The Cold Can KillTaylor Abegg
Being properly prepared for cold weather can be an overlooked but critical part of grid-down preparedness. Sometimes it takes a wake-up call to help us realize just how fragile life can be in extreme weather. The Northeastern States have really been buffeted with unusually cold weather this year. With one of the coldest Thanksgivings on record, many suffered from not being properly prepared for the extra cold conditions.
I was saddened to read about a Wisconsin family who recently experienced a devastating tragedy due to the cold weather. This family of five decided to go kayaking on Lake Superior with the plan to paddle across open water to Michigan Island. Unfortunately, the winds picked up and ended up capsizing their kayaks throwing them all into the frigid waters.
Even though they were all wearing life jackets, four of the five family members perished as they were thrown into 40 degree Fahrenheit water and hypothermia set in. The father and three children died and only the mother survived.
This reminded me of the Titanic tragedy. The vast majority of the 1,503 people who died did so as a result of hypothermia. They were thrown into waters that were just 28 degrees Fahrenheit, which was lethal within a very short period of time.
Normal core body temperature is 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. When the core body temperature drops to 91 degrees F, one can experience amnesia. At 82 degrees F, one can lose consciousness. Below 70 degrees F, known as profound hypothermia, death occurs.
You don’t want to mess with hypothermia – it’s been proven to be a killer. I almost lost my father-in-law to hypothermia – an experience I’ll never forget. It happened a number of years ago during one of our many backpacking trips to the Wind River mountain range in Wyoming. The fishing in those high mountain lakes is to die for!
There was a group of six of us and we were on the last few days of our week-long trip. We would take topographical maps and compasses with us as we seldom were hiking on any designated trails. We had to cross rivers frequently holding our backpacks above our heads. On the other side of each river, we would take an hour break, build a big fire, strip down and try to dry off our clothes. You don’t want to try to hike, especially uphill, with wet pants – it will totally exhaust you as they constantly are pulling on your legs.
On our next to last night, it poured on us all night long. It was one soggy mess when we got up the next morning. After breaking camp, we began bushwhacking through the dense forest to get to a specific ridge we needed to climb to find our next lake. Pushing our way through the rain soaked brush quickly made us as wet as if we had just crossed a river. We knew it would be several hours before we would be out of the wet brush so it didn’t make any sense to try and dry off.
As we reached the base of the steep ridge we needed to climb, my father-in-law made a decision that almost cost his life. Rather than have his wet pants pull on him as we climbed the ridge, he stripped down and put on a pair of nylon gym shorts. This looked like a great idea but the rest of us decided not to follow suit.
As we began climbing the ridge, heavy clouds moved in and it began to snow. Keep in mind, its mid-August and we weren’t properly prepared for winter weather. Even though it was getting cold, the hard work of climbing the ridge was keeping us warm. The higher we climbed, the more it snowed. In addition, as we approached the top, heavy fog set in. Once we reached the top, we knew we were in trouble because the ridge had some steep drop offs and cliff areas and we couldn’t tell how close to the edge we were. Our maps and compasses did us no good since we couldn’t see more than a few feet in front of us.
We decided we were going to have to bivy on the top of the ridge which was above the timber line as the wind was picking up and blizzard conditions were intensifying. During this ten minute decision making break, my father-in-law decided to put his wet pants back on. The tent we chose to set up was a 4-man North Face dome tent. As soon as we got it set up, the six of us pilled in to get out of the wind and snow.
After zipping the tent door closed, we all looked at each other wondering how long we would have to hole up in the tent waiting for the storm to pass. If it was going to be a while, it was going to be pretty uncomfortable in that a 4-man tent really only accommodates 3 men. Now there were six of us in very cramped conditions. As we sat there, I noticed that my father-in-law was shaking uncontrollably. The rest of us were wet and cold but not shivering anything like he was. We quickly realized he was suffering from hypothermia. Hiking up the ridge in the cold, wet conditions in his gym shorts had allowed much of his body heat to escape through his exposed legs. Then when we stopped at the top, putting on his wet, cold pants just made things worse.
We knew we needed to get his wet clothes off him and put him in a warm, dry sleeping bag to try and raise his body temperature. Luckily, I had made a big investment just before this trip. I had purchased a new down mummy sleeping bag that had a Gore-Tex liner. Due to the previous rainy night, everyone else’s bags were wet. I quickly unzipped the tent door and went back out in the storm to fetch my sleeping bag off my backpack. As soon as we got him in the bag, he lost consciousness. We all tried to lie down close to him to provide as much heat as possible. The only way we could accomplish this was to lie on our sides due to the cramped conditions.
During the next 18 hours we were confined to the tent, my father-in-law came to a couple of times and we tried to get some hot soup down him (this almost caused carbon monoxide poisoning using one of our backpacking stoves inside a closed tent). The wind was blowing so hard at times that the tent was being pushed down on us. We prayed hard the tent would hold up and protect us from the storm. I happened to be lying on my side closest to the tent door. I was so grateful at about 3:00 AM when I unzipped the door just enough to take a peek outside and I saw wonderful, bright stars in a clear sky. The storm had finally passed!
At first light, after getting him dressed, we wrapped the sleeping bag around my father-in-law and sent him down the hill with two of our group to help him. The rest of us packed up the tent and carried the extra backpacks back down the hill to where there was some timber. There we built a huge bonfire to warm everyone up and dry out our clothes and gear. After resting for several hours and eating the last of our food, we knew we had a big challenge ahead of us.
We had scheduled our Indian guides to meet us at a prearranged pick up location to take us out across the Indian reservation. My father-in-law was as weak as a kitten and even carrying his pack for him, it was going to be very difficult for him to hike the 20 miles we needed to go the meet our ride. Luckily, I was in much better shape back then and I told the group I would go ahead because I was afraid we would miss our ride.
I was late as I entered the clearing where our ride was to meet us. In fact, they had waited almost an hour and had given up on us and were pulling out of the clearing. I ran after them yelling and waving my arms and luckily they saw me in their rear view mirror. It took almost another two hours for the rest of the group to arrive, but we all made it home safely, much wiser about how to handle adverse weather conditions and the life threatening effects of hypothermia.
More than 1,000 deaths occur each year due to hypothermia, most of which could have been avoided had the proper gear been used. Bottom line – You don’t want to mess with hypothermia – it can be a killer. Take the time now to make sure every family member is properly prepared with good, warm winter clothing.
Taylor Abegg has been in the preparedness industry for more than 35 years helping customers with their needs.