Sunday, March 22, 2009

The big chill

Chas Clifton over at Southern Rockies Nature Blog dug up an old (1997) Outside magazine article, written by Peter Stark, on hypothermia. As Chas notes, "Cheery stuff." For me, it brought back memories of what could have been a fatal incident—one that took place south of the Mason-Dixon line, incidentally.

About twenty years ago, I was working in the Baltimore area and my fiancée, Susan, was still an undergraduate at W&L. I made the roughly four-hour trip down to Lexington every second or third weekend, usually traveling light. One particular weekend started off warm, so I brought only the usual jeans (32" waist; I was skinny then, which was about to work against me) and short-sleeved T-shirts, but I stayed an extra night and a cold front moved in Sunday evening. When I departed early Monday morning, it was in the 20s; I scraped ice off the windows of my poorly-maintained '77 Nova, shivering in my T-shirt, and set out on the road.

I forget whether the heater itself was on the fritz, or whether the fan had stopped working, but whichever component had failed left me with no means to counteract the ambient temperature, the frigid vinyl of the seats, and the drafts coming in around the door seals. My shivering grew worse and worse, but I stubbornly kept driving—I had to get to work, and surely it would warm up as the sun got higher.

By the time I reached the exit for Stuarts Draft, maybe half an hour down the road (north is down the Valley), my teeth were chattering violently and I could barely hold the steering wheel steady. I finally figured out that I was hypothermic when, despite the shivering, I started to fall asleep at the wheel. Not good. And yet there was a part of me that wanted to give in, to close my eyes and relax, just for a few moments...but of course I was still driving 65 or 70 miles an hour and that would have been the last nap I ever took. I convinced myself to be afraid, turned around at Staunton, and drove back to Lexington talking to myself in order to stay awake.

I arrived back at Susan's apartment pale, nearly incoherent, and still shaking like a leaf on a tree. She and her roommates put me to bed, gave me hot tea, and called me in sick. By that afternoon, both the weather and I had warmed up, and I was able to make it back to Baltimore.

Still, that wasn't necessarily the end of it. Having had hypothermia once renders one more susceptible to the cold—and even knowing this, I still slip up on occasion. A few weeks ago, for example, I made the mistake of going to lacrosse practice dressed for current conditions and not foreseeable conditions. There was snow on the ground, but when practice started at five o'clock I was fine in shorts and a fleece pullover layered over a T-shirt. By 6:30 it was nearly dark, the temperature had dropped, and I was in bad shape: my cleats offered little protection in the snow, my lacrosse gloves (heavily padded on the back as a defense against opponents' checks but with no thermal insulation) were completely inadequate for the situation, and even the fleece was not enough to keep my core temperature up. I ducked out as soon as practice was over, turned on the Subaru's seat warmers and blasted the heat all the way home, took a hot shower that fogged the mirrors but still left me shivering, then bundled up in multiple layers before going to bed under three Pendleton blankets—but I didn't feel warm again until I woke up the next morning.

The moral of the story, if there is one, is this: Hypothermia can be sneaky. Northern climes, high altitude, and the dead of winter are easy enough to prepare for. It's the mid-latitude Marches and Octobers—the sudden cold snap, the unexpected soaking rain—that are likely to get you.

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