Staying Warm For Fun And Survival (part one)
IT’S AN INVIGORATING CHALLENGE!
The best way to prepare for extreme cold weather survival is to go outdoors into the weather for long periods of time and come back. Even better is to enjoy it! I derive an extreme satisfaction, fulfillment, sense of excitement, adventure, self-confidence and tremendous personal pleasure from being reasonably comfortable outdoors in the coldest, worst weather and returning to vehicle or cabin unharmed. Not to mention the useful knowledge and practical experience gained.
Everything we Humans do is made more difficult by extreme cold. The mind slows down, the body slows down, the limbs and muscles and breathing are affected. Energy and vitality are depleted more rapidly. Also, every vehicle and every piece of machinery and every piece of gear and clothing and every electronic and other device becomes less effective in extremely cold weather. Everything slows down and becomes more difficult. Things break. Buckles and snaps and latches become more difficult to manipulate. The only thing that might actually speed up in extreme cold is the rate at which one can die.
NOT JUST FOR OUTDOORS FANATICS -
Years ago, while driving to work in Anchorage, Alaska, I passed the scene of an accident on the North side of the Glenn Highway and saw something I’ll never forget. The Ford Bronco was lying on it’s side and the two occupants were standing out in the cold awaiting assistance. It was around 20-degrees below zero Fahrenheit.
What struck me about this particular incident was that the occupants of the overturned Bronco had pulled the carpets from the floor of their vehicle and were wearing them over their heads and shoulders like serapes or ponchos. The sight of those two motorists has informed my cold weather survival attitude ever since. I must also cite their resourcefulness.
A TERRIBLE TRAGEDY CAUSED BY A SERIES OF BAD DECISIONS -
I cannot speak for rescue authorities in recounting this following, well-known incident. However, there are lessons to be learned here because just about everything that could be done wrong was done by the family involved. That, plus poor weather conditions, resulted in three deaths by freezing.
In January 1996 a small family group froze to death on the Denali Highway after their vehicle became stranded in a snowdrift. Grandparents had taken their 2-year old grandson for a ride of some sort and when their 4-wheel drive Subaru went too far on an intermittently-maintained roadway the vehicle became stuck.
The three were reported missing by the daughter four days after they had left Anchorage on January 11. She told Anchorage police that they may have been heading south, toward Seward or Homer.
In reality, the couple and their grandson were in the interior, on the Denali Highway, where they had become stuck in soft snow. The word ''Help'' was found later, stamped in the snow by the Subaru. Presumably after the vehicle had run out of gasoline and could no longer provide heat, they had started walking in temperatures estimated at about 40 degrees below zero Fahrenheit.
The abandoned car was found by hunters and reported to Alaska State Troopers on January 15. Due mainly to weather conditions the search wasn't launched until January 17.
The family group was found dead early the next day about eight miles from the car, and only a quarter-mile from a lodge on the highway.
These deaths resulted from, among other things, not having sufficient survival gear in the vehicle. In addition, there was no clear flight plan---no real destination and no real time of arrival. There was no timely awareness of or reporting of the failure of the group to return. And there surely was a failure of judgment on the part of the grandparents in choosing to drive where they did.
Troopers involved in the search were later disciplined by their commander for mishandling the search. Survivors of the victims sued, claiming troopers took too long to mount a rescue operation. In 1999 a jury decided the state was 51-percent at fault in the deaths. They awarded family members $2.7 million, although that amount was later reduced more than half by another court.
These things have timelines and I can’t be sure what it was in this case. However, my feeling is that the three were probably dead long before any search and rescue operation could have been mounted.
An Alaska State Supreme Court decision in July 2003 reversed a judgment (correctly, in my opinion) against the state involving the freezing death of the family group seven years earlier. The high court said Alaska State Troopers exercised an allowable amount of discretion concerning how and when to begin searching for the Anchorage residents and their 2-year-old grandson. Discretion in the manner of handling a search are immune from liability, the court ruled.
The Alaska Supreme Court said that bad weather and the lack of clear information on the family's whereabouts complicated any decision about where and when to conduct a search. The court implied that the searchers had discretion because of these issues and were immune from liability. Since then the Alaska State Legislature has passed legislation broadening immunity in search and rescue operations.
GETTING RESCUED IS ALWAYS AN IFFY SITUATION -
In a theme I will return to again in this series, a stranded traveler cannot rely on getting rescued by anyone---especially if no one knows where the hell you are and when you are supposed to return!
In more specific terms---and assuming you have told someone where you are going and when you will be back---it is more likely that local residents (especially people who know you) will begin a search immediately, while the “authorities” will tend to wait until daylight or better weather for the safety of their search personnel. Furthermore, “locals” are more familiar with a given area.
WHAT TO CARRY IN YOUR VEHICLE -
A warm, functioning motor vehicle gives a false sense of security. There is every reason for any vehicular traveler in Alaska (and many other places as well) to have a bag of cold-weather survival clothing stashed in that vehicle---preferably one set for every occupant. Plus food and water. No lightweight, high-tech gear is necessary---it doesn’t have to be fashionable or new and can be well-worn and heavy in weight by backpacking standards. This emergency stash of clothing should contain thick boots and gloves, etc. Blankets would be great---so would some emergency food rations. By the way, I am suspicious of all thin, lightweight, “reflective” materials (such as “space blankets“) which I consider merely better than nothing. Same goes for “thin” insulation. Mainly what is needed in extreme cold is thick insulation and plenty of it.
The bigger, the heavier, the thicker, the longer the better. That’s why bums and the homeless wear long, heavy overcoats---so they can sleep in them! Old worn-out clothing, gloves and boots can be stashed in a vehicle for emergency use. Just make sure it doesn’t get wet or mildewed. Keep it in a special bag or pack.
I BECAME HYPOTHERMIC: PERSONAL LESSON NUMBER ONE -
Thirty years ago I became hypothermic while rabbit hunting near Glennallen with an old homesteader and his Native father-in-law. Hunting separately I got cold because I was wearing inadequate clothing. A light, thin, “sewn through,” down “parka” with a hood that had kept me warm at 13,000 feet on an Arizona mountain. And down gloves that were just too thin and too small to accommodate additional liner gloves. First lesson: Nice-looking, close-fitting, “fashionable” clothing is inadequate.
I stopped under a spruce tree to eat something and got colder. Second lesson: It’s a lot harder to stay warm once you stop moving.
I raced back to my car and hacked away at willows, the only available fuel for a fire. I amassed a huge pile of willows---the long, stringy kind. Despite great physical exertion I didn’t warm up until the fire was roaring---hypothermia is that overpowering. Third lesson: Hypothermia can cripple every mental and physical function---great amounts of heat, vigor and vitality are required to overcome the loss of normal body core temperature. I did start the car and got it warmed up---but the heat was inadequate compared to the roaring fire.
What I learned from this incident:
1. Hypothermia is intense, overwhelming and numbs the mind as well as the body. In general, in severe cold, everything I do becomes more difficult and movements are slower and take longer to accomplish. The condition of hypothermia is profoundly numbing and ultimately crippling.
2. Without an artificial source of heat, it is the thickness of insulation on all body parts that keeps me warm. Period.
3. A fire is not always possible or practical. Winter camping at 30-below taught me how much energy it takes for one person to start and keep a fire going in wilderness situations---and that assumes fuel is available at all. Carrying a stove is easier. I never bother with campfires or even think about a fire unless I fall through the ice. This is not counter to the good advice we normally receive about fires but merely accounts for contingencies such as limited or depleted energy levels, immobilizing injuries or lack of fuel availability.
BASIC TRUTH -
To stay warm in outdoors Alaska or anywhere else---when you are forced to stop moving and are without supplemental fire/heat---requires a sufficient thickness of dry insulating material over the entire body and extremities. Almost any material or combination of materials will do---from steel wool to fiberglass bats to moss or leaves. This principle applies to everyone. It doesn’t matter if you started out on foot or in a vehicle.
Add something insulating and firm to lie or sit on (Eskimos who carry a swatch of polar bear hide to sit on inspired this one), some food, water (flat bottle inside your insulation) and something to protect all that insulation from any wetness or wind---and there is your survival! Contingent, of course, on the need not to actually have do much more than huddle…and await rescue.
If you actually have to do something, things get more complicated real quick. Think cold hands just for starters…
WHAT IS YOUR PURPOSE? MINE IS COMFORT AND, IF NOT, SURVIVAL -
I walk, ski, snowshoe, climb, backpack and crawl around outdoors in off-trail wilderness Alaska just about every day and/or night and in every season. Wilderness photography is the excuse…but I just like wandering around outdoors. My purpose is to be comfortable in the outdoors; to stay out for extended periods; and to carry just enough gear to survive a very uncomfortable overnight if necessary. Comfort or, if necessary, survival.
THE MIND---AWARENESS AND OBSERVATION -
The mind is the most important piece of gear for me. All the other “gear” is useless unless it is made available beforehand; put on in time; and donned in the proper sequence.
This does not apply to just being outdoors in the wild. In any situation of life, constant vigilance, awareness, observation and attention to the minute details of preparedness, weather, trail/road conditions and personal health are necessary to survive anywhere and under any circumstances. Life can end at any time. Injury can occur at any time. It doesn’t have to be in the deep wilderness. The real trick is to be aware of the frailty of life yet be relaxed and have a good, mental attitude about life itself! After all, a really acute awareness is about being open…not up-tight. Awareness is about not having the mind cluttered with useless worries. Observation is a lot more acute when the mind is a nearly blank slate. And that assumes the basics have been taken care of.
- Rudy Wittshirk
[In upcoming blogs I will deal with specific items of cold weather gear and how to use them---with an emphasis on carrying survival gear on one’s person, in a backpack or in an off-road vehicle with limited storage space. The theme will be keeping warm without artificial heat. The advice should transfer easily to the everyday world.]
Right now, in the Hatcher Pass area, especially on the West side, it appears the avalanche danger is high.
I can attest that ice on some local lakes will support a coyote! Beyond that, I have seen no lake ice crossed by moose or snowmachines. I let them go first.
I can’t recall requiring snowshoes last Winter season. I could either walk in shallow snow or ski through the various light snowfalls. This season there are two feet of snow on the ground and more higher up in the Talkeetna Mountains. Breaking trail with skis is possible but difficult.
I am using snowshoes to break my “private” ski trail. I am not about to waste energy breaking trails that snowmachines will eventually open up. Breaking trail with snowshoes is great exercise and conditioning for skiing. On my next trip I will ski out on the newly-broken trail with snowshoes on the pack and then break more trail from there. - R.W.