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Starvation & Survival

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Lyle Brotherton:
The publishers of the UNM were continually asking me to write a global disclaimer for the book. I refused, nor would I agree to one by them being included in the work. Similarly, I am making no such statements here. I could have bailed at various times during this episode but for personal reasons chose not to.

‘I am starving’ I hear folk say. This is one of those ubiquitous sayings that we in the west, throw out without ever thinking about its meaning. I wonder if its origins lie in the fact that we have an abundance of food in the West, so much so that it is killing us, with heart disease, diabetes and cancer. Possibly for the reason that food is not scarce we have an irrational fear of not having 24/7 access to it? The first time I experienced going without food I know that I felt this. Unless somebody has been ill, such as with a stomach infection, how many folk have not had anything to eat for 1 day, not many I suspect? How about 2 days, 3 days+?

The first time I experienced starvation was in the frozen Artic east of Murmansk, Russia. I had been working with Spetsnaz Alpha unit, as part of my research for the UNM (the techniques of setting your skis to your intended bearing thru your baseplate compass came from these guys as did measuring slope angle). We lived in snow holes and only used tents when moving across the ice towards the White Sea. I had been out with them for three weeks; they had a further 4 weeks to continue the exercise to their RV, Mezen, NE of Arkhangelsk.

The weather throughout the trip had been excellent and we had been waiting 5 days for an airdrop of provisions, which, for no good reason, had failed to arrive. On the day I was leaving, provisions were running low, and I opted to take 3 days of rations, from the 5 we all had remaining. I was well kitted out for my journey, which would be 5 days ski-travel back to Murmansk, in addition to my rations, I was better equipped than my companions, having a Iridium satellite phone, plus a Russian military satellite phone, satnav – Garmin 60Csx – (but no spare batteries) and my PLB plus I would be nearest to civilisation if everything went wrong.

3 days in I was ‘cooking on gas’, although the weather was bitterly cold, the skies were bright and I personally enjoy this type of solitude, continually contouring and crossing frozen water at every opportunity. I had eked out my rations to cover my 5 days. Then the weather changed, and although forecast, it was much more severe than expected. The high speed winds being the biggest obstacle in this region, as effectively the front moves across the level, sparse tundra, without any hindrance.

Navigating using my map & compass, I only turned on my satnav to determine where the snow holes, that I had previously waypointed, were from our trip out. I ended up in a snow hole, 3 days travel from my objective. The storm stayed with me, effectively pinning me down in my snow hole, and I ran out of food on day 5. Weather reports were that the front was clearing and on day 6 I was able to resume my journey.

My first day without food.
For the first 24hrs I thought continually about food and had irrational thoughts, such as would my blood sugars would drop and I would become hypoglycaemic and stop functioning, even pass out! I think that this was exacerbated as I had little to do, other than keep popping my head out of the snow hole to check the weather. The plain fact was that I was simply not going to get food and I knew that I would have access to food again in probably a week at most. My stove fuel was more than enough for this maximum period (from which I got my drinking water and some heat).

On day 2 with no food I resumed my journey, having not passed out! I started to accept that, other than pangs of hunger, which came in waves, I was fine. By day 3 I was totally focussed on the job in hand and functioning perfectly, day four passed the same and I arrived back in Murmansk (3 days travel,4 days no food). I had my first meal, a type of cured fatty bacon, which is really popular in that region, and eggs (interesting how I exactly remember what I had to eat showing to me what a focus food is in my life).

The medics checked me over and measured my blood sugar, which was normal, and I had lost some weight, (I think about 3kgs). How much of this was due to the last 9 days I did not know, as the weeks before I may have been losing it working with the squad.

It was a breakwater for my thinking, because I had learned that I could function perfectly without food.

From : Biology of Human Survival (Piantadosi)

Adult can survive for weeks, even months without food, it depends on the amount of body fat (if you are healthy but are overweight, you might last longer at the very end). Stress and disease greatly reduced the time to live. Loosing more than 50% in general means you will die (healthy non-obese people). During forced march in desert conditions with no water, you can die within 8 hours.

In general, after a few days you should feel actually very good (even euphoric) and sustain yourself for an extensive period of time, if you drink sufficiently. Possible taking some salt.  I still want to test it ones.  Look on the Internet for the Minnesota Experiment..(which will not be the test I want to do of course)

Ivo said "In general, after a few days you should feel actually very good"

Ivo, you are absolutely correct. I still continue Alpine climbing, when time permits, and have summited five of the 7000m+ peaks, where nutrition has been a very important consideration and a not dissimilar story to that of Lyle’s happened with us at Muztagh Ata 7545m, which is the second highest of the mountains on the northern edge of the Tibetan Plateau. Whilst climbing we lost everything at our base camp, and I mean everything was stolen. We had returned with all our foodstuffs depleted, in a nutshell we ate nothing for three and a half days. I remember that feeling of wellbeing that you describe Ivo and since this time I had often wondere3d if there was any physiological reason for this.

Ivo said "Stress and disease greatly reduced"

I have been recently watching BBC 2’s Horizon documentaries, featuring the series written and presented by Dr Michael Mosley and I learned the answer. It is some of the most powerful, enlightening and convincing television that I have watched for years. Moreover it has convinced me to implement a personal lifestyle change.

The program is no longer available on iplayer, but I found the episode concerned on YouTube It is brilliant.

If you want a shorter introduction there is an article from the Guardian newspaper which gives a good overview of the episode.

Thanks for posting those links Callum, Very interesting indeed.

I have never been in a situation where starvation has been a factor but I have limited food intake on many survival courses down to that that can me foraged. Normally 3 or 5 days occasionally 7 days.

On my last jungle trip I ate 1 small cup of rice a day for 3 weeks followed by 4 nights of isolation by myself in the jungle where over the period of the 4 nights I ate 8 small grubs and one heart of palm, which I know expended a lot more energy than I gained because I had to cut the 40 meter palm down 3 times.

When I walked out of that jungle I had so much energy I felt I could conker the world. When It was time to leave I needed to collect my kit, around 40 pounds of it in total and yomped out feeling on top of the world.  I could have easily run a marathon that day.

Great Story Adi and I should have written like you have just how good the feeling is, totally agree with your running a marathon analogy. Until the BBC Horizon documentary, I had thought this feeling may have been due to some hallucinatory effects of low nutrition, how wrong I was.

One of the guys in the Centre is an ultra-marathon competitor, and these are over the hills. He stocks up on carbs before an event then other than fluids, stops eating 24 hours before the race and never during. I was asking him about the nav decisions he has to make, as in quick and snap decisions, and he said if anything, he feels that he navigates better under this type of stress.

Yet advice that I give, when I instruct navigation, is that if lost, sit down and have something to eat, maybe I need to readdress this and say sit down and take stock?


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