Living Below 0 Degrees (Fahrenheit)
As long as I can remember I’ve had a fascination for the cold. When I was 10 or 11 I decided to see how long I could stay outside in a t-shirt on a chilly fall evening. It was only about 40° F outside, typical for a Washington fall. I stood in the gravel road just a few steps from my front door and set my will against the temperature. The light was dimming. I was cold; but I found that I could take the cold. I could make it a part of me. It could set it aside and withstand. I was just a shivering skinny little nerd with a wild head of hair and round glasses on the outside, but inside I felt like a conqueror. As years went by I tried to increase my tolerance. I learned that the key was to accept the cold. If you fought the cold, if you tried to stay warm mentally, then you would be miserable. You had to make the cold an extension of yourself. I imagined myself as a man made of ice, that my skin was blue as a crevasse and that ice water flowed in my veins. Then I could welcome the cold like a friend. I could pretend that I was in my own element. The cold wasn’t something to escape but embrace. If I concentrated on these ideas then the cold became bearable. Sometimes it even became enjoyable.
Eventually I became satisfied with mental experiments. I stopped deliberately exposing myself to the cold and only used my mental techniques when I had to (ie, I forgot my coat and dang if it ain’t chilly outside). Then the strange wheels of fate turned and I found myself here in Anchorage, Alaska. After an unusually long and warm fall (for Anchorage anyway) winter has finally arrived, and with a vengeance. I got used to the temperature being in the 20s (-6 to -1 °C). Then two days ago it dropped down to 8° (-13° C). Yesterday I woke up and it was -7° (-21° C). And I know that soon enough we’ll be reaching temperatures in the -20° range (-28° C). This is cold like I had never known it before.
Naturally I was curious to see what temperatures in the negative degrees felt like. As a child I’d read Jack London and wonder what such extreme colds would actually feel like to be in. It seems possible to me that others may be curious. So let me tell you what -7° temperature feels like.
Oddly enough it feels mostly the same as 25°.
The thing about minor extreme cold is that it doesn’t affect your body differently than regular cold. You’re still losing heat to the air around you. The only difference is that at 25° I can go about in my coat, gloves, and hat for hours if I have to and still be fairly warm under the layers. In 0° and below temperature I lose my heat much more rapidly. I took my gloves off to scrape my car’s windshield the other day, just as I would do back home in Washington. I was surprised to find that my hands were painfully cold after only a minute or so of exposure. That’s the thing about this cold. It can deceive you into thinking that you’re safe while it steals away your body heat.
And don’t even think about going outside with wet hair. My head was slightly damp from showering yesterday and in the ten seconds or so it took to walk to the warm car my hair went from “warm and wet” to “dunked in a frozen pond.” I took a ten minute walk at noon yesterday, when the temp was about 8 or 9°, and my face was feeling the pain by the end of it. The rest of my body was fine, covered with my heavy winter coat, gloves, and wooly hat.
I can still remember that Jack London’s story “To Build a Fire” had a man traveling in temperatures of -70° (-56° C). At that point if you spit it’ll be frozen long before it hits the ground. I still have no idea what such extreme temperature feels like. I probably never will (Anchorage, being warmed somewhat by the ocean, gets to about -30° at worst from what I hear). Still I have an idea what it will feel like. For a brief amount of time (maybe just before your first breath) it will feel like any other cold. And it’ll still feel like that until it’s stolen almost all your heat away.
Which will happen very, very fast.