarily difficult to move in.

This is a case where staying on the road would have been the advisable course of action.  Searchers tend to look in obvious places first, especially if they know you are in a car.  Also, roads in rough terrain are the easiest to navigate rather than cross-country.  It might look quicker to take a “short cut” but ask yourself why the road builders didn’t take that short cut?

One thing they did do right was, even though they weren’t picking up any cell phone reception, they sent out several text messages.  Remember, texts have a greater chance of getting through than voice.  Two cell phone engineers, checking records, found that the family’s cell phone had briefly made contact with a cell phone tower. Pinpointing this tower they were able to focus the search.  A local man, flying his own helicopter in the search, spotted the wife and two children on a road and they were rescued.

The father was found, lying on his back in a creek, dead from hypothermia.  The combination of cold and wet is quickly fatal.  He’d walked around 16 miles, and died less than a mile from a lodge.  It was a heroic effort.

Do you see how mistakes can pile on top of mistakes?  The family did not make all the mistakes. The gate that should have been locked played a key role.  But they made enough on their own to turn what should have been a minor problem into a disaster.

Lessons Learned

1.   Plan your trip carefully. Map out alternate routes. Do not take an unknown route without checking it out; the best thing is to ask locals.  

2.   Have your car Grab & Go bag ready and in the car. 

3.   Do not leave the road in a car emergency.  While cross-country might seem a quicker route, short cuts tend to not be.

4.   When traveling, let others know your itinerary.  Let them know when they should be concerned if you do not check in.

Road IDAs an aside, when I go up to Oak Ridge to bike or even here in Concord Park on weekdays when I know there will be few people on the trails, I use ecrumbs from RoadID to let my wife know where I am. It sends an alert if I do not move for five minutes. The app is FREE. It’s worth your life. It could also be used while driving! But remember, it does need a signal to work.

And, like those late night commercials, that’s not all! Also free: the first book in my Duty, Honor, Country trilogy: West Point to Mexico, for those who sign up for my email list.


This one of the most significant events of the 20th century. In the midst of the War to End All Wars, one of the world’s powers collapses and the monarchy is overthrown, sending ripples throughout Europe and around the world. This leads to the Bolsheviks taking over, Russia becoming the Soviet Union, Stalin, famine, tens of millions dead, World War II and stopping Hitler on the Eastern Front. The fall of Berlin. The Cold War.

Yep, it was pretty significant. And one man, Doc, is sent back for the 24 hour bubble on the key day in 1917. But not to the Tsar, who was at a railroad station, but to the Alexander Palace where the Tsarina, her four daughters, and the Tsar in waiting, Alexei, are holed up. He must unravel Rasputin’s Prophecy and make sure history stays the same.

No matter what the cost.

I could’ve written an entire book just on Rasputin, who was, to say the least a weird dude (although assassinated the previous December). From what I’ve learned, he bears a large degree of blame for what happened. However, ultimately, blame must fall on Nicholas II. I cover this in Shit Doesn’t Just Happen II: The Gift of Failure. Nicholas’ list of miscalculations is long. Perhaps this is the problem with a monarchy. You get the leader that was born into the right place at the right time.

Coming 15 March. Time Patrol: Ides of March.

In terms of major events of the 20th Century, where you rank the Tsar’s abdication?

Think of your favorite book.  What the first thing that comes to mind?  I’m willing to bet, it’s the characters.  Most people relate to people, not things.

Characters bring emotion to story, and emotion is what attaches readers to books.  It took me a while to truly appreciate this fundamental truth of fiction.

Here are some of the key lessons I’ve learned about character development over the years.

1.     “Know the enemy and know yourself.  In a hundred battles, you will never be defeated.”  Sun Tzu.  As I teach in Write It Forward for writers and Who Dares Wins in the business world, before we can understand other people, even fictional ones, we must understand ourselves.  So, yes, if you’re a writer, you’ll need some therapy.  It is not normal to sit alone in a dark room and write 100,000 words; seriously, it’s not.  You need to understand your point of view on people and things because that’s going to come out when you develop your characters.  One of the biggest breakthroughs I had on character was when I realized I was writing a character who was doing things I would never in a million years do, but I was able to have him believe he was doing the right thing.

lonesome dove2.     Everyone one has a primary motivator.  You must know the primary motivator for every character.  Be able to say it in one word.  Because when characters are pushed to the limit, that primary motivator is going to determine their course of action, not your decision as author.  In Lonesome Dove, when Blueduck kidnaps Lori, Larry McMurtry did not have a choice as to what each of this characters were going to do.  Because they were fully developed, they all acted ‘in character’.  Gus went after Lori.  Call kept the cattle moving north.  Jake Spoon went to San Antonio and gambled.  In one of my books, my protagonist’s primary motivator is ‘loyalty’.  My antagonist primary motivator is ‘honor.’  Do you see how those two motivators can truly clash and bring the fuel of a novel:  conflict? Would you rather have a loyal friend or an honorable friend? Some people believe you can have both, but there are also times when the two can conflict.

3.     You need at least three layers of motivation to your main characters.  These layers are all present at the beginning of the book, but the character isn’t conscious of the deeper ones.  They can be layered thus

  • What do you want?
  • What do you really want?
  • What do you absolutely need?

4.     Those layers are peeled away until we get down to that need.  In the book Jenny Crusie and I wrote, each peeling away occurred at a turning point in the novel.  JT Wilder in Don’t Look Down:

  • What do you want?  Get paid and get laid.  (He’s a guy)
  • What do you really want?  A relationship. (He’s a guy who needs someone)
  • What do you need?  A relationship and community. (He’s a guy who needs someone and others)

5.     You don’t have to invent characters from scratch.  If you’re not going to use real people (modified hopefully and also not in malice which is called libel), then use what experts have developed for you.  Consider using variations of three templates.

  • Archetypes.  This is very useful for gender differences.  Is there any male equivalent of slut?  That always provokes good debate.
  • Profiling.  I’m big on profiling because it gives you character types that will act in certain ways.  And no, it isn’t just for serial killers.  You can profile anyone.  Indeed, in Write It Forward, one exercise participants do is profile themselves. If you don’t think you have time to write, profile yourself by simply writing down how you spend your time for a week. I guarantee you’ll find time where you could have been writing.
  • The Myers-Briggs.  Many of you have taken it, but it gives you 16 distinct character types you can mine.  By the way, one type, INFJ, is labeled author.  The exact opposite, ESTP, is promoter.  I often tell writers to focus not on what they are; but what they aren’t. That’s the area that needs improvement.

6.     Know your characters’ blind spot.  We use a trait-need-flaw diagram to find that.  It’s the flaw your character isn’t aware of that makes for compelling fiction and is the groundwork of tragedy. Push any character trait to an extreme and it brings the potential for disaster.

7.     Make your antagonist a real person, not a cardboard cut out.  We must understand WHY the antagonist is doing a bad thing.  By the way, evil is not a motivator.  It’s an end result. Don’t confused motivation and goal.

IMG_0972These are just a few of the lessons I’ve learned about character over the years.  I can honestly say I’ve learned more about the craft of writing in the past year then in the past 25.  I think the key to success as a writer is always wanting to learn more and become more skilled at the craft in order to become an artist.

If you’re interested in an intense workshop on this, along with idea, conflict box, the current publishing industry and more, we have some openings for our Write on the River Workshop. More details here, but space for each is limited to four. We’ve worked with writers ranging from #1 NYT bestsellers, to those working on their first novel.

Plus you get to meet Cool Gus. And Sassy Becca. And, for now, Xander, the wonder dog.


TheLastCzarWe’re offering The Last Czar: Anatomy of Catastrophe, for free today, before we pull it and wrap it into the larger Shit Doesn’t Just Happen books.

It is 1917. The world’s population is roughly 1.86 billion, although the First World War, the War to End All Wars for the glass is half full people, is taking a chunk out of that. J.R.R. Tolkien begins writing The Book of Lost Tales; in the U.S. imprisoned suffragettes from the Silent Sentinels are beaten in what became known as the Night of Terror; the first Pulitzer prizes are awarded; Mata Hari is arrested for spying; John F. Kennedy is born; a race riot in St. Louis leaves 250 dead.

And in Russia, the last Tsar, Nicholas II, abdicates on the 15th of March, changing the course of history and our present.

While I’m using that specific date in my novel coming out next month, Ides of March, I’d already done research on Nicholas II, trying to understand how his personality and decision-making (or lack thereof), that led to the downfall of the Russian Empire. Using my Rule of Seven, with Seven being the abdication, I listed the Six Cascade Events prior to that:

  1. Nicholas wasn’t properly trained to lead his country.
  2. The Russo-Japanese War was a disaster for Russia, and Nicholas II in particular.
  3. Nicholas’ attempts at reform hit a middle ground that pleased neither side.
  4. Bloody Sunday, where troops fired on marchers, was a spark that would lead to revolution.
  5. His wife, Tsarina Alexandra, alienated many Russians, particularly her reliance on Rasputin.
  6. World War I was an utter disaster for Russia, and especially Nicholas when he took personal charge of the Army, something he was not prepared or equipped to do.

One man’s lack of leadership changed the course of history and dictated the fates of millions. It still affects us today. Can we say: Putin?

The rise of the Soviet Union out of the ashes of Tsarist Russia is one of the most significant developments in the past century. Lenin, Stalin, purges, the spread of communism, the Cold War where we came perilously close to nuclear war; all were a result of Nicholas.

There were numerous cascade events spread out over decades, but a recurring theme of Nicholas II is the lack of decisive leadership along with little strategic political or military planning. He spent much of his reign reacting.

Leadership, or the lack thereof, affects many, from the troopers of the Seventh Cavalry who went to their doom to the estimated 50 million ‘unnatural deaths’ suffered by Russians under Stalin. The latter of which was a direct result from Nicholas’ failures.

For more information and detail, download the book. For free. What always amazes me is so much history that’s new to learn. The Russo-Japanese War is a good example; where at Port Arthur the Japanese launched a surprise attack prior to the official declaration of war, catching the Russian fleet unaware. That sound familiar?

It is said, those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it. And we do. Over and over.

Sign up for my newsletter here and get a free eBook, the first in my Duty, Honor, Country trilogy.

Ides(4b)And Time Patrol: Ides of March is a little over a month away. I send Doc on the mission to the Alexander Palace, to the Tsarina and her five children, where he has to figure out how the Shadow had planned to change our history on the 15th of March 1917. It turned out to be a rather wicked mission, since the Time Patrol’s job is to keep history the same. Thus, in essence, he is condemning those four young girls and boy, along with their mother to their fates. What he has to struggle with is: what is he changes things? What if he allows the Tsarina to talk her husband into not abdicating on that date? How could that possibly change history? Would it be for the better, or for the worse?

Time Patrol: Ides of March

15 March 2016

Ides of March 480 BC: Go Tell The Spartans . . .

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Ides of March 1783: Washington Must Stop a Mutiny

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