Year To Live Project: Boulder Outdoor Survival School – IMPACT
Note: Time frames, locations, and certain specifics have been left vague out of respect for the curriculum of Boulder Outdoor Survival School, as a big part of the value of this course is in the not knowing…as you’re about to find out.
It feels like someone is alternating a blow torch and ice cubes on my toes — it’s that cold. I hoped putting my boots back on would make a difference, but it only made the situation worse.
I’m curled into the deepest fetal position I can squeeze into but the convulsions continue. This is the furthest I’ve ever gone past the point of shivering. My calves are even twitching. I can hear someone snoring about fifty feet away and have no idea how the hell someone can sleep in this weather.
My left lat starts shaking uncontrollably, and I laugh at the absurdity of paying to do this. The laughter momentarily takes my mind off the throbbing pain in my right hip and shoulder that comes from lying sideways against the hard ground. “Pain trumps cold,” I told myself after determining that lying flat on my back, my preferred sleeping position, was the coldest position possible.
It’s going to be a long night considering I think it’s only 11pm and it’s going to get colder as the night carries on. Pulling the five-foot by five-foot sheet I have for cover tighter around me becomes a comical attempt at stopping the wind whipping down the back of my shirt. The waves of convulsions come in more rapid succession.
Holy fuck is it cold out here. And this is only the first night.
“Welcome to IMPACT,” our Boulder Outdoor Survival School instructor cadre told us a few hours earlier when we first walked out into the woods. This is apparently where we simulate a real-life survival situation. “It lasts anywhere from a day to a week, and you’ll know it’s over when we tell you.”
Two hours ago, the eleven of us making up Team Fukawi as we were self-dubbed, sat on logs at the nondescript plot of land making up BOSS’s base camp, chatting nervously with each other while we awaited the start of what would actually be a month-long adventure beginning here in Boulder Utah. The IMPACT portion of our experience would only be the beginning. The lot of us were gathered here to undertake the most difficult experience BOSS offers — the 28 Day Field Course. Only around twenty people per year make up the graduating class. We were about to find out why.
After a short briefing and introductions, our instructors went over the equipment we’d be allowed to carry for IMPACT and then checked our belongings for any contraband.
For the first week of the course, in addition to the clothes on our back, we’d only be allowed to carry the following:
- Two water bottles
- Water purification drops
- First aid kit
- Knife and sharpener
- Extra pair of socks
- Leather work gloves
- 5” x 5” cloth that would double as a pack
- 2 bandanas
- 1 plastic garbage bag
That was it. No sleeping bag, no tent, no blanket, no headlamp, no triple fat goose down North Face jacket and most importantly, no food or fire. As described, IMPACT simulates what happens when the shit hits the fan — your plane crashes, your car breaks down away from civilization, or you get lost hiking. In hindsight, I have a feeling if it was legal to beat us and leave us in the wilderness naked, the powers at be at BOSS would have. I kid, I kid. Kind of.
One of the earliest lessons of the course was the Rule of Threes – a human being can die in three hours from exposure to the elements or lack of shelter, in three days from a lack of water, and three weeks from a lack of food. Since we would be dealing with rapid, uncontrollable weather changes and having students die on the course leads to shitty Yelp reviews, we were allowed to have just enough clothing to keep us alive and miserable, but no more. Thus the socks, gloves, and wool accoutrements.
“You’re going to be hungry, you’re going to be exhausted, and you’re going to be cold,” we were told. “The best advice we can give you is to learn to ‘compare down.’ If you’re getting rained on, be thankful it’s not hailing. If you’re hungry, be thankful you’ve got water. If you’re cold, be thankful you’re not cold and wet. It could always be worse, but by focusing on what you do have, you’ll keep yourself sane.”
Learning to compare down was but one of the many lessons imparted by my month in the woods, especially given that our group of eleven adventurers would in fact deal with rain, hail, snow, hunger, fatigue, injury, and starvation, for the entire month we were in the Utah wilderness.
Team Fakawi & The M’s
In addition to the lot of us students, we were assigned three instructors. We had the full gamut of backgrounds with seven men and four women, including an EMT, a college student, an IT professional, a SCUBA instructor, and even a mother-and-son team from Dubai. Ages ranged from 22 being our youngest and 54 our most senior.
We haled from all over the world, each of us coming to the course for our own personal reasons. Some of us were in the midst of life transitions, some were seeking adventure and knowledge, some needed a reset on their overly busy lives. But all of us knew there would be more at play here than the course description outlined. Spending a month away from society away from cell phones, the interwebs, and our friends and loved ones — was going to change us. Learning the lessons the wilderness had in store for us would transform us in far more profound ways than simply having the skills to make fire with sticks and set up shelter.
Our instructor cadre was comprised of three fine gentlemen from the east coast. All of them fit the mold you’d expect — they sported long beards, held a plethora of plant, animal, and terrain knowledge, and had a comfort in the outdoors that couldn’t be faked. These guys walked the walk, and seemed to be less comfortable out of the woods than in it.
We noticed immediately that while we were donning long underwear, heavy hiking boots, and wools sweaters, the cadre was sporting very short shorts (sky’s out, thighs out), cut-off t-shirts, and home made sandals. Yes, sandals. Not once did we see them in a pair of shoes, no matter how much frost was on the ground. These guys were a rare breed, a throwback to a different time. If they said something, they meant it. The kind of guys that would kill or die on a promise made with a handshake. The kind of guys you hope end up marrying your sister. Given that they were two Matts and a Michael, we called them the Three M’s for short, and learned to love and hate them equally.
If you want to get to know a group of people, I recommend doing so under duress. Take away food, sleep, comfort, and all the support systems you’re used to and you find out who people are in a hurry. As the course went on, we heard the horror stories of past teams, of people quitting due to personality conflicts, of sabotaging teammates, and the stealing of rations. Fortunately, our group immediately jelled and Team Fakawi became a tight-knit family right from the start. Maybe there’s more to co-ed group cuddling for warmth than meets the eye.
Why Team Fakawi? One of our more stoic compadres had given us this name and for the first three weeks I just went with it, caring more about my frozen toes and shrinking waistline than I did our group name. It wasn’t until day 24 when one of the M’s asked how we got the name that it was explained.
“It’s easy!” He replied. “We’re always wondering, where the Fakawi?”
Embrace the Suck
“When do we get to eat?” someone would ask.
“We’ll see,” one the M’s would answer.
“How far are we hiking today?” someone else would ask.
“We’ll see,” one of the other M’s would answer.
And so it went. One of the goals of IMPACT was to break us of our addictions to future knowledge. With everything in our “front country” lives scheduled, regulated, and systematized with cell phones, appointment calendars, bleeps, and blurps letting us know when to be where, part of the lesson of the “back country” was “things will happen when they do, so put your mind back on the present moment.”
Every single question not related to a plant, animal track, or our direct survival was met with “we’ll see.” It did suck. I found myself desperate for any nugget of information to hang my emotional hat on. If I knew it was 2:00pm on Tuesday and we’d be getting food at 9:00pm on Friday, I could make the necessary mental adjustments. Not knowing left the door wide open to all manner of anger, frustration, and desperation. Negative emotions are sneaky little suckers.
“Stay in the experience,” was another favorite maxim of the M’s. The first few days of not knowing when, where, how much, or how long, was excruciating, especially for a group of Type-A, control freaks. It takes a special psychographic of human being to sign up for a course like this — seekers, adrenaline junkies, extremists — all of whom are intrigued by the unknown, as long as we’re in control of as many other factors as possible.
Here, we were in control of nothing.
Once our brains began to let go, to not need to know, to stay in the experience, it was apparent how much time and energy we all wasted planning, forecasting, and worrying. Once “we’ll eat when we eat” became accepted, we stopped wondering what time it was. Who cares if there’s no food coming? Once “Ok, stop. We’re going to bed down here. Make your shelters and get some sleep” became the norm, we stopped worrying about where we were and how much longer it was going to be before we stopped. Who cares where we are right now? We’re not there yet.
Surrender is a multilayered process. It was a minute-by-minute experience in the wilderness. Once it became clear that circumstances couldn’t be physically or externally changed, all that was left was to manipulate the internal and emotional experience. When you haven’t eaten a single thing in days, are convulsing while being the little spoon to a large man from Dubai, and there is no food or way to get warmer, the games begin. We learned that emotional outbursts don’t make it warmer, and hating being hungry doesn’t fill your stomach.
All that you can do is embrace the experience. Embrace the suck. Laugh in the face of adversity. Dare the Universe to make it colder when you’re curled in a ball rubbing your toes for hours at a time night after night. Know that it takes three weeks to die from starvation and people all over the world deal with this on a daily basis, I would tell myself this when I got woozy, or lay in bed fantasizing about bacon and hamburgers. Sweet. Delicious. Bacon. I would tell myself I could eat anything I wanted in a few weeks but for now it was time to suck it up and compare down.
Most important was diving into the present moment. To know the misery will eventually end — surrender to the fact that it will. Whenever I felt the first chill of the night make it’s way down my spine I’d curl up tighter and tell myself, “Alright, it’s cold now. It’s going to be cold for a number of “nows” until the sun comes out, whenever that may be. Deal with the current “now” now and worry about the future “now” later.”
Every second of the “now” sucked on that first night. This was before we had learned a single thing about making shelter, about covering ourselves in feet of pine needles to stay warm, about how tight shoes make your feet colder – I knew nothing. That night was second by second misery that felt like it would go on forever. Having no way to tell time made it even worse.
I wanted to quit right then and there on night one, with no concept of how I was going to handle 27 more nights like that. I threw every trick I knew at the pain in my feet – comparing down (at least I had feet), asking myself what I would do if this were a condition lasting forever, trying to find humor in it (three guys walk into a bar, one is a 40 year old dumb ass who’s feet are fucking freezing…), hyperventilating, meditating, and more. The only cure for the pain was outlasting it. Breathing through it until morning when the sun did finally return. To this day, I still hate that first night and have numb toes to show for it. To this day, I’m still thankful for what it taught me about myself – I can outlast anything.
The Banana Tree
We are truly in the suck now. It’s coming up on the end of IMPACT week, and rain and hail have been our companions the whole time. Team Fakawi is miserable. Our clothes are wet and our spirits are down. We haven’t eaten in days, haven’t slept in as much time, and have just been told to “take an hour” of respite in our endless hike. The problem is it’s raining on us and we’re “respiting” under a tree that provides little-to-no cover. One of our team has gone as far as crawling completely into her garbage bag in an attempt to stay dry. Wet, we’ve come to realize, quickly becomes bone-chilling cold when nightfall comes and we know it’s coming for us fast.
“I just need to say that I’m worried about my safety,” one of our teammates tell the M’s who are nearby under their own tree. They nod, but say nothing. I’m not worried about my safety, but I want to get moving again. If we’re going to get rained on and be cold, I’d rather do so while getting to wherever we’re supposed to get before it dark. Fortunately, we saddle up and get back to hiking. Over the course of the last few days we’ve woken up and hiked all day and into the night before finding a spot on the ground to call home. I figure tonight will be no different, whether that spot is a puddle or not.
Onward we go, continuing to push forward with wary legs and empty stomachs. We chug water to stay hydrated and keep something in our stomachs. The terrain is at least stunning — a mix of forest, rock formations in the distance, and wildlife. We see deer, birds of all kinds, and the footprints of mountain lions and elk. Comparing down, I tell myself I could be hungry and cold somewhere less beautiful. It works. For a millisecond.
As the sun starts to set, our collective anxiety rises. We’re still wet from the day and know sleeping on the ground in damp clothes is going to be hell. But stop we do not. We cut through a barbwire fence passing a group of curious yet apathetic bovines, before stepping over fields of downed trees and making our way into a clearing. A few of the team have fallen far behind and collapse to the ground when they catch up on our short breaks. One of the guys has gone sheet white. I start to think about the safety comment my teammate made a few hours earlier.
We’re told to take five on an outcropping of rocks as darkness surrounds us and everyone drops. Five minutes fly by and as we’re rising to begin hiking again, our head instructor has us gather by a large plant a few feet away. It’s time for another one of the lessons we get periodically. I compare down again, it’s stopped raining on us, that’s awesome in a “I’m just making shit up and pretending it’s awesome even though I’m miserable” kind of way. It works. Sort of.
“Do you guys recognize this plant?” he asks. “This is the milkweed plant we saw earlier by the creek.”
“I could give a flying fuck what kind of plant that is,” I tell my buddy with a laugh. I want to lie down like a kid throwing a tantrum in the grocery store. Besides, I tell myself, the plant looks completely out of place here in the clearing. I don’t think I’ll ever see one again.
“When milkweed grows this far from a water source, it often produces edible fruit down at its roots,” the head M tells us. “So why don’t y’all dig down and see if there is any.”
One of the girls starts crying as she digs frantically. She yells and triumphantly holds up what appears to be a banana.
What. The. Actual. Fuck.
A banana plant?!
“Congratulations, y’all. You made it through IMPACT!” we are told. “We came out here and buried these last week. Enjoy.”
High-fives and hugs make their way around the team as we each get our own banana. I’d love to tell you I took my time savoring each sweet succulent bite, making it last for hours. But I didn’t. I inhaled it.
That banana was the greatest thing I’ve ever eaten and it was gone in under twenty seconds. It was heavenly. It was better than an ice cream sundae eaten off of a silver platter laid flat on Shakira’s backside by Baby Jesus himself. True story, I’ve eaten two bananas a day, every day, without fail since coming out of the woods. Nom, nom, nom!
I Heart GORP
We’d made it through IMPACT and for the first time since the course began were given more supplies. That night we got wool blankets, and the next morning were given our rations for the week. Yep, we’d be eating hot food the next night, and our communal love affair with GORP (good old raisins and peanuts) began when bags of it were handed out. GORP is life.
The lessons of IMPACT stuck with us throughout the course. There were times in the next three weeks when we’d again go without food, when we’d be colder than that first night, when sleep would come in 10 minute bursts days apart, and embracing the suck and comparing down would be the only thing keeping us from calling it quits.
We’d end up losing two teammates — one voluntarily, one through injury — and have a lifetime of adventures. Truly, IMPACT was just the beginning of what I now describe as a life-changing month, and I don’t use the term lightly.
Come back next Monday for Part 2 of this adventure when we enter the “Survival Camp” phase of our experience and come face-to-face with the fact that if we don’t kill something, we aren’t going to eat.
Cheers from Utah,