When Alaska wilderness adventures go wrong, mental mistakes are sometimes to blame

Landscape photo showing a brown lake in a mountainous valley.
A woman and her dog, lower left, approach the end of a trail and the start of some bushwhacking near Eagle Lake. (Casey Grove/Alaska Public Media)

Alaska has a lot of wilderness, for sure, and plenty of people who like to adventure in it.

Sometimes those adventures go wrong, though, whether through failures of gear or navigation, not to mention the unpredictable weather and large, wild animals.

Wilderness safety instructor Deb Ajango says adventurers can also make mental mistakes that, in some cases, make an uncomfortable situation much worse.

And Ajango says the preparation to avoid making mental mistakes should start long before someone ventures into the wilderness.


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The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Deb Ajango: Ideally, anything you do is going to be sequential learning, right? So, if you’re going to build a tent, you’re going to learn how to build a tent, you’re going to learn how to use a stove, I mean, ideally, might do it inside, but then I want you to do it outside in bad weather. But once we start having things like wind, or it’s a little different than what you remember, it’s a new tent, a new stove, it’s like once you start adding those different factors, now you’re gonna start adding various stressors in. They ultimately accumulate, right? So they’re gonna make a difference in the field so that sooner or later, you will reach a threshold. We just add a little more, we add a little more, we add a little bit of elevation, a little more risk. People like that. But Alaska often has far more risk, more hazards, greater hazards, and a much smaller margin of error, right? So we just can’t afford to make big mistakes up here. It’s a pretty unforgiving country.

Casey Grove: What are some of the reasons that people make mistakes in those situations or put themselves in that position of not maybe thinking clearly?

DA: Commonly, you will overestimate your own abilities, right? You will underestimate the hazard. Very commonly, contributing factors are going to be things like there was a some sort of a deadline in there, a time factor. Maybe a piece of equipment is missing or there’s something about equipment in there. But then we just say those are contributing factors.

And with everything that’s happening, you’re juggling many, many balls. There was too much going on, right? There were too many stressors going on. So it’s pretty common. About 85% of people underperform in those high, high-stress situations. Let’s say it’s a number 10, you can function with 10 units of stress. But once you get to 11, you’re not going to do well. So the lack of sleep might be, you know, a two. The lack of water might be a one. The rain might be a one. We just keep adding it up, and you’re pretty stressed. But now all of a sudden, this bear attacks or this bear charges or whatever. But if you’re already at a seven, right, it’s like, “Oh!” It puts you over the limit.

Now, what happens to the brain, we kind of have two brains. So the inside brain is what I’m going to call the limbic system. It’s the automated system. It’s the breathing, the heart rate. That’s also the amygdala. It’s your emotions. The outside of the brain, that’s your prefrontal cortex. That’s your decision making. That’s making sense of stuff, future thinking, goals. Your brain will resort to habits in an emergency. It doesn’t like to use the prefrontal cortex. And so you want your response, your habitual routine response, to be a very effective habit. You want to sleep with your headlamp at the same place next to you every single night, right? You want your bear spray to be at the same place. And if you can create these habits, then when things are highly stressful, you will do your routine.

CG: And with the bear spray in particular, I mean, a bear charging you seems obviously stressful. But even just using the bear spray can be stressful, too, right? Can you tell me about that?

DA: Yeah, it’s, I mean, using bear spray for the first time is new, right? You’ve never done it. So you might even see me do it. But I say, “Here for real, Casey, you take take it outside,” and I hand it to you, and I say, “Go ahead and use it.” And I mean, almost always, people will look at me and they go, “Really?” I can tell you’ve just had a dose of adrenaline, haven’t you? Right? And you can even almost probably visualize it yourself, right? I say, “No, for real, like, take the safety off right now, and everyone’s gonna watch you, and I want you to spray it.” And you’re like, “Really?”

And I say, you know, “If, right now, this is slightly stressful, imagine what it’s gonna be like when the bear is charging you, right?” And that makes sense then. The brain’s never going to want to add stress to the situation. So it’s like, you’ve got to think this through ahead of time. So let’s take the safety off. Spray it. Let’s see it. Let’s hear it, because it’s going to make a sound, it’s going to actually have kind of colorful gas. Think of like driving home and doing something else. You say, “How did I — I didn’t even think. I don’t even remember getting home. I drove home automatically,” because it became automated, right? The limbic system has very few things you can do in automation, and you can actually do it automated while you’re thinking. That’s what we want to do with all of your emergency skills, is make them automated, so that you can actually drive home while doing something else.

CG: Maybe you’re driving home thinking about the bear encounter you just had.

DA: That’s right.

CG: I imagine when you do have a chance to reflect on those things, it probably helps with preparation for whatever your next trip is, right? And kind of being mentally tough or being mentally prepared, I imagine, right?

DA: Hopefully you reflect on it, right? Hopefully you actually learn something from it. The people who just kind of brag about their mistakes, I’m not so sure. But generally speaking, for two reasons. Number one, in the event of any highly stressful situation, the brain is going to look for anything similar it’s experienced in life, right? “I’ve been in inclement weather. I’ve been in this,” you know. And it might not be exactly the same, but it’s like, “Oh, I’ve seen this. I remember this one.” So in that regard, that’s great.

But the second thing is, what the brain does then is it can either decide if it was a really, really bad event, right? Then you can become hyper-vigilant, and it’s afraid. And then that the amygdala can actually grow. And it’s like, “Oh, I never ever, ever want that to happen again,” right? So that’s somebody who’s had a super traumatic event. A lot of times, people will think of like post-traumatic stress. But generally speaking, it was just a little bit traumatic, right? So we say, “OK, well, that’s a good learning opportunity.” Not only do you, is the brain, gonna reflect, what the research has shown, is that reflecting inside of your brain is going to help in one regard, but actually saying it out loud is going to be a different type of reflection, because you’ll hear it from yourself. And then it also helps the brain develop resiliency and grit.

Casey Grove is host of Alaska News Nightly, a general assignment reporter and an editor at Alaska Public Media. Reach him at cgrove@alaskapublic.org. Read more about Casey here

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