According to survival expert Stéphane Viron, when you’re lost in the wilderness, death stalks you in fours: clamber along the edge of a cliff and one slip will see you dead in four seconds. Fail to keep warm and you’ll perish of hypothermia in about four hours. Without water you might expire after four days. No food and you’re pretty much a goner within four weeks.
It’s with these grim warnings that Stéphane introduces us to his crash course in alpine survival. Gathered in the basement of a restaurant in the French ski resort of La Clusaz, there are ten of us in attendance – travel agents, journalists and a filmmaker – and we are all determined to survive our day on the snowy mountain.
After a spot of theory in our makeshift classroom, we break into groups of two and three, strap on snow shoes and start hiking uphill – each group sent on a different route but to the same rendezvous point – through the thick fir forests above La Clusaz. Our only guidance is a compass and a very small-scale map printed out on laminated paper. Half an hour later, after a few accidental deviations, we reach the rendezvous. First test completed successfully.
Stéphane now wastes no time in teaching us the practical skills we’d need should we find ourselves lost in the mountains for real. It’s time to learn how to make a fire.
But there are to be no matches and no paper. All we are allowed is a fire steel (a magnesium flint on which you strike sparks with a piece of steel), some cotton wool, and any wooden fuel we can gather from the forest around us. There’s thick snow on the ground but fortunately plenty of small dead branches poking out from the lower levels of the fir tree trunks. Before long my partner and I have snapped off an impressive collection of dead wood.
Can we get a fire going, though? Can we bollocks. After 30 arduous minutes of sparking the fire steel, cajoling the twigs, puffing like my life depends on it (which of course it would if this were a real survival situation), and cursing, I throw in the towel. Try as I might, the most I can produce is a puff of smoke and a few smouldering twigs. Pathetic. If I were really lost on the mountain, presumably I’d have four hours before hypothermia set in.
We fare much better on the next few tasks: using a stick in the snow as a makeshift compass; building night shelters, first with just a tarpaulin and broken branches, then a snow shelter; transporting an injured colleague using a stretcher made of four rucksacks. I think I might just have extended my survival period to four days.
Stéphane imparts some useful tips. Apparently that old adage about moss growing on the north side of a tree trunk is complete codswallop. Much better to look for an ants’ nest – almost always on the south side of a tree so as to maximise sunlight. (Unfortunately with a metre of snow on the ground, the local ants are currently keeping their heads down.)
He also teaches us how to assess the potential toxicity of berries: first rub them on your hand. If that doesn’t sting then rub them on your lips. If that still doesn’t sting then taste them. If you don’t choke on poison then you might just risk swallowing them. But no guarantee.
On my itinerary, Stéphane had clearly written that we were to learn about trapping animals. I’m no bloodthirsty caveman but I’ll admit I’ve been harbouring some atavistic desire to hunt my own lunch. Perhaps I might snare a mountain hare. Or bag a marmot. Even just a little squirrel would do.
But no. It turns out we’re within the boundaries of a French national park which means hunting game is prohibited. All Stéphane can do is describe a few methods for trapping prey while proffering ham sandwiches around. I’m bitterly disappointed. Might we extend our survival period to four weeks? That’s being a tad optimistic.
On a one-day course there’s inevitably a great deal of bushcraft that must fall by the wayside. This is only a taster, after all. Stéphane normally runs courses for two or three days. His five-day course teaches you to actually live off the land. Hunting game is still prohibited but he’ll happily teach you how to rustle up a mouth-watering meal of berries, grasshoppers and earthworms.
To give his tuition extra kudos, Stéphane recently signed up as part of the Bear Grylls Survival Academy franchise. Personally, I don’t think he needed to. I’m not convinced Bear Grylls is as grizzled as he likes to make out that he is. There’s obviously no doubt that he’s an engaging TV personality but when it comes to surviving in the wilderness, does he really cut the mustard?
A close friend of mine was in the SAS, and his blood boils whenever people talk about how tough Bear Grylls is. I can’t repeat in print the words he spat when he discovered that, during the filming of the TV series Born Survivor, the presenter sloped off to spend the night in a hotel.
You’d never find Stéphane eschewing the great outdoors for fluffy towels and hotel shampoo. His weather-beaten face and grizzled countenance are proof of this. A chat with him suggests he can walk the walk as well as talk the talk.
Yes, you need warm clothing and an indomitable spirit to survive in the Alps in winter. But here are some other essentials:
Snow shovel: You can use it to dig yourself a snow shelter, cover up yellow snow, or extricate colleagues after an avalanche.
Snow shoes: Attached to your boots, these spread your weight so that you can walk across deep snow without sinking into it.
Fire steel: By scraping the steel striker across the magnesium flint you create sparks to start a fire.
Knife: Essential tool and weapon.
Now firmly middle-aged, he has certainly been in a couple of pretty hairy situations during his life as an adventurer. Years ago, while hiking the GR20, the 180-km footpath that snakes the length of Corsica, north to south over the Mediterranean island’s mountainous backbone, he almost died of hypothermia.
"People usually think you get hypothermia in the mountains in winter. But this was mid-August in Corsica," he explains. "I was hiking in shorts and a
T-shirt. We were up on the high mountain ridges and suddenly we got caught in mist; then fog; then rain. We were soaked, shivering in the wind. In a matter of minutes we were dangerously cold. It was a nightmare."
Luckily Stéphane and his hiking partner heard the distant braying of a donkey which led them through the thick fog to the safety of a mountain refuge. "The donkey saved us!"
Back in La Clusaz I could do with a donkey myself. Our course is over and we’re heading back down to civilisation. But my snow shoes are slipping and sliding all over the place. My partner takes a tumble at one point, face-planting in the snow.
Could we really survive four weeks out here? Four days even? No, not without sloping off back to the hotel for fluffy towels and a warm night’s sleep…