“It’s the cursed cold,
and it’s caught right hold
‘til I’m chilled clean through
to the bone…”
– Robert W. Service
People sometimes ask me what the coldest place is I’ve ever been. Without hesitation, I answer Cleveland. They look at me in astonishment. “But you’re from Alaska!”
Just about everyone I know in Alaska, except my wife, would rather have negative 10 degrees of interior Alaska’s desert-dry cold than plus 30 degrees of Cleveland’s teeth chattering, body convulsing, moist, Great Lakes’ cold that chills your bone marrow.
There are great similarities and differences in cold, as well as people’s reactions to it. Negative 30 degrees without wind is much more tolerable than zero degrees with a slight breeze. Negative 20 degrees standing by a hole in the ice waiting for a fish to bite is colder than anything I can think of, obviously because you’re not moving and you’re extremely bored.
Forty-five degrees above zero can kill just as effectively, via hypothermia, as 20 degrees below. Some people do not last even hours once hypothermia (the lowering of the body’s core temperature) has set in. Others, like the survival-suited fisherman who one winter spent a night inside a capsized ship in the Gulf of Alaska, miraculously survive.
Humans certainly aren’t created equal in their ability to tolerate cold. Arctic Yupik, Iñupiat and Inuit peoples, for example, have evolved over thousands of years a capillary system that delivers higher volumes of warm blood to their extremities than Caucasians. Any day of the week I’d take their capillaries over the best Arctic mittens money can buy. They also have developed a thicker skin, which is probably equivalent to adding one layer of clothing. And they have a digestive system that can handle foods for combating cold, which are very high in fat.
A three-inch square chunk of bearded seal, for example, delivers about 800 calories. I defy anyone to find that kind of heat-generating punch in the very best, top-of-the-line energy bar.
Coping with cold is also a mental state. Those who bivouac on Mt. McKinley in the middle of winter or cross Antarctica are better trained and equipped than the average person, and they might be in above-average physical condition, but morphologically and anatomically they probably aren’t any better adapted than the average person.
What they do have is an attitude that they belong outside—no matter what the conditions—and that they’re going to survive in those conditions. I’ve heard this called “mental toughness,” which is in essence a high tolerance to pain and misery. I think sometimes we have to let humility override defiance when it comes to how much we can take.
The coldest I’ve ever been in my life, next to Cleveland – Chicago’s high on that list too – was on an unplanned bivouac on the Alaska Peninsula during a salmon stream survey for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. We traveled light because we expected to complete the 20-mile-plus fish survey in one day. We carried no tent, no sleeping bag; just a lunch and a rain poncho.
It turned dark before we could get back, so we spent the night huddled together under our ponchos in pouring down rain with temperatures in the mid-40s. We both lapsed into uncontrollable shivering, but we were young and strong. We diverted our attention from our situation by thinking of warm places and delicious hot foods. We told jokes, sang songs and recited what poems we knew, and it got us through.
One of the benefits of cold is that it teaches us to think before we act. I once changed a flat tire at negative 45 degrees near Fairbanks, in Alaska’s interior, and I found it to be an act of supreme concentration. I had to carefully plan every move to avoid freezing my hands.
I have a very healthy respect for ambient temperatures negative 20 and colder, because they affect the machinery that you rely upon for survival. I recall driving in Fairbanks at negative 50 below, with a rock hard seat, flat wheels and steering fluid like molasses, wondering why I was even on the road.
People that live along the Dalton Highway, north of Fairbanks, can tell you about real cold… the minus 60 and minus 70 stuff…the kind of cold that makes metal brittle and diesel fuel gelatinous. The cold snap is a good reminder that I live in a part of the world that can get cold for weeks, and stay cold. But any month of the year, I’d rather be here than in Cleveland.
Enjoyed this article? Check out Frank’s musing on why people climb mountains.