Surviving Survival School

Wrapped like a burrito in a wet wool blanket, I’m draped under a suffocating rain poncho, my pink pom pom ski hat poking out under the hood. I crouch on a garbage bag stuffed with supplies, my head slipping precariously close to a cactus. Lightning crackles above the Southern Utah desert sky. Is that a bear in front of me? I think I’m hallucinating. Please let this night end soon. More than anything, I just hate being damp.

So how did I wind up spending a night utterly alone in the Utah wilderness working on a story that would appear in Vogue for our client, explorer extraordinaire Josh Bernstein? Welcome to my tale of survival school.

It all began when Vogue became interested in doing a switching lives type of story with its famously lavendered European editor-at-large Hamish Bowles. We pitched a piece where Josh, the handsome cowboy hat wearing host of Discovery and History Channel fame, would take Hamish through a 4-day course at the Boulder Outdoor Survival School (BOSS) – the oldest survival school in the country and a school that Josh owns.

Embracing a challenge, I went along as a DKC embed with hopes of bonding with Hamish and understanding more about Josh’s world on the Utah trail. And so armed with my new purchases from Paragon – a pair of Tevas, some hiking shoes, an unflattering beige outdoorsy shirt and a couple of bandanas, I leave for Utah prepared to go mano y mano in the wilderness without a tent, a sleeping bag, sunglasses, flashlight, toothpaste, bottled water or a Blackberry for four days.

Day 1 – Morning – Provo, Utah

I meet my six fellow survival students in the Travel Lodge lobby. Hamish and I begin bonding over some weak coffee, bagels and loads of anxiety. Josh pulls up in a trailer and we begin our four-hour drive southwest to Boulder with Mozart concertos playing in the background.

Day 1 – Afternoon – Boulder, Utah

We collect our gear in a yurt which is cross between a teepee and a circus tent. My survival supplies include a hunting knife sharp enough to skin a moose that will stay hooked to my belt buckle for four days, an enamel cup, an environmentally friendly bottle for gathering water, a bottle of drops to kill the parasites in my gathered water, and a mix of other random low tech gadgets like cords and strings that will apparently help me survive. We turn in our valuables and turn off our technology. Game on.

Day 1 – Impact phase – The Course Begins – Potty Time

Josh enthusiastically explains the proper ways to go potty in the great outdoors. Pooping seems to require the strategic planning of a military invasion, ample time and lots of sagebrush to use as wipes. I have snuck in some contraband tushy wipes. I have forgone sunglasses, but wet wipes, well, I just have to draw the line some where”¦it’s a matter of chafing.

I get my first tutorial using my knife and carve my very own spoon out of wood. It’s not elegant, but it’s practical and I am proud. I just hope I don’t get splinters on my tongue.

Day 1 – Night – Somewhere in the Wilderness

For endless hours, I have trekked over mountains and even crawled crab style through a steep crevasse with a cloth sack slung across me like a baby sling. This is the ”carry light” phase where I don’t have my blanket, food or any other gear. We hike in the darkness sans flashlights – channeling our tribal ancestors – we are told to tap into our primitive night vision abilities. I’m just praying to the wilderness gods that I don’t slide off the mountain.

Suddenly, we stop marching and are simply told “good night.” Hamish and I glance at each other and nervously laugh. We find a patch of cold sand perched on a slope. With no blankets, we sleep on the damp sand covered only by the thin piece of fabric that was my papoose. Hamish snores. I stare at the stars and panic about switching my contacts in the morning when my hands are coated in sand.

Day 2- Morning—Somewhere in the Wilderness

No breakfast, no toothpaste, no Starbucks. We are still in the ”Impact Phase” and haven’t eaten anything since yesterday afternoon. Our guides, who effortlessly glide over the terrain like mountain goats as the rest of us chug along, tell us that they were toasty last night because they were spooning. Hamish and I look at each other sheepishly – maybe tonight we’ll snuggle.

Day 2 – Night – Somewhere in the Wilderness

We set up camp on a beautiful spot where we’re having a group fire and cookout. It’s feeling festive and I’m thinking roasted marshmallows and banana boats until Hamish and I are handed a single carrot, a third of a potato, a half of an onion and two cloves of garlic to make stew for three people. Clearly this is about survival and not about S’mores. I could really use a beer.

Day 3 – Morning – Still Somewhere in the Wilderness

Hamish is holding up remarkably well and is appearing more rugged and tanned each day. He’s even adorning his Panama hat with wild turkey feathers he finds along the trail. Josh still looks refreshed and handsome with his signature stubble growing, and checking myself out in my compact mirror as I put on my lenses, I discover that I look like hell. But there are more important things to concern myself with today like learning how to make fire without matches. Let the party tricks begin!

Day 3 – Afternoon – Trying to Make Fire

Now I know why matches were invented because it’s seriously a pain in the ass to light fire any other way. For hours I yank my bow back and forth across my homemade spindle. If Prometheus could steal fire from the gods for all humanity, why can’t I make a little spark? But as much as I try, I can’t make anything but smoke. I feel defeated.

Day 3 – Afternoon – Post Attempting Fire

We walk for miles on what looks like a cross between the surface of the moon and the Sinai Desert. I feel like Moses leaving Egypt.

Hamish thinks he spots a bear paw print and then Josh notices a large log of bear poop. Everyone hovers around as our guide Dave begins to systematically dissect the poop. Dave points out the pine nuts the bear apparently just ate for a snack.

After a little goading, Josh convinces Hamish to eat the poop, promising that it’s quite tasty. Horrified, I look at Hamish in disbelief. Josh pushes me to try the poop as well. Not to be outshined by Hamish, I take the dare and pluck out a pine nut.

Hamish and I just got Punk’d”¦.it wasn’t poop but an organic fruit and nut bar with the consistency of well, poop. I am gagging ten minutes after the joke is over even while the rest of the group consumes the fig bar.

Day 3 – Solo Night – Near a Desert Swamp

Forgetting to pack bug spray, I am now on the verge of a panic attack when I’m placed for my ”solo night” under a tree swarming with buzzing, blood thirsty mosquitoes. It rains again. It gives me little comfort to know that my closest neighbor is within ”howling distance.”

Day 4 – Morning – Still Near a Desert Swamp

It wasn’t pretty but I made it through my stormy solo night. This is the last day of the course and the geography is gorgeous – alternating between red rocks and roaring creeks. Hamish and I have fallen into a good rhythm and I think he’s really digging this experience. Josh, who is also a professional photographer and was hired by Vogue to document Hamish’s journey, shoots hundreds of photos.

Day 4 – Late afternoon

We hear traffic which means we are close to civilization. Twenty-three miles later, up and over the Escalante River, through the wilderness, out of the woods and under a hidden fence – we’ve made it!


In November, Hamish’s amazing article comes out in Vogue along with a photo of me and our group. In my life, I never imagined I would appear in the iconic fashion bible Vogue and I’m horrified to see that I’m not even wearing makeup!

But it’s not about me. The article on Josh and survival school is such a sensation that it’s picked up by New York Magazine and other outlets. Hamish says that in his twenty years of writing at Vogue he has never experienced such extraordinary feedback on a story. Apparently, Anna Wintour was so thrilled with the piece that she wants to create a regular first person series with Hamish.

In public relations, we operatives usually stay on the fringes of a story – guiding the piece but not becoming a part of the story. And while close relationships with producers and reporters are crucial, we’re usually not sleeping with them, unless, of course, we’re dating them. So sharing my rations with Hamish and sleeping on the cold sand next to him may not have influenced the outcome of the story, but the intensity of the experience was an incredible opportunity to not only become entrenched in the world of a client but to develop a unique relationship with a magazine editor that I hope lasts a lifetime.

Posted by: Wendy Sachs, Vice President