Why Do Some People Survive?

Excerpts from the book titled How to Survive: Self-Reliance in Extreme Circumstances written by John Hudson published by The Countryman Press

by John Hudson

On Christmas Eve 1971, a violent thunderstorm raged high above the Peruvian Amazon. Huge black clouds flashed white with lightning over the jungle-covered slopes. Through this churning mass, a small propeller-driven plane was tossed like a scrap of paper in the surging updrafts. LANSA Flight 508, en route from Lima to Pucallpa. Inside the plane, the ninety-two terrified passengers and crew became in turn weightless, then slammed down into their seats, their belongings raining out of the overhead lockers in pitch darkness.

John Hudson

At 12.36 p.m., about halfway into the one-hour journey, all contact with Flight 508 was lost.

Eleven days later, a seventeen-year-old girl crawled out of the jungle. She was the only survivor. Her name was Juliane Koepcke. She would later describe how she saw one of the engines get struck by lightning and the entire plane being ripped apart in mid-air by the violence of the storm.

That Juliane survived falling for two miles without a parachute could be described as miraculous, but the fact she was then able to walk and crawl for ten days through thick jungle with concussion, deep cuts and a broken collarbone, and finally emerge to safety, is at least equally incredible. It sounds like something so extreme as to be beyond understanding, and certainly beyond what ordinary people are capable of. But Juliane isn’t some kind of superwoman, born different from the rest of us. The fact that she survived was down to a sequence of events and behaviours that allowed her to achieve the seemingly impossible but, which when understood and applied correctly, are things we can all do in all of our lives. Let’s look at what happened.

The aspect of the story that certainly isn’t repeatable, of course, is surviving the fall. When she came to on the forest floor, apart from the broken collarbone, she had cuts, bumps, bruises and eyes swollen half-closed from the force of the impact. No one knows for certain why the fall itself wasn’t fatal, but Juliane was seatbelted into a row of three seats which spun around like a sycamore seed as it fell, and she was finally slowed in the last few metres by the branches of the tall trees themselves.

But once she was down in the jungle, there were any number of wrong steps she could have taken. Can you imagine what that must have been like, coming to for the first time, after drifting in and out of consciousness, when your worst fear has come true and you’ve been sucked out of a plane: a seventeen-year-old, injured, scared, lying on the floor of the jungle as vultures landed in the treetops around her? She had been belted in a seat next to her mother, but there was no sign of her now. After she had managed to stand and after searching for her mother for an entire day with no success, she had to decide what to do. The first thing she had to do was overcome the very human impulse to give up before she began. What would you do first? Try and find other survivors? Look for food and water? Tend your wounds as best you could? Look for things you could use from the wreckage of the plane? Make a shelter? The normal advice in any survival situation is to stay at the site of the incident if you can. If Juliane had stayed put in the forest and waited to be rescued she’d still be there today, absorbed into the jungle soil beneath her seat like the others.

Juliane, however, had something absolutely invaluable. Knowledge. She had spent two years being home-schooled in the Amazon jungle by her parents, who were both research scientists. She knew that this was an environment that she could survive in.

Critically, she also knew that the jungle canopy was too thick for rescuers to see her where she was lying, and that she had no means to signal to them. She had to move. But where? The jungle stretched in every direction, it hummed and seethed with all sorts of life, much of it, she knew, potentially dangerous. So she thought back to the advice that her father had given her about getting rescued in dense tropical forest. She sat up and listened. And that’s when she heard the sound of trickling water. She remembered his tip that following water would lead you to people. So that’s what she did. Hardly able to see anything without her glasses and with only one shoe, she limped and crawled along the stream, which eventually became a river, for over 200 hours. She had to put her one-shoed foot tentatively forwards each time to avoid the jungle’s many thorns and fangs. The only food she had was a single bag of sweets she’d found after the crash. The temptation to give in must have been enormous, but she kept going, dragging herself along, one metre at a time. After a week or so one of her wounds became infested with maggots, but she kept going and was eventually able to get them out by dousing them in petrol she found in a hut used by loggers. Ultimately, it was those workers who found her, semi-conscious in their hut, and were able to take her on the ten-hour boat trip to the nearest village. In the years afterwards, Juliane became a biologist, specializing in Peruvian bats and working in a zoological library in Munich. In 2010, she published a memoir. In an interview around publication, she said, ‘I had nightmares for a long time, for years, and of course the grief about my mother’s death and that of the other people came back again and again. The thought “Why was I the only survivor?” haunts me. It always will.’

The question of why she survived haunted Juliane, it was a kind of guilt. But later it was reported that fourteen other passengers survived the fall to the jungle floor, strewn widely over a massive area, but didn’t make it out. So the question takes on another more literal quality for me: why her? What was different about her?

What she was able to do, after the initial luck that gave her the opportunity, was to prioritize, utilize specific knowledge and fundamental principles and apply them to her situation in a flexible way. She didn’t freeze, she remembered one piece of crucial advice, prioritized correctly, was adaptable, and then didn’t let anything stop her, task by task, inch by inch, in spite of every mental and physical hurdle put in front of her.

What she did was remarkable, but not unrepeatable.

In this book, I want to introduce you to people like Juliane, partly because their incredible stories offer inspiration but also because the way that they approached their situations can teach us so much about how we deal with decisions in our own lives.

Because one thing I know is that bad things happen. Some people deal with them. Some don’t. Hopefully very few of us will ever find ourselves in the exact situations described in the book, but we can all learn life skills from them.

By studying the choices people have made under the most extreme pressure, where the stakes are highest, we can learn how it’s possible to teach our brains to make better choices whenever we have to make them.

Why have I written this book?

My day job is Chief Survival Instructor to the UK military. What that means is that I train the instructors, who in turn teach every serviceman and woman in the British military how to survive. I spend my time travelling the world, seeking out the newest ideas and technologies and how they might be applied in some of the most extreme environments known to humanity. I’ve trekked through the world’s driest deserts and its most remote jungles. I’ve been dumped into freezing water, trudged across barren tundra and been hunted through forests.

Right now, I’m writing this introduction in the closest thing to a moon base that I can think of; I’m nearer to the North Pole than to a tree. The sun will come back above our white horizon in this part of the Arctic next week. We made headlines a while ago when the temperatures here were lower than those on Mars.

It feels like another world too. The snow sounds different when you move on it; it’s frozen hard and squeaks just like polystyrene as you take a step. The freezing air even feels different in my nostrils as I breathe it in, the little hairs freeze rigid as the air passes them, making my nose feel sticky inside. I’ve left my snow machine running outside, its headlights forming a pool of yellow in the cool blue twilight of midday; engines are hard to start when it’s really cold so it’s better and safer not to turn them off once they’re going.

When reaching for a door’s metal handle up here, I leave my gloves on even though it’s warm on the other side, centimetres away. Touching metal at these temperatures with bare skin can cause frostbite – flash-freezing your flesh. The door is unlocked like all the others round here; you don’t want to have to fumble through many layers of warm clothing for keys if you’re being followed by a hungry polar bear. Here, being absent-minded can get you killed quickly; prioritization isn’t an optional extra.

I’ve spent years communicating that to people of all sorts of abilities from all sorts of different backgrounds and listening to how different their approach to problem solving is to mine. I’ve also done my fair share of sitting in offices too – as you can imagine, there’s a lot of admin and reports that go along with the exciting stuff – and I have come to apply survival principles in my everyday life. I know from what others tell me that they find the techniques useful in their lives too, especially their working lives.

Over the last twenty years I’ve also been collecting survival stories and attempting to essentialize what survival is and how we do it. A great truism is that a wise person learns from their mistakes; a wiser one learns from the mistakes of others. When I train survival instructors I like to include stories of past survivors, alongside examples of those that weren’t so lucky.

Although our culture is full of disaster and survival stories, from Homer’s Odyssey, to Robinson Crusoe, to Titanic,† we rarely properly analyse why some people survive and some don’t.‡ We either ascribe it to blind luck, or to something more innate. The real answer is that we can all be better at developing the sort of mindset that allows us to make better decisions under pressure. Of course, the very best training for dealing with a situation is having experienced it first hand before, but there are a multitude of easier things we can all do to be better prepared.

That’s where my team come in. The practical world of military survival is all about learning a single, simple template that can be transposed anytime, anywhere. The people we train have enough going on in their heads with their day jobs, so survival rules have to be simple, memorable and multi-purpose. It’s about working out what’s important and what isn’t, what’s going to hurt you first and what you can do to give yourself the best chance of success. Once we understand our bodies’ physical necessities – from their normal baseline ‘tick-over’ to the very edges of their performance capabilities – we can truly know our own limits. And once we know those boundaries, we can work out strategies to surpass them, by how we approach the situation in front of us. For best results our actions need to be done in the right sequence, and this doesn’t mean memorizing abstract checklists – I hate them. The key is appreciating how the human body, and most importantly, the mind functions, and using that understanding to increase your performance under pressure.

Your most important tool

I get asked a lot what the best tool to carry for survival is. It’s not a fancy knife, or a geo-location device. The most important tool you can have with you for survival – or any kind of situation requiring self-reliance – is a well-stocked brain. Unfortunately, unlike most survival gear, it doesn’t come with a user manual and subsequently many of us aren’t using ours in the best way.

More than ever today, we find ourselves barraged with information, with demands on our attention, which all seem equally loud, equally urgent. Many people spend their lives frantically checking their emails, cycling from one app on their smartphone to the next, refreshing their devices but not themselves. This information barrage means that we get the same sense of having solved a problem by making that little unread messages number on our phone disappear, or by posting on social media, as from solving a real problem in our lives, and the reward is much more immediate. This ‘problem solving’ fires the same circuits in our brain, gives that same little hit of pleasurable dopamine as true problem solving, but it’s constant and it’s exhausting us. At the same time, we never have to remember a phone number, or use a map – we can find out almost anything without having to remember it and our attention spans are shot to pieces. It’s like we’re only training one muscle in the gym and leaving everything else to wither away. We’re out of balance.

Now, I’m no Luddite, I use technology all the time, but we’re carrying all this extra equipment that we think is essential – it isn’t – and we’re constantly weighed down by it. We’ve stopped solving actual problems for ourselves, so when a problem occurs, we don’t know how to go back to first principles. What survival teaches us is to essentialize, to carry only what we need. When we travel lighter, we travel faster and cover greater distances.

I’ve trained individuals who’ve suffered traumatic experiences on survival courses. I’ve seen first hand the confidence that comes from realizing they are equipped to deal with anything that can be thrown at them. I want to put all of that knowledge into this book. If I can give you one tiny part of the freedom and self-reliance that I know comes from realizing you can be dropped into pretty much any situation and be OK, then I’ll have succeeded.

We can all survive better

This book isn’t a traditional ‘survival manual’ though.§ In all likelihood, you won’t ever need to use the knowledge in this book in a life-threatening situation, which is a good thing. The real advantage to military survival skills is that because they are a set of guiding principles, their ethos can be applied to any situation.

We are all forced to make choices constantly, to try and deal with setbacks, to react to shocking news, to prioritize tasks and face things that seem insurmountable. We will likely all face moments when our spirit is tested. The stories of survivors and how they accomplished what they did are a treasure trove of information on how we can approach these moments of crisis.

Because the fact is, whether it’s a shipwreck in the eighteenth century or a text message that changes your world for ever, humans all have the same type of brain with which to process everything, and the way we respond to new situations hasn’t really caught up with how vastly different life is for most of us in the developed world. Luckily, it also turns out that what we do when we’re dealing with the unexpected – when we’re under pressure, when the stakes are so high that the unimportant things fall away – is focus on those essential things that keep us motivated and help us to achieve, and that ultimately make us happy.

In my world, if you make the fire right, it lights, if you construct a shelter correctly, you stay dry. As a species, we are innately drawn to this sort of thing; after all, the sorts of things we do when we apply survival thinking are the things we’ve been doing as a species for most of our existence, so it’s no wonder we’re set up to find them pleasurable. If applying the lessons in this book brings a tiny bit of these goal-directed rewards back into everyday life, I’ll have done my job.

But more than this, I think there are, on a far broader level, many lessons from the world of extreme survival which are clearly applicable to anyone. For example, one of the most popular misconceptions about extreme events is that some people just naturally or instinctively know what to do, or how to survive, in any situation – while others don’t and never will. Time after time, we see the hero act while everyone else panics or freezes; the myth gets repeated, instilling in the rest of us a ‘why bother even trying’ mindset when confronted with seemingly impossible tasks.

But I can tell you, categorically, there is no mysterious singular ‘Will to Survive’ or survival gene that some people have while others don’t. Of course, some people bring different levels of handy skills, or others have relevant experiences that can give them a little head start in a new challenge. But while we may not all get gold medals in the race, we could all cross the finish line.

Survival reminds us that if something is difficult then we have two choices; try harder or stop trying. Stopping trying in survival normally means dying.

Survival often comes down to your ability to keep putting in effort even when you’re feeling discomfort. When it’s getting dark and you’re soaking wet and you have to get over the next ridge before you can make a shelter, you quickly realize the universe doesn’t owe you anything. The survival mindset has no room for entitlement.

The lessons from survival training involve working hard and accepting temporary hardship; but they lead to an increased ability to deal with whatever life can throw at you.

Working at the edge of human experience reminds us again and again that becoming competent at anything new takes concentration and effort. These are crucial things that I believe it is worth reminding every leader, employee, colleague and parent of.

We’ll start by looking at the distillation of every successful survival story I’ve studied.

The Survival Triangle

Below is the Survival Triangle, my personal unpicking of how people cope in the direst circumstances, the essence of this book.

Pared down to its simplest form, the Survival Triangle essentially states: ‘If I can do anything to change my situation, I will begin to feel in control of it; if I feel in control of my situation then I can sustain hope; with hope I can form a plan; with a plan my efforts are directed most efficiently to my goals.’ The Survival Triangle, in combination with a few practical skills, gives you a pre-made planning template which can be used to jumpstart the whole survival process.

Through my research into historical cases, I’ve found that if one of the three corners of the triangle is missing, then survival is unlikely. If two are missing, it’s almost impossible. As a caveat, the only thing I know of that can replace one of the Survival Triangle’s corners is luck. Luck, however, is a factor that is beyond our control; expecting it is a risky strategy.

Over the following pages, we’ll look at the importance of effort, hope and goals and the factors that contribute to them, so that you can form a self-sustaining survival process, your own perseverance feedback loop. Over the years I’ve learned that hope in survival situations is the result of realistic optimism, generated by matching my capabilities to my circumstances. And to tackle any problem effectively I need a plan. My ultimate target of success is most easily attained via a plan with a series of smaller goals as waypoints en route. Once I know that my next small goal is achievable, I can start to work at reaching it. Work is, simply, directed, efficient effort that will eventually change my situation – I therefore gain control of it. If I can control my situation, I can sustain my hope. And repeat.

I’ve applied this Survival Triangle – my perseverance feedback loop – when I’ve been in many extreme environments and situations, and it’s always worked for me. But you don’t need to be trudging alone through tundra to use this simple method. You can practice by applying it to any task that, at first glance, creates a gut reaction which tells you it’s too much. Most of us would react with horror to the news that we have been chosen to write an important ninety-page report, due in a month. We’d probably stick it on the bottom of our to-do list and ignore it guiltily until we had two weeks left, then one. But if we plan properly and prioritize this report, break it down into writing three pages a day, we’re much more likely to start. Then it’s about making sure you do write three pages a day with focused effort. As you get each three-page chunk in the bag, you’ll get the satisfaction of progress each day, of controlling your situation. Flooded with realistic optimism, you’ll drive onwards with a far greater chance of executing your plan.

Everything in this book is essentially about giving you the tools to make the Survival Triangle function more effectively in your life. Don’t worry if it feels too abstract right now, we’ll keep coming back to it until it’s second nature.

I’ve structured the book so that the first two chapters are about preparation and planning, Chapter 3 is about how we can best approach getting things done – what I call ‘Work’ in the triangle – and Chapter 4 is about how we sustain hope, our perseverance engine.

Chapters 5 and 6 are about how to best make use of the people and information around us to inform all three sides of the triangle, and Chapters 7 and 8 are about bringing it all together as we move through life.

First things first

I’ve learned that the best way to use your brain to maximum advantage is to know its capabilities first, take a short tour of its features, a bit like the pre-flight walk-round check a pilot makes. Knowing how we behave helps us to make the most of our current circumstances, which warning signs to look out for, and the most advantageous ways to deal with problems before they spiral out of control.

The unexpected

The foundation underlying all the survival training that I deliver is an understanding of how we initially respond to any bad situation. These theories were developed to show how we react in disastrous situations, but you can apply them to almost any stressful event. The textbook model was identified by survival psychologist John Leach after years of studying survivors – and the actions of those who weren’t so fortunate. John is a rare type of psychologist; a specialist in human behaviour during extreme circumstances, and also an RAF-trained and -qualified survival instructor. The model he has described covers the things that we humans normally do when there’s any threat to our life. His explanation of survivor behaviour is borne out by both extensive research and personal experience. The model has five parts, and it describes the normal arc of any event by breaking it into key stages – Pre-Impact, Impact, Recoil, Rescue and Post-Traumatic – each with their own typical behaviour patterns.2 At points in this book, I’ll refer to these stages, as it’s important to keep in mind that the vast majority of us will tend to be stunned by shocking new events that we have absolutely no frame of reference for, but that we can all adapt afterwards. It helps us to better deal with our actions later if we know that the way we initially behaved is normal for our species. Even better, knowing this and thinking ahead can really help us to react positively should we face adversity in our lives.

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John Hudson is the British military’s chief survival instructor and a former RAF helicopter pilot. He has also been a resident survival expert on two seasons of Discovery Channel’s Survive That. Hudson is based in Cornwall, England.

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