Plants exhibit a variety of drought responses involving multiple interacting traits and processes, which makes predictions of drought survival challenging. Careful evaluation of responses within species, where individuals share broadly similar drought resistance strategies, can provide insight into the relative importance of different traits and processes. We subjected Pinus sylvestris L. saplings to extreme drought (no watering) leading to death in a greenhouse to (i) determine the relative effect of predisposing factors and responses to drought on survival time, (ii) identify and rank the importance of key predictors of time to death and (iii) compare individual characteristics of dead and surviving trees sampled concurrently. Time until death varied over 3 months among individual trees (from 29 to 147 days). Survival time was best predicted (higher explained variance and impact on the median survival time) by variables related to carbon uptake and carbon/water economy before and during drought. Trees with higher concentrations of monosaccharides before the beginning of the drought treatment and with higher assimilation rates prior to and during the treatment survived longer (median survival time increased 25–70 days), even at the expense of higher water loss. Dead trees exhibited less than half the amount of nonstructural carbohydrates (NSCs) in branches, stem and relative to surviving trees sampled concurrently. Overall, our results indicate that the maintenance of carbon assimilation to prevent acute depletion of NSC content above some critical level appears to be the main factor explaining survival time of P. sylvestris trees under extreme drought.