Hypothermia

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The first forecast of snow flurries has arrived in Ottawa. We may duck it, the weatherman wasn’t certain, but regardless, it’s not far off.

I’m inspired to talk about cold. Cold as in bone numbing, breathtaking, mind dimming cold. In August.

Many years ago I agreed to hike through Pangnirtung Pass with my then wife. This was not the fulfillment of some dream of mine. There was, after all, hiking involved, carrying an 80 lb pack. For five or six days in an area that occasionally had polar bears in it. Still, love is a strange thing. It persuades you to do what the other wants (okay to be fair she came with me to the World Science Fiction convention in Boston — but I think she got the better of the deal).

I trained for months, walking on an inclined treadmill with a pack on your back — because the five days certainly couldn’t be enough penance for my sins. We even tried out some of the freeze dried meals that would be our diet in the Pass.

Yum.

What we weren’t really prepared for was the cold. We did go to the short lecture on the dangers of hypothermia that hiking through the pass — in August — presented. Almost no one else of the thirty or so people who were in the park that week joined us.

The risk wasn’t the air temperature. It was a balmy 9C the whole time we were there and only dropped a couple of degrees during the twilight they called night. No the problem was twofold. First, you tended to sweat a lot — because 80 pound packs. That could lead to considerable loss of body heat. On top of that you frequently had to wade through knee deep or even crotch deep glacial streams. This was water that a few minutes before had been ice. As soon as you put your foot in it you lost all sensation in the submerged part. It was like walking on stilts, carrying a pack.

On the second night, I started shivering. My thoughts became muddled. I crawled into my sleeping bag and felt even colder. We lit candles in the tent to try to warm things up. No good. My wife had to make a calculation. They told us that the best way to help someone with hypothermia was to share body heat. The problem was: if you were too cold, it wouldn’t save your partner but kill you. She was cold too, but how cold?

I was no use; my thinking was unclear. But I was ever so grateful when she slid in beside me, her warm skin against my cold. She told me later that she decided to take the risk because she didn’t want to finish the hike alone. How romantic.

But that’s ten minutes.

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