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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.


Forrest Gump shit happensActually, he only half said it. While running across the country he stepped some shit and the guy running next to him pointed it out and Gump said: It Happens.

I disagree: Shit Doesn’t Just Happen: The Gift of Failure.

Each book covers seven major catastrophes, listing the six cascade events leading up to the final event, the catastrophe, using my Rule of Seven.

I was 36,000 feet above New Mexico, flying back from the Veteran’s Book Fair, and I was thinking about Air France Flight 471, which fell from that altitude into the ocean in a little over 4 minutes. A perfectly good plane (except for a frozen pitot for the air speed indicator). The co-pilot over-reacted, stalled the plane, and then couldn’t figure out exactly was going on. The pilot was ‘sleeping’ and took over a minute to get from the small cabin behind the cockpit into the cockpit when summoned (who knows what he was really doing, but his girlfriend, an off-duty flight attendant was also on the flight). Of course, there was computer program that would have helped ease the confusion, but it was expensive so Air France hadn’t . . .

Sultana on fireAnd as I flew over the Mississippi, I thought of the Sultana, the great maritime disaster in US History, doubly heartbreaking because many of those killed had survived the horrors of the Andersonville Prisoner of War Camp. On a grossly overloaded boat, where the quartermaster got a kickback for every soldier he crammed on board; a quartermaster who was incompetent and had been investigated, but whose career had been intact because Abraham Lincoln interceded, because he owed a political favor to someone and . . . .

So, I’m sorry, Forrest. Life might be a box of chocolates, but if you leave it in the sun too long, it turns into goop. And It Doesn’t Just Happen!

Donner Snow“I wish I could cry, but I cannot. If I could forget the tragedy, perhaps I would know how to cry again.” Mary Graves. Survivor, the ‘Donner Party’

When people hear the ‘Donner Party’, the first thing they think of is cannibalism. That was part of the final event, a result of a number of preventable cascades. By the time this group resorted to that extreme, they had made enough mistakes that we’re not going to spend much time on that aspect. In another book in this series, we’ll cover another event where cannibalism played a role, Flight 571, the Andes Plane Crash, but that was a very different scenario. To me, the most important aspect of the Donner Party catastrophe were the homicides and the way the group fell apart because it is an ominous portend of what happens during catastrophes that needs to be taken into account.

The Donner Party is key because it’s a study of group dynamics or rather, how group dynamics don’t work. Few of us understand how quickly the veneer of civilization can be torn away from people. Soldiers who’ve served in combat zones can attest to this phenomenon, especially among civilians who aren’t trained like the military. In zones such as Bosnia, the Middle East, and other places, the barbarity into which apparently ‘ordinary’ people can quickly descend is frightening, and that is the lesson to understanding the catastrophe that was the Donner Party, because something similar can happen rather easily in future disasters. Turn the power off for a week in a large locale with no relief in sight and the results will be terrifying.

The Facts   In Spring 1846, a group of emigrants departed west for California. Rather than take the usual route, they decided to take a ‘shorter’ new route, the Hastings Cutoff. The delays from taking that route caused them to reach the last obstacle, the Sierra Nevada Mountains so late in the season that they became trapped by heavy snowfall, and were forced to spend the winter. Starving and freezing, some of the group resorted to cannibalism. Eventually, about half the party was rescued in the Spring of 1847.


15 April: The core of the party sets out from Springfield, Illinois.

12 May: The party sets out from Independence, Missouri, the start point of western emigration.

18 June: William Russell gives up command of the party, trading in his wagon for mules to travel faster, along with Edwin Bryant and some others.

27 June: The party arrives at Fort Laramie. They are urged not to take the Hastings Cutoff.

17 July: Passing Independence Rock, the party receives a letter from Hastings saying he will meet them at Fort Bridger and guide them.

18 July: The party crosses the Continental Divide.

19 July: At the Little Sandy River the party splits and the Donner Party heads toward Fort Bridger while the rest stay on the known California Trail.

31 July: The party leaves Fort Bridger to take the Hastings Cutoff. They cross the Wasatch Mountains of Utah, with many delays.

30 August: The party sets off across the Great Salt Lake Desert, experiencing more delays

26 September: The party finally rejoins the California Trail at the Humboldt River.

7 October: An elderly man is abandoned by the convoy, left on the side of the trail to die.

13 October: One man decides to cache his wagon; the two men who stay behind to help him, come back without him saying he was killed by Indians. He was murdered by one of them.

25 October: A small relief party arrives from California with seven mules of provisions; accompanied by two Native American guides.

November: The party cannot make it over Truckee Pass and camp for the winter.

15 December: The first member of the party dies from malnutrition.

16 December: The strongest members of the party set out on snowshoes to make it through the pass to Sutters Fort (the Forlorn Hope).

ShitDoesntJustHappenFinal(1)21 December: The snowshoers have made it over the pass but are battling deep snow. One member sits down, smokes his pipe, and tells them to go on. He dies.

24 December: The snowshoers can go no further. They draw lots to decide who to kill and eat. But can’t kill the loser. Members begin to die.

26 December: They resort to cannibalism.

30 December: The snowshoers run out of human meat. It’s suggested they kill the two Native Americans who were part of the resupply party. Warned, the two run off.


9 January: The snowshoers come upon the two weakened and exhausted Native Americans who’d tried to escape. Shoot the two and then eat them.

17 January: The snowshoers are taken in by a Native American village. For the rest of the party on the other side of the mountains, it’s uncertain when they resorted to cannibalism of those who died from malnutrition and/or the cold.

19 February: The First Relief makes it over the mountains.

29 April: The last surviving member of the Donner Party arrives at Sutter’s Fort.

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Time Patrol: Ides of March

15 March 2016

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