Thursday, March 16, 2006

Flirting with hypothermia

Date: March 16
Mileage: 20.5
March mileage: 173.9
Temperature upon departure: 13
On the iPod: "Landed" ~ Ben Folds

I left work today wearing a kind of hybrid setup I use for commuting - jeans and long johns, cotton T-shirt, two fleece layers and my waterproof shell. The temperature in town was probably in the high teens. It was 5:15 p.m. I started up the long East Hill climb and overheated almost immediately. It wasn't just extra sweat - it was a serious concern for me. Enough so that I stopped at the first turnout I saw, stripped down to only my T-shirt and shell, removed my outer mittens, ripped off my balaclava and continued up the hill.

I was feeling good at the top, so I continued east to the summit of Skyline and hit the snowmobile trails. I tried some less-traveled trails today, so I was working hard - doing a lot of postholing, occasionally falling over, just like old times. Pretty soon it was 6:30, with the sun drifting low on the horizon. The entire hill fell into shadow. I sweated my way to the main trail and began to pedal downhill.

The snow was set up even nicer today than yesterday, and pretty soon I was flying - bouncing off hardened drifts, knifing through softer snow with crafty maneuvering, coasting over patches of glare ice. I noticed my unmittened hands were starting to hurt a little, but I didn't think much of it. I'd put my mittens on when I got to the bottom of the hill.

About five minutes later, I stopped at the reservoir and moved to take off my pack, but my entire body was stiff and reluctant to turn. That's when I realized that I was cold. Not just cold. Really cold. Probably colder than I've been yet this winter. Shivers were starting to set in. I pulled my mittens and fleece layers out of my pack and hurried to put them on. But the numbness already had its icy grip around me.

I had three more miles to ride home, most of it climbing, and I thought I'd recover pretty quickly. My body did warm up enough to return my reflexes to normal, but the shivering became more pronounced, more violent, and pretty soon my jaw was chattering involuntarily. My head was swimming, probably because I was really rushing through the last big climb. But the lactic acid and lung burn didn't matter much to me at the time. I needed to get inside, and I needed to fast.

By the time I got home I was starting to feel a little better - probably thanks to the sprinting, but I was still immersed in the kind of chill that feels like it will never go away. I shook my hands and jumped up and down for a while to bring the blood circulation back the the extremities it had long since given up on. Have you ever experienced that itchy, painful sensation that comes of warming up frozen fingers? Have you ever experienced that in your entire body?

And all I could think was - wow - I really should know better than this by now. I should have put my layers back on the moment I crested East Hill. And I should wear my normal winter clothes, and just bring a change of clothes to wear at work rather than combining the two. But this it what comes of letting your guard down. I have to remember that even though the sun is riding high, and even though the date's on the downhill side of March, the winter is still very much alive, and the cold is still very real.


  1. Wow! It is truly scary how easily that could happen to any of us. While I've been cold before, the possibility of actually doing damage to myself hasn't entered into my mind.

    Glad you're okay Jill and thanks for the great post.

  2. I just complained about riding in 45 degree temps. Sorry. (HA!) Good luck up there. JM

  3. Scary. Keep safe up there, you!

  4. my cold metal innards like snow

  5. I am glad you are ok (I hope). I know that cold. Happened once to me, won't ever happen again.

    One more life lesson in a long line of them, eh?

  6. Finally able to comment! %^$@#&^%$@! Blogspot problems! Well, Jill, lesson learned rather cheaply! Many people learn abouit hypothermia and frostbite by winding up in the hospital or the morgue! I hate to sound hard, but I'm glad you got the lesson the way you did! No damage to the young bod, and you will NOT forget the lesson! I am very happy, by the way you didn't suffer any consequence! I used to work the North Slope and the Haul Road up to Deadhorse, and I learned the hard way as well, with about equal luck! No damage and just cold enough to never forget or be unprepared for changes in the weather!

  7. Hey Jill, good to hear you are OK! I have been enjoying your blog and thought I should let you know the guilt I feel every time I look at my bike and out at the snow and take the Jeep to work! Well maybe I will see you on a trail when I can claim to be a hard core (fair weather) mountain biker later this spring and summer. I will say that it is a great way to see Alaska. When you take the car all the time you start to block out what most of us live up here for. Take care and stay warm!

  8. First rule of thumb for an active person outdoors in cold weather is...if you wear cotton, you die. That's what I was always taught. Wet cotton clothing can accelerate hypothermia at an alarming rate. Lose that cotton t-shirt. Glad you made it home ok. If you had violent shivering, you had the beginning stages of hypothermia. Be careful.....and have fun!

  9. Absolutely- just say no to cotton. "Cotton kills"

  10. You are a force - I don't know if I could live long-term in AK - but I would like to think I could, and do as well as you are doing. Thanks for the inspiration!


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