Volume 44 | Number 1 | Spring 2014

Clothed and at Ease

Jeff Zausch, '11, has been bitten by a rattlesnake when he was alone and miles from civilization. He's taken scores of solo survival treks in the wilds of the American West and in Alaska and Canada. Appearing on the Discovery Channel's "Naked and Afraid" program this spring, however, was tougher.

Spring 2014 Issue | By Andrew Taylor

The 26-year-old Pocatello native was dropped off naked and with one survival tool in a harsh desert in Madagascar last fall to meet up with a woman in the same situation, Eva Rupert from Flagstaff, Ariz. They had 21 days to survive and only themselves to depend on.

The event was a life-changer for Zausch, who has been testing his limits and survival skills since he was 9 when he obtained permission from his parents to go camp out in a blizzard.

"Since that first time I camped out in the blizzard it has really gotten my adrenaline going doing something dangerous and wild," he continued. "Since then I have continued to take it to the next level, doing bigger and better things. I like doing things other people won't do."

Zausch, who earned an earth and environmental systems degree from ISU, spends most of his days working as a geographic information specialist for the ISU Idaho Museum of Natural History and at A to Z Family Services in Pocatello as a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist. He has been married to his wife, Gabby, for just over a year, drives a Trans Am he rebuilt, and is the leader of Boy Scout Troop 319 in Pocatello.

When he isn't living day-to-day life, he lives for adventure. He has tested himself on many survival and adventure treks through the years including climbing all of Idaho's peaks over 12,000 feet, being a whitewater river guide, guiding spelunking expeditions and going on numerous solo survival sojourns.

The closest he came to dying in the outdoors, prior to the "Naked and Afraid" episode, was when he was bitten by the rattlesnake in the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness after dumping his canoe in the main Salmon River and losing all his supplies.

"I had to make it out or I was going to die," Zausch said.

As bad as that day was, it didn't compare to what he and his TV companion experienced in Madagascar. Being naked didn't help his situation and Zausch said he underestimated the difficulty it would pose.

"I have done literally hundreds of survival expeditions, but being naked out there made things 100 times more difficult," Zausch said. "Being barefoot was one of things I had to overcome. Early on I injured my foot and had to overcome that the rest of the challenge."

Zausch was dropped off in a harsh desert with wide swings in temperatures. The landscape is made out of sandstone rock that the locals called "razor rock."

"They put me in a location that was one of my worst nightmares, and I didn't see it coming," he said. "The climate and environment were even harsher than I expected."

Because Zausch and Rupert were barefoot and Zausch was injured, it dramatically limited the amount of area they could cover and their ability to find food and water. They nearly starved.

"It was the most difficult survival experience in my life, and I've experienced a lot," Zausch said. "Try going 21 days without eating; it's almost biblical in nature if you think about it. The starvation we experienced was stunning."

Though it was the most challenging thing he has done, it was also the most rewarding. It was a spiritual experience, he said.

It also gave him greater appreciation for his father, Matt, who died last year at the age of 51. Born with a heart defect and told he wouldn't live past his childhood, Matt lived through nine open-heart surgeries during his life. Jeff said his father was always his hero and was the greatest survivalist he has ever met.

"Doctors kept telling him he was going to die and he kept proving them wrong," Zausch said. "Out there (in Madagascar), I was reminded of my dad and everything he went through in his life, the way he always overcame anything despite the circumstances, and despite how the odds were always against him, he survived. I used the legacy he left for me."

Zausch said a lot of people don't understand why he risks his life testing his survival skills.

"Some people might think it is silly, but it is a central part of who makes me, me," Zausch said. "I am the type of person that I don't think I would be happy with how I lived my life if I didn't live it to fullest, accomplishing things other people have not done. To me, this was the ultimate thing, to push my mind and body and challenge every aspect of myself — mental, physical and spiritual.

"This is the kind of thing I live for," he continued. "If I was asked about going again I wouldn't hesitate for a second. I'd say 'yes' absolutely. It puts everything in perspective. It changes your life."

For more information and video on the program, visit the Discovery Channel website.