The day I almost died

Member of the Belize rescue team

There I was, caught underneath a tree in a white-water river in Belize, thinking,
“This is a really stupid way to die.” However, because of the training my father, a 747 captain, had instilled in me growing up I instinctively surrounded myself with a “bubble of calm.” I had learned over the years that whenever emergencies or tough situations arise to slow things down in my head and try to assess the situation.

A crowded field heads into dangerous rapids

Nevertheless, I knew I had about a minute-and-a-half of available oxygen before I’d black out and drown. Luckily for me, that never happened. I was able to shift the boat that was on top of me, free myself from the maze of tree limbs that were holding me captive, and swim toward the light. When I surfaced the first image that greeted me was my friend and teammate Bo Parfet hanging onto a branch against the surging river. He had come up about a minute earlier.

Perhaps too much testosterone and not enough brains

It was day two of the La Ruta Maya, a grueling, multi-day canoe race, and we were now last among a field of just under a hundred vessels. Though we didn’t win, this was only the first of many adventures that Bo and I would share together. Often, the kind of life-threatening incident that we’d just experienced deeply affects a person’s sense of fearlessness, and I wondered how it was going to affect Bo. You see, in my mind he was still untested. I did not know then that, during the next few years, he would witness a death on Mount Everest and have several brushes with it himself in some of the world’s most exotic locations.
As for me, I have thought about that day often and consider myself lucky. The scenario could have been drastically different, and I don’t know if I would have survived. I have always prided myself on being risk adverse and safe in the field, but good explorers or adventurers are able to sense dangerous situations, unlike I had done on that day on the river in Belize.

A widely used phrase, though somewhat cliché, is that the mark of real character in a climber is not how he stands on the summit while holding a flag, but how he pulls himself out of an icy crevasse. Expeditions have a way of revealing a person’s true personality, mostly because teammates spend so much time together in close quarters and often in trying conditions, that all pretenses quickly vanish. No one should ever underestimate the value of being a good teammate. A group that works cohesively together will triumph over individual effort every time.

Bo Parfet and author at Everest base camp

The easy road is safe and predictable, however sticking your neck out on an expedition or trying to extend yourself in any field of endeavor is difficult, especially when you run the risk of looking foolish if you fail. Still, you might as well face the fact that if you’re going to be a leader, you will undoubtedly fail at some point. The important thing is to learn from experience, and also to understand that on those occasions when you put every ounce of energy and passion into achieving something, the exhilaration of realizing your ambition will be well worth the fight. If I had died under a tree in a river in Belize I would have been pretty embarrassed ( in the after-life), but I was able to stay calm and as a result learned an invaluable lesson. It is important to remind yourself that though every person lives, it takes a person with true courage to experience failure and continue to live outside their comfort zone.

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Filed under Belize, Born to Explore, canoe, drowning, Richard Wiese, ruta maya

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