The Cold Hard Facts of Freezing to Death

jeep-snow-drift_feWriting for Outside Magazine, Peter Stark recounts his experience of nearly freezing to death when his jeep ran into a snowbank and he made the mistake of skiing to his friend’s cabin in minus 27 degree weather:

By the time your core temperature has fallen to 88 degrees, your body has abandoned the urge to warm itself by shivering. Your blood is thickening like crankcase oil in a cold engine. Your oxygen consumption, a measure of your metabolic rate, has fallen by more than a quarter. Your kidneys, however, work overtime to process the fluid overload that occurred when the blood vessels in your extremities constricted and squeezed fluids toward your center. You feel a powerful urge to urinate, the only thing you feel at all.

By 87 degrees you’ve lost the ability to recognize a familiar face, should one suddenly appear from the woods.

At 86 degrees, your heart, its electrical impulses hampered by chilled nerve tissues, becomes arrhythmic. It now pumps less than two-thirds the normal amount of blood. The lack of oxygen and the slowing metabolism of your brain, meanwhile, begin to trigger visual and auditory hallucinations.

You hear jingle bells. Lifting your face from your snow pillow, you realize with a surge of gladness that they’re not sleigh bells; they’re welcoming bells hanging from the door of your friends’ cabin. You knew it had to be close by. The jingling is the sound of the cabin door opening, just through the fir trees.

Attempting to stand, you collapse in a tangle of skis and poles. That’s OK. You can crawl. It’s so close.

Hours later, or maybe it’s minutes, you realize the cabin still sits beyond the grove of trees. You’ve crawled only a few feet. The light on your wristwatch pulses in the darkness: 5:20. Exhausted, you decide to rest your head for a moment.

When you lift it again, you’re inside, lying on the floor before the woodstove. The fire throws off a red glow. First it’s warm; then it’s hot; then it’s searing your flesh. Your clothing has caught fire.

At 85 degrees, those freezing to death, in a strange, anguished paroxysm, often rip off their clothes. This phenomenon, known as paradoxical undressing, is common enough that urban hypothermia victims are sometimes initially diagnosed as victims of sexual assault. Though researchers are uncertain of the cause, the most logical explanation is that shortly before loss of consciousness, the constricted blood vessels near the body’s surface suddenly dilate and produce a sensation of extreme heat against the skin.

All you know is that you’re burning. You claw off your shell and pile sweater and fling them away.

Scary shit. I’m fairly certain I can cross freezing to death off my list of acceptable ways to die. This article is a nice bookend to the recent NYT Magazine piece about the avalanche at Tunnel Creek.

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