A Survival Lesson in the Sierra Nevadas

hiker woman

I am constantly amazed at the stories I hear about ordinary, every day folks, being found alive after most people gave them up for dead. A classic example is 62 year old Miyuki Harwood, who was found yesterday after being stranded in the Sierras for nine days alone.

Harwood, a Folsom CA native, got separated from the group of hikers she was with, and somehow survived for nine days after breaking some bones in her lower left leg, leaving her unable to walk. Searches were hampered by a wildfire in the area that caused thick smoke and unfavorable search conditions.

Amazingly, she was able to crawl to a creek where she used her water filter to hydrate herself. It took her two days to reach the creek. Two days with a broken leg, no food and very few supplies, according to a local ABC affiliate. 

Details are still sketchy but it is nothing other than miraculous that she survived her ordeal. And her story is just one of many incredible stories I’ve heard over the years. The common denominator of all these cases boils down to one very important word . . . attitude.

At the school where I teach wilderness survival, we try to instill this idea in the minds of our young students right off the bat. The mantra “expect the best, prepare for the worst,” is one of my favorites. We also teach that awareness is the key to survival. No matter what idea you choose, it is ultimately your attitude that will keep you alive.

Even though Miyuki Harwood was ill-prepared and injured (not to mention being very close to a wildfire), her attitude told her not to give up—and, that’s why she’s alive to talk about it.

Somehow, she knew the importance of the second most important order of survival (water) would allow her to live for at least three weeks. Had she not found it, my guess is that she wouldn’t have made it past her fourth day.

Another fortunate thing in her favor was the mild temperatures we’ve been having in the Sierras. If it was colder, she would have likely died from exposure before anything else. Details aren’t available yet on whether or not she had any sort of shelter. Regardless of the details, she dug down deep inside and had faith that she would survive.

Native American people had an excellent understanding of nature. It was always trusted that nature was friendly and if used with reverence would always supply the necessary items needed to survive. This is another very important idea that we teach. Survival is one thing, but thrival is something entirely different.

I have an idea that Miyuki must have had an epiphany during her ordeal that made her realize this. Somehow she made it beyond fear and panic and settled into a knowing that nature would protect and nurture her through her ordeal. I speak about this with passion because of my own life and death experience in nature. Somehow, in the midst of my challenge, a higher presence intervened, and I followed it. I was lucky, just like Miyuki, but there are countless stories throughout history of similar experiences.

The bottom line, and something I learned after many years on the Search and Rescue Team, is that panic will kill quicker than anything. Time and time again I have witnessed people succumbing to their situation because they lost their cool and made deadly decisions spurred by fear.

Somehow the ones that make it out alive share a positive attitude as a common thread. In 9 out of 10 instances, you will have what you need to survive even the most challenging scenarios. It is your attitude as much as your training that will help you make the right decision. I will be anxious to hear Miyuki’s whole story when she is released from the hospital. Her experience is sure to teach all of us valuable lessons in attitude.

Photo credit: Dreamstime