Pareto’s Law and How I Survived a Real Disaster With a Survival Cache: Learning How to Learn, by David H.

In cold weather climate emergencies, one does not have the luxury of bumbling around with unfamiliar, time consuming, or downright questionable strategies for securing shelter, food and water. One’s gear must not be delicate or high maintenance, and one’s plan must be founded in strategies that have been thoroughly tested and improved upon. If one is ill-prepared or caught off guard, the cold will quickly strip away heat, water, and life. 

Among some friends, there is a yearly tradition of heading to Quebec, over in Canada, where we go winter camping for about 2-3 weeks or so. Childhood friends now scattered across North America, we would call each other in early December, and ask if each other “were going”. That was it. That’s all that was said. Seven years running, the logistics had never changed. Since the first year had gone so smoothly, every subsequent year was identical. It was simple, really; everyone knew what they were responsible for bringing because it had been the same for years. This year, however, would be very different.

Enter the Ice Storm of 1998

Freezing rain, as we know, is falling snow that passes through a warm layer of air in the atmosphere and turns into rain. When it passes through another colder layer of air nearer to the ground, the rain super cools and freezes on contact. Normally lasting minutes and not causing problems, this year it would freeze rain for a little over 3 days straight, covering everything in about 1.5-4 inches of contour formed ice, depending on location. Imagine your arm from the elbow down to the fingers lying flat on a desk carrying the weight of 4 inches of vertical ice. Now pick up your arm and move it around. Heavy, yes? The power lines and trees at the time would agree with you.

With around 35,000 utility poles and 1,000 electrical pylons (yes, steel) crushed under the weight of the ice, millions were without electricity for up to 3 weeks. Millions. In the dead of winter this meant no heat and no running water for people on grid. Luckily for me I was off grid on the start of a camping trip. Not lucky for me, I was by myself. The nature of my trip would shortly change from recreation, to survival.

I would learn later about the extent of the damages; that the major cities declared states of emergency, and that 15,000 troops were deployed to aid the 100,000 people frozen out of their homes. Since measuring damage is always easier in a dollar amount; this disaster would cause $5 billion worth of damage. It is so hard to imagine this sort of number. In my line of work, I often need to describe such large numbers, so imagine walking as children often do; the heel of your next step touching flush with the toes of your planted foot. Step by step, walking heel-to-toe, heel-to-toe. Imagine doing this for 189 miles. For every step you take, you get a dollar. To reach $5 billion dollars, you would have to walk the 189 miles heel-to-toe, a whopping five-thousand times.

At the time just before the rain came, I had been driving in my car without a radio, unaware of the storm coming. My responsibilities for the trip had always been to bring the beer, poker chips and a warm sleeping bag. Done. 10 x 24 packs of beer later, I was waiting for the others to arrive with the food, water, tent, and a years worth of stories to catch up on. I had made an embarrassing number of rookie mistakes for 7 seven years running, and nature would quickly teach them all to me. They say pain is the best teacher, but no one wants to go to his class. 

After about six hours alone in my car trying to call my three friends, and calling my apartment to see if anyone was there, I was getting frustrated that I wasn’t being connected anywhere. Starting the engine for heat every 35 minutes or so, I was blissfully unaware that anything was amiss as I munched out of a small convenience store bag of trail mix, and drank water out of my nalgene. That evening, I cracked a single beer, and curled up in my sleeping bag in the backseat, listening to rain patter on the roof. 

When I woke up late, I jerked my head around to look out the windows to see if my friends had arrived through the night, but the car windows and windshield were suddenly heavily frosted. I grabbed the handle to throw open the rear door, but it wouldn’t move. After trying the other one, I laughed out loud; the car was sealed shut from freezing rain! Perfect. After an ego crushing session of exhausting attempts to simply muscle open the door, my throbbing shoulder demanded I stop, so I grew a brain and started the car to warm it up. With the heat on full blast, it still took about 40 minutes to be able to get out of my ice prison. 

I ate another third of the trail mix shortly after my escape, but after 3-4 hours of fruitless phone calls, my stomach was once more expressing its impatience, and it demanded something more. I begrudgingly decided to drive the 120-150 miles back to a gas station (and nearest mailbox) to grab some sustenance, berating myself for not having brought more than I did. After tying a length of scrap utility cord to a tree to signal my presence in case the others arrived (from the other direction), I used a small cheap plastic scraper to remove about 1 3/4 inches of ice off of my windshield. Since the freezing rain was continuous, it proved very tedious to accomplish. In hindsight though, had I not previously been keeping the car warm in intervals, it would have surely taken many more hours, if been possible at all to accomplish with the low quality tool at my disposal, and the rate of ice replacement from the sky. 

After starting the engine once more, and throwing the small car into gear, I was surprised to be sitting still after hitting the gas. Stepping out to examine the problem, before my eyes was a little over 2 inches around each tire. My car was fused to the ground. I used the scraper to remove the caked on ice, and upon returning to the drivers seat, found that I could only spin the front wheels. After attempting a more precise ice scraper surgery on the rear wheel situation, all degrees of gas pedal application still yielded only spinning in the front tires, and so no movement in the back.

I sat in the car for about 25 minutes racking my brains for possible solutions, with the gravity of the situation slowly rising up in some back room of my mind. Trying to place a floor mat near the front wheels for them to ‘bite’ into failed extremely consistently. The tire simply pulled the mat back around to the other side. My extremely flawed stroke of insight involved placing my nalgene by the dashboard heater to warm the remaining water, in hopes that by pouring it in the ice depression around the tire, it would melt the ice, bringing the front tires in contact with the gravel somewhere beneath. The front tires would then have enough traction to break off the remaining ice left on the rear wheels and pull the car out of its ever-so-slowly rising ice grave. Needless to say, thermodynamics were not on my side that late afternoon. Even after attempting the same strategy with about 15 bottles of beer (which I, of course should have thought of first), I could see no appreciable difference. Attempting the gas pedal would simply remove the rapidly cooling fluid from the cavity. It would be later explained to me that even if I had a garden hose expelling boiling water, there was most likely 1-2 feet of hard packed ice and snow under each tire, making my attempts futile. 

I curled up that night slightly demoralized, weighing my options to either wait a little longer for the gang, or try the 90 mile walk back. I had no food or water save beer, and I fell asleep frustrated that it was still raining.

I would spend two more nights in the frozen shelter, with a door cracked, having decided that I would brave the walk once the rain subsided. At least my shelter had some heat from time to time. My days were spent making pointless phone calls to try to reach my friends. Not a single call was connected. I tried every number in my contact list. My calls to 911 were often connected briefly, but would drop after about 3 seconds. I panicked for some time after this. With the (unknown to me at the time) record setting peak demand on emergency service infrastructure at the time, even if I could have been patched through, I would have been triaged down to the bottom of the pile anyway, being one person in the middle of a forest during a storm made of freeze-on-contact rain. 

After the skies cleared, the scene was frightening, but somehow beautiful. Four inches of pure ice everywhere the eye could see. I would find out later that some rural residents affected by the storm could skate on nearby grass fields. Every sapling and tree branch in view bent right over struggling against the enormous weight. 

Four days and three nights in my car without food, water, communication or transportation left me weak and out of good ideas. I had to move. I didn’t know if bringing beer would hydrate me or dehydrate me, but I emptied several bottles into my nalgene and with my sleeping bag and a few more bottles in a grocery bag, set off.

About three hours into my walk, and not getting very far due to the poor traction, my phone rang! What? It was a man I had never heard of, so I interrupted his brief introduction and stammered out my situation, begging that he call 911, and contact some people for me. He calmly explained the extent of the storm to me and told me that my friends weren’t coming. Having heard the storm warning on the news, my friends had abandoned their plans, and sent out e-mails to confirm. I remained the only one that hadn’t responded, so they called me at my apartment number. Having already left, they spoke to my roommate who did in fact reach 911 with little consequence. Through his municipal connections, though, my roommate eventually tracked down the number of the nearest landowner to our yearly location. My hope vanished though, as he announced that he was calling me from Cuba. 

He proceeded to describe the location of what he called a “cache” of supplies on his 400 plus acres of property. As he was describing the contents, I was put at ease, not at what he was saying, but by his calm yet confident tone. He told me I might be stuck there a while, so he got me to repeat back to him the instructions he just gave me on “hunting”. He could tell I just wanted to keep talking, so he emphasized that I best get at it soon. His deep, loud laughter at me describing the quantity of frozen beer in the trunk of my car instantly set my mood to excited and hopeful, and woke me up like a fog horn. My phone beeped at me about the impending cut off due to dwindling battery life, and I gave my repetitious thanks as we exchanged goodbyes. I estimate that we talked for about 20-25 minutes.

Walking/jogging back to the car took about two hours, and locating the cache was easy. It had been about 40 minutes up the road (in the other direction) from my car the whole time, which made me feel strange. Near a truck sized split rock about 50 ft into the ice abused woods, with new vigor I systematically broke the heavy ice using a rock and using my scraper, dug down to the ground making a patch of dirt about the area of a single-sized bed sheet. My heart quickening as I spotted the small piece of orange utility cord that snaked into the ice and allegedly, to a container, I feverishly broke the ice and dug the snow until I found what I was looking for. 

The thick plastic garbage can top came off with surprising difficulty, revealing a strange spicy smelling sand that covered a thick black melt-sealed garbage bag with the following contents, the names of which I would later learn; 5 lbs of pemmican, 2.5 lbs of parmesan cheese, 1.8 quart Kelly Kettle, quiviut socks, ziploc freezer bag of birdseed, single shot crank pellet gun with about 300 pellets, 5 large rat traps, a large blue tarp, a green wool blanket, a compass, a whistle, a fixed blade knife and a medium sized ferrocium rod. I brought it all back to the car like a child wanting to be alone with a new toy.

Without attempting an extensive retrospective journal of what I did day-to-day for the next two weeks (16 days!), let it suffice to provide the following descriptions. The pemmican tasted like half-decent dog food and it, combined with some parmesan, initially energized me more that I had thought I needed. The remaining parmesan cheese was stinky enough to consistently attract the storm rattled squirrels into the traps. It was comically easy. The remaining pemmican rations and the squirrel kept me going very strong. The Kelly Kettle was absurdly simple to figure out and keep fueled, and the constant supply of water from crushed ice kept me feeling great. The birdseed was a little slower going, and even though I only nabbed 3 birds with the air rifle, it too was surprisingly thoughtless. The 146 miles (I would later calculate) on an ice road was very tedious to walk. At night, I would set out my sleeping bag on the folded tarp, and with the wool blanket covering me, I was cozy. The quiviut (musk-ox hair) socks proved invaluable, being (again, I would later learn) 8 times warmer than sheep wool! Happy feet = happy trails!  

I made it back to the gas station almost effortlessly, the residents graciously putting me up in a bed and feeding me for another 6 days. I could have certainly kept going with squirrel meat, as the system I worked out was almost flawless. It seemed that I ended up having my fun camping trip after all, though very different than previous years. Almost two months later, I  would finally meet with Carl, the great man who called me out of the blue and saved my life with his preparation, instruction, and encouragement.

The purpose then, of sharing my now-dated story, is not to teach lessons of cold weather survival, highlight specific equipment over others, or even emphasize the logic of caches or even the importance of charity. It is instead to highlight a heuristic (thought tool) that Carl used to make his cache, and that I have used to change my life and succeed in a rock solid career.

In a later meeting with Carl, I was incredulous as to his choice of equipment. While I simply marveled at his intelligence, he saw the opportunity to teach me an important skill, something that would later change my life; thinking with Pareto’s Law. Pareto, a controversial italian economist, once noticed that 20% of the landowners in his country controlled 80% of the land. Thinking nothing much of it at the time, he later noticed that 20% of his pea pods in his garden yielded 80% of his peas. This ‘rule’ or ‘law’ would later be applied to almost everything, making billionaires and industry leaders. A good example would be the english language. With hundreds of thousands of words in the English language, it typically takes a lifetime to achieve a masterful vocabulary. However to achieve fluency, you would only need to learn the most common 2,500 words. These are words like ‘yes, no, how, the, in, on, above, outside, over, under, he, she, we, etc’ In this case, 2.5% of the content is responsible for over 95% of the results. 

The re-constructions of this thought process are almost endless. If you run a business, you could ask yourself which 20% of customers provide 80% of your income, and then pay special attention to them to adjust the ratio closer to the language example. You could also ask which 20% of customers waste 80% of your time, and reclaim your efficiency. So while similar to the “how would I do this if I only had 15 minutes to do it”, it is different in that it forces you to seek out the smallest changes that produces the biggest results, instead of trying to simply optimize strategy based on a smaller time line. Pareto’s Law assumes that there is a 20% of something out there that is far more important than the other 80% of something, because it provides 80% of the returns. Since it is very well documented that well over 80% of violent crime is committed by less than 20% of the criminals, it becomes wise to prepare against the 20%. We therefore need to ask ourselves what this 20% look like as a cohort if we are to prepare against anything. 

Despite my previously detailed early college experience in the woods, I am actually rather new to the survivalism scene, having only recently explored the possibilities of governmental problems, etc. I work as a military resource analyst, and from some of the survivalism content I have read as of late, the prepping community could certainly benefit from thinking like this, especially since during disasters, they almost never have a logistical tail, unlike the military. Ask yourself better questions and save your money, time, and energy. Which 20% change in government would have the 80% of the worst effect. Is it already happening? Which 20% of land in your country would naturally protect you against 80% of environmental problems?

Carl could have had a tent, a sleeping bag, trail mix, iodine tablets, a water filter, some camouflage, a .22 rifle, an axe, a bow saw, a shovel, a flare gun, topo maps and 200 feet of rope in a cache, but he would then have been unable to set up another 13 caches on a whopping 10,000 plus acres, in a weekend at an absurdly minimal cost. Even though a tent and a shovel etc are great ideas for caches in some circumstances, the key is to do as little as necessary, not as much as possible. Like Bruce Lee said: “Mastery lends itself toward simplicity”. Survivalists almost always miss this. Amassing the equipment for 100+ contingencies is not cleverness. Especially not if it breaks the bank, creates anxiety, and leaves prepping as the sole focus of your life. God wants us to enjoy our life, not worry about it all the time. No one disagrees that having a Light Armored Vehicle would be great, but in reality it’s only the difference between 98% and 99% preparation. What, then, constitutes the first 80 or 90%? 

As Mr. Rawles emphasizes; his writing contests are primarily in place for amassing ‘how-to’ skills. From my career in military logistics, I have streamlined hundreds of millions of dollars and improved efficiency in design, deployment, and repair of all things equipment. My contention therefore, is that the the most important primary ‘how-to’ skill, is how to process information with Pareto’s Law. Being media literate is not enough, spotting logical fallacies from news agencies, political figures and medical claims is not enough. We must learn how to actively seek out the smallest changes that produce the largest results, as any further ‘how-to’ learning rests on what we’ve chosen to learn. Choosing to learn how to flint knap, or store a printing press in cosmolene is misguided at best. Take care of learning the most common 2,500 words first, then move on to ‘serpentine’, ‘irrevocable’, and ‘mitochondria’. 

The world is about to change dramatically. This is certain. But redirect the energies you waste on fantasies to learning the first and single most important how-to skill; automatically thinking in terms of Pareto’s law. It dictates the efficiency of all further learning and action.