Winter doesn’t forgive. Of all the seasons, winter is the most temperamental. It is at once beautiful and dangerous, enticing you to come out and worship landscapes kissed by snow and ice. One false move, one random act of nature and the story of your life may end in an icy tomb.
“You make a mistake in July and you’re probably going to have a great story to tell your family,” says survivalist Tony Nester. “Make a mistake in January or February, and you might not be around to talk about it.”
Teaching people the skills to survive those mistakes is Nester’s profession and passion. He is a survival expert and the owner of Ancient Pathways, a survival school based in Flagstaff. For 180 days out of the year (250 before he became a parent), Nester is outdoors guiding urbanites and nature lovers back to their primitive roots, teaching them to survive in the wilderness as their ancestors did thousands of years ago.
Today his classroom is the snow-covered wilderness at the base of the San Francisco Peaks near Flagstaff. The course is winter survival.
Over 2 1/2 days in January, Nester’s students build shelters and fires, find their own water and learn to signal for help. Some have come to reconnect with nature. Others want the security that comes with knowledge.
“I’m taking this class in the hope of never having to utilize these skills,” says Dan Best, 44, a bearded psychotherapist who leads vision quests in the New Mexican desert. He is the first student to arrive at the rustic cabin that will be our base of operations and our shelter from the freezing conditions in Flagstaff.
Author Jack London, the giant of cold-weather literature, couldn’t have written a better backdrop for the winter survival course than the one Mother Nature is so tempestuously providing. Outside, a winter storm pelts everything in sight with snow. Gusty winds whip through the tops of the pine trees, an eerie whistle announces the opening and closing of the cabin door.
Jessica Murillo, a petite 24-yearold woman with long, thick, curly hair, has driven straight from her home in Los Angeles. “I got here at 4 a.m.,” says a visibly exhausted Murillo. “I’m here for the fun and the skills. I can’t think of a better way to spend my weekend.”
Ron Waline, a 23-year-old booking agent from Page, probably has the most experience of Nester’s students. Tall, blond and dressed in vintage wool pants and a camouflage jacket purchased at an Army surplus store, Waline looks like a life-size version of a G.I. Joe action figure.
“I’ve been into primitive skills since I was 11 or 12,” he says. “I’m hoping to brush up and put it into practice.”
Mitch Driebe, 49, and his 10-year-old son, Charles, have just moved to Flagstaff from their native Georgia, where “the picture of snow would cause everyone to run home and cover up. We really have not dealt with snow, so I’m really looking forward to winter survival,” says Driebe, his words melodically spun by his Southern accent.
The weekend is a Christmas present for Charles, who is a fan of shows such a “Man vs. Wild” and “I Shouldn’t Be Alive.”
“He’s seen too many things on the Discovery Channel,” says Driebe, shaking his head. “I want to get on the news,” says Charles.
Driebe puts his arm around his son. “Boy, if we get stuck (in the snow), you can be on TV, too.”
Jason Radosevich, 32, and his friend Stefan Nikolai, 37, dubbed the “Himalayan brothers” by Driebe because both wear wool caps in the Nepalese style, recently found themselves stranded on a hike. The two Flagstaff residents got through the night comfortably, but both men want to expand their knowledge of survival.
Billy Meyer, Nester’s soft-spoken 23-year-old assistant, is along to help.
Rounding out the group are Tribune photographer Jennifer Grimes and this soft, spoiled reporter. We have backpacked in the Grand Canyon together, but learning to survive in freezing temperatures for hours at a time is new to both of us.
During our ride up to Flagstaff the day before, Grimes says, oozing a kind of twisted enthusiasm: “I hope we suffer this weekend.”
SNOW IS GOOD
Glancing out the cabin window that morning, it looks as if Grimes might get her wish.
“Your world of possibilities opens up on a day like this,” says Nester, as he motions to the chilly landscape forming outside that those in warm places tend to call a winter wonderland. “Frankly, I’ll take this any day.”
And so the academic portion of winter survival begins. We listen, rapt as Nester explains the advantages of snow. Gather it and you can build a shelter to prevent hypothermia, the No. 1 killer of humans in the outdoors. Melt it and you have water, thus staving off dehydration. Look for tracks in the snow and you might find a rabbit or a squirrel to feed yourself (if you have the necessary trapping skills).
“The more you understand about the mechanics of snow, the better off you will be,” says Nester, a former Boy Scout who learned those lessons growing up in Michigan from “old, crusty north country mountain men.”
Nester proves to be a walking Wikipedia of information about the natural world. Along with the basics of survival, he shares details about the living conditions of the Inuit, the exploits of tracker Al Sieber (the man who hunted Geronimo) and how to tell cat scat from bear scat (if it’s fresh in either case, get out of there). Absent from his demeanor is the ego or bravado that is so often associated with survivalists.
He’s a bookworm with a hunting knife.
“I’ve taken a dozen classes with him, and I think he’s got a lot of integrity and discipline,” says Mike Masek, a clinical herbalist from Flagstaff who joins us on our second day.
Nester opened Ancient Pathways in 1989. Since then he has watched the survival industry evolve.
“When I first started doing it, people were always interested in the survival aspect, but there was more of an interest back then in connecting to the landscape, learning the prehistoric skills of hunting and gathering,” says Nester. “When Y2K came around, everyone wanted to know what to do if the grid came down. With Hurricane Katrina, people were feeling a little insecure and wanting to know more than just short-term survival. The scene has kind of changed. People are more interested in the long term.”
Bush craft is the long term and goes beyond survival skills. People like Waline, who are interested in primitive arts such as starting a fire with an Egyptian bow or throwing an atlatl, strive to live off the land and use the skills our ancestors were so good at.
“Or, we wouldn’t be here today,” says Nester.
Meyer holds up a rope 3 feet long to illustrate his boss’s point. He points to the top 1 inch to illustrate how long humans have lived with technology. “We had a spear in our hands longer than a briefcase or a laptop.”
But this weekend is about survival, and survival is shortterm. You’re lost for an uncomfortable 24 to 72 hours — a lifetime for some but a nanosecond in the world of 24-hour news.
“If you want to be lost and get on Oprah, you have to suffer for four to six weeks,” says Nester.
Young Charles looks disappointed.
Eighty percent of the people who get lost are day hikers who don’t tell anyone where they are going or decide to commit the ultimate survival sin — take a shortcut. These people are also likely to be underdressed (“there’s no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing,” says Nester) and start hiking without the tools to survive.
Leading them further into the backcountry are the cell phones, GPS units and sport utility vehicles that have given many day-trippers a false sense of security.
“They have what I call 911 syndrome,” says Nester. “People think ‘If I get into a tight spot, I’ll call for help.’ Things happen. You run into Murphy on the trail. Turn an ankle, lose your glasses. Where are searchers going to look for you? Always tell people where you are going.”
Ultimately, most people get lost because they don’t use common sense. Ego gets in the way.
“The survival tool between our ears is the most important one that we have,” says Nester, who pulls out an easel and begins to write out the basics of modern survival.
“Don’t worry, I don’t give grades,” he says. “Nature does. And it’s pass or fail.”
After lunch, Nester leads us outside and we march through the snow several feet behind the cabin to an opening in a field of pine trees.
“Shelter is critical,” says Nester. “We’re going to rig up one of these ponchos. If you’ve got one of those (when out day hiking), you’re ahead of the game.”
Before we set off to build our shelters, he advises us to keep the five W’s of shelters in mind: weather (you don’t want to be in an exposed location), water (you will need it nearby for cooking), wood (to fuel your fire), widow-makers (never build a camp near dead trees) and wigglies.
“That may not be an issue right now,” he says, “but if you’re camping in the desert or you’re camping up here in the summer, you want to avoid areas where there are a lot of critters. So avoid rock piles, the dead down trees. Down in the desert we found that one in 10 cow pies have a scorpion in it.”
I grab a poncho and head toward some trees where Murillo is working, grateful I can’t see rocks or cow pies beneath the snow.
Murillo takes her mittens off to secure the rope around one tree. The wind and cold quickly turn her fingers into stiff nubs.
“I just can’t keep them warm,” she says, rushing to put her hands back into her mittens.
I pull my gloves off and continue where Murillo left off, threading the string through the holes in the poncho while she holds it steady. Within minutes, the freezing wind tears into the flesh on my hands. My knuckles and cuticles bleed. I put my gloves on and hold the poncho while Murillo works. We take turns until the poncho is secured to the trees and held to the ground with rocks.
The cold makes it difficult to move, and our shelter looks sorrier for it. Our poncho sags, and the bed of pine needles we’d gathered underneath seem more like a flimsy pillow. It’s hardly a place I want to spend the night.
I glance over at the Himalayan brothers and see that in the time it took us to build our shelter, they constructed the survivalist’s version of a luxury condo. Their poncho is taut and secured to the ground. Beneath it is a bed of pine needles at least 10 inches thick.
“Yeah, it’s going to be pokey, but it will get you off the cold ground,” says Nester of the pine needle bed. “Whatever material you’re using, you’re striving for 8 inches.”
Eight inches is the magic number. That much distance between you and the ground is the difference between an uncomfortable night and succumbing quickly to hypothermia.
I am cold and exhausted, and I can’t imagine doing this on my own. Nester then delivers the final and most important lesson of the afternoon.
“The minute you know you’re lost, admit it to yourself,” says Nester. “For some people it’s a pride thing. I talked to a lady who was lost up by Kendrick Mountain a few years ago in the summertime. She knew she was lost and she stumbled around from 8 until 1 o’clock in the morning. Battered and bruised, she finally realized she needed to do something. She was exhausted, dehydrated and cut and she had all this stuff to do in the dark. So, when you’re lost or injured, don’t let the ego get in the way. You’ve got to hunker down and do what it takes.”
BUTTER WITH THAT?
Back in the cabin we warm up while waiting for dinner. Calories count in cold weather. The average person will burn 8,000 to 15,000 calories trying to build a shelter and a fire and to stay warm.
“Frankly, the average person is better off fasting then chasing food,” says Nester.
That sounds harsh, but humans are built to go for days without food. The belly that is the bane of most dieters’ existence was a boon for ancient man, who sometimes went for days without eating.
“You can go for months without food,” says Best, who leads vision quests in the New Mexican desert, making him the resident fasting expert. “You tell yourself you are fasting and you remove the urge to eat.”
If you’re going to be out in subzero temperatures, bring fat with you.
“When you’re in that kind of cold, you’re literally at the dinner table and you’re like ‘Man, are you going to eat that?’ ” says Nester. “You grab a whole stick of butter and squeeze it into your mouth. We would have bacon, fry the bacon and throw our bagels in there to suck up all the grease. Then we’d take the bagel and slap on some cream cheese and some butter and another stick of cheese. Then you’re having a cup of hot cocoa and butter. Lunch was a similar meal. For dinner you’d have a big stew of pasta and we’d drop in about a pound of butter and a pound of cheese. It’s fuel and you need it.”
Fasting seems a lot more appealing than putting butter into hot cocoa.
Charles has another concern.
“What if you’re lactose intolerant?” asks Charles, who is.
“Then you’re a dead man, my friend,” says Best, laughing.
FIRE IS LIFE
“You can do anything to me for four hours as long as I know there’s a warm cabin waiting for me,” says Best, who is hiking in front of me in foot-deep snow.
I try to keep the snow from falling into my hiking boots (not the smartest footwear choice in this kind of terrain) by stepping in his footprints. My heart beats so loudly I think everyone can hear it.
“How’s everyone’s heart rate?” Nester asks as we stop so everyone can catch up.
We haven’t hiked that far, but the snow makes it difficult to walk. On this second day, Nester leads us to a clearing where we will learn to build a fire.
“Fire is life in cold weather,” he says. “Winter survival is about getting fire now.”
He counsels us to carry three sources of fire at all times — matches, a spark rod, and a flint or lighter (which aren’t reliable at high altitudes).
We all separate and venture into the forest to find dry twigs, the thinner the better. Some dig beneath the snow looking for pine needles while others pluck them from dead trees. Waline instantly appears with a bouquet of twigs, and the Himalayan brothers aren’t far behind.
My bundle is pathetic. I try not to compare the light mass in my left hand with everyone else’s, telling myself it is “perfect for me.” Yoga mantras and survival sometimes don’t mesh well.
I struggle to light the bundle with the strike-anywhere matches Nester provides. About 10 yards away from me, Driebe and his son crouch over a bundle of twigs, blowing into the smoke. Radosevich and Nikolai are on their second fire using a different source.
“You know, you’re going to need more tinder for your bundle,” says Nester, looking at the sad excuse in my left hand.
“OK, well, I’ll get there,” I snap, stubbornly determined to make the sad excuse in my left hand work. I finally give in and gather more pine needles. Thinking this will finally do it, I strike my last match against another one I’m holding between my ring and middle fingers of my left hand. It breaks in half.
Seeing the look of disgust on my face, Driebe comes over.
“To build a fire,” he bellows in an exaggerated low voice as if he were reading my mind.
I have no matches left, so I stand there, defeated and unwilling to ask for help. Waline hands me a few matches.
“I broke down and used a cotton ball (coated in Vaseline),” he says. “Don’t feel bad.”
I take a cotton ball out of my pocket and shove it into my bundle. I strike the match and it breaks again.
Grimes comes over to offer her support. “I’m rooting for you,” she says.
Then the eureka moment comes. I strike the match and immediately shove it into the Vaseline-coated cotton ball. First there is smoke, and then fire. I stand there amazed, watching the flame lick the sleeve of my flammable nylon coat.
“Hey everyone, look, look at Marija,” says Nester. Applause ensues, and Nester calmly points out that “you might want to watch your sleeve.”
I toss my bundle into the communal fire (which you aren’t supposed to do in a real survival situation), and watch the twigs — and my ego — burn.
BUILT TO SUFFER
“Attitude is everything when you’re under duress and the deck isn’t stacked in your favor,” says Nester. “It comes down to gutting it out. That’s when you say ‘I’m not going out tonight and I’m gonna be here at sunrise.’ That’s what will pull you through.”
That is probably the most important lesson of the weekend. The body is supposed to suffer and endure. That’s what it’s built for. But the mind is far more fragile, and without knowledge it will succumb to panic.
“What we did directly translates to other seasons,” says Nester. “Once you gain more experience with the skills, it doesn’t become survival as much as it becomes discomfort. You’re going to be muddy, dirty and sweaty, but again, you have to look back at our ancestry. You know, ‘I’m not the first person to be in this situation. I come from tough stock and I’m going to make it.’ Learning survival skills is really empowering.”