Peter DeLeo has pulled himself out of bigger scrapes than most of us will hopefully ever encounter in a lifetime.
Ten years ago, his plane crashed in the High Sierras and he and his two passengers sustained serious injuries. Though DeLeo himself had 16 broken bones, he set off through the wilderness to get help. His ensuing 13-day trek took strength and courage that nearly bested him. DeLeo's tale is the topic of his book Survive! My Fight for Life in the High Sierras, a story of the classic battle of man versus nature.
Although DeLeo's experience with small aircraft and knowledge of survivalist lore obviously contributed to his success, he won't take all the credit.
"Part of it is luck," he said in a recent interview with the Independent. "A lot, though, is God. He said "I'm going to give you guys a chance.' After that, you can only do your part, and what happens, happens."
Nov. 27, 1994 found DeLeo in his beloved Maule N5629-Juliet, a small single-engine plane. Two passengers were in tow on a pleasant aerial photography trip over the Sierra Nevada mountain range. DeLeo was in prime feel-good territory, happily planning future trips in the Maule.
But all pastoral scenes must come to an end. After all, the book is called Survive! for a reason.
Hitting a sudden patch of turbulence, the craft careened 3,000 feet. Unable to regain proper altitude the plane crashed, landing inside a large ravine in California's Golden Trout Wilderness.
His passengers badly hurt, DeLeo extricated himself from the wreckage, suffering numerous injuries including broken ribs, a shattered ankle, no vision in one eye, and a punctured lung. Still, he was the only one functional enough to attempt to reach help. He set out with nothing but the clothes on his back, boots he was unable to tie up due to his swollen ankle, and no food or supplies.
The ensuing 13-day trek, described in the book, lead DeLeo through forests, beyond bears and up rocky mountain faces. He constantly had to work to avoid hypothermia and exhaustion. Frostbite threatened his extremities, and though the pain was maddening, he told himself, "As long as they hurt, they're alive."
DeLeo found small pleasures where he could, even in taking refuge in a safe, albeit smelly, old outhouse. He underwent a life-review, and that, he says, drove him on.
"You start to think about your family, about your life, how Grandpa and Grandma spoiled you," he said. "You draw from those positive experiences, and it helps you go from tree to tree to rock."
The decision to write a book about his experiences came to DeLeo after hiking in the Andes mountains in 1998. Years after emerging from the wilderness, the story was still painful for him to discuss.
"I wasn't ready for a lot that I had to do," he said.
To better understand what he went through, and for a sense of closure, DeLeo went back to the High Sierras. "I had to reflect, and after writing the first five chapters, I drove out to the area and retraced my steps. It was sort of a mental decompression, getting my thoughts together to start a new chapter of my life."
Survive! My Fight for Life in the High Sierras by Peter DeLeo (Simon & Schuster: New York) $24/hardcover
Peter DeLeo will sign Survive!
Friday, Feb. 4, 7 p.m.
Barnes & Noble Booksellers, 1565 Briargate Blvd.
For more information, call 266-9960