Extreme Survival - A Good Read
Wednesday, November 14, 2007
Have you ever heard an amazing survival story, and wondered how some people are able to endure extreme environments? I have, and a book I’ve just read explains in absorbing detail how the human body can adapt to hostile conditions … and what goes wrong if it doesn’t.
The book is “Surviving the Extremes” by Dr Kenneth Kamler, an American surgeon, explorer and climber. This skill combination has led him to practise emergency medicine on expeditions to Mt Everest, the Amazon jungle, the depths of the ocean, and other places that must cause his family to worry about him.
In the book he describes the threats to life found in tropical jungles, deserts, the ocean’s surface and its depths, high mountains, and space. Such delights as extreme cold, heat stroke, starvation, dehydration, pain, inadequate oxygen, zero gravity, and radiation.
Many captivating accounts of survival - and failure to survive - are mingled with the author’s own adventures. His experiences of trying to save the lives of nearly-dead climbers near the summit of Mt Everest in a severe storm are related vividly and with feeling. I almost felt like I was there, while inwardly feeling very glad I wasn’t.
What made this book a stand-out for me was the fascinating insights into how the human body adapts to accomodate threatening circumstances. Using his medical knowledge, the author descripes in gory but compelling detail the effects that something like extreme cold or lack of water has on its victim, and how the body tries to minimise the effects. He explains how a boy in the jungle can slash through his arm with a machete and not feel much pain, how Sherpas can hike through snow in bare feet without getting frostbite, and other feats best not tried at home.
This sort of thing interests me because of my love of cold and mountainous places. I’ve often noticed how exposure to cold leads to reduced circulation in the arms and legs, an automatic response which helps retain warmth in the essential bits (I measured this in my “lunch in the fridge” experiment, see blog post "Increase in body temperature while eating lunch in a refrigerator"). The body’s built-in ability to adjust to cold impressed me, but that was nothing compared to all the adaptations Kenneth Kamler explains in his book. My appreciation of how well designed our bodies are took a great leap.
In cases where some have survived while others in similar peril haven’t, Dr Kamler highlights both physical preparation and the will to live as vital factors. Interestingly, he admits that other factors may exist which science and medicine may never adequately explain. Faith is one factor he hints at.
Of the forty or so book I’ve read so far this year, Surviving the Extremes is one of the best. Fascinating and enjoyable to read, even if it did make me think twice about my desire to climb Mt Kilimanjaro.