How to survive a blizzard – two options, many choices

From skills training to survival….

It was my sense of adventure that took me on a recent journey which had all the hallmarks of a remarkable holiday as far as I was concerned.  I had booked in to a five day introduction to mountaineering course.  I was off to get well outside my comfort zone, learn new skills and meet new people, hopefully having a few laughs and definitely creating some wonderful memories.  However, as I know too well, sometimes things don’t go to plan and the skills training quickly turned into survival training – in extreme conditions!  What I experienced wasn’t in the brochure and wasn’t what I signed up for, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.  Here I share some of that journey.

Snowy Mountains Backcountry

I was taking a short breather, my back turned toward the blizzard so I could get some respite from the howling, stinging wind and snow.  I took stock.

I was feeling every one of the 25 kilograms in my backpack, but my back was holding up, as were my legs – for now.  The ropes around my waist, connecting me to the 20kg sled I was towing, were rubbing on my hips.  My toes and fingers were almost past the point of hurting and were mostly now numb.  The protection on my face was doing its job, and my waterproof pants and jacket seemed to be keeping the snow out, but I was cold, really cold.  I was thirsty and hungry but had no energy or means to access either food or water.  The white out was pretty intense, as it continued to be for five hours.

As I was taking stock, I thought about how I came to be here, in the backcountry of the Snowy Mountains, in relentless blizzard conditions, little to no vision, looking for a way to get across the Snowy River and hopefully into civilisation.   Asking how I found myself, again, in a situation that was truly testing my character, my self-belief, my strength and my endurance?

I’ve found that it’s when I get into these positions, that I realise that in everyday life, I have so much agency over my choices, my decisions.  It’s not until my choices are taken away, that I realise how much having those choices means to me in effectively navigating this human life.  I felt it had come down to me having just two options to choose from, keep walking, or stop.  Walk and maybe get out.  Stop and freeze.

Needless to say, I chose to put one snow-shoe clad foot in front of the other, sled in tow, and face to the cutting wind.

It was while I was taking these steps that I recalled a quote from Viktor E. Frankl, legendary psychiatrist and Holocaust-survivor, in his book Man’s Search for Meaning where he says “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”  This reminded me that whilst I had only two options, I had many choices.

I could choose how I reacted to the situation I was in, I could choose how I felt about this situation.  I could choose who I was in this situation.  No-one could take that away from me, not even Mother Nature herself.

I made the choice to see the situation as a remarkable experience of survival in extreme conditions that, had I wanted to pay for, I could not have pre-booked anywhere.  I chose to see it as an opportunity to show myself, again, that I can do hard things.  I chose to see it as an opportunity to be both grateful for, and in amazement of, my physical body, which carried me through other adversities and adventures, and which, it would seem, backed up and was willing to carry me through this one.  I even chose to imagine I was an Arctic explorer on a remarkable expedition and a documentary was being filmed of our adventure, and that when I got home, by the warm fire, I’d be able to re-live the experience on the big screen, safe and snug, surrounded by my family.  I chose to smile, even though my entire face was covered by my balaclava and goggles.

Post holing without snow shoes

It was a challenging six hours in arduous conditions, and while I still struggled with fear, exhaustion, the freezing cold, hunger, thirst and pain, I did this while consciously choosing my reaction to those things.  I couldn’t change the situation, but I could choose how I reacted to the situation.  I challenged myself to reframe, to choose how I showed up.  There is no greater experience than that.

If you’re ever in a position where you feel your choices are taken from you, or your choices are limited, try to remember the words of the amazing human Viktor E. Frankl, and consider all the choices you do have, and choose your own way.

 “Let your life be your message” Mahatma Gandhi

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