Friday, December 21, 2012

So long to the sun

Weather reports have been one of my obsessions this week. I've been parsing data from all the major weather sites as a blanket of frigid air sunk over the valleys of Interior Alaska, trying to make sense of whether 62 below zero is even possible (forecasted by Wunderground) or what the recorded 52 below zero would even feel like, even for a few minutes, let alone while wandering the uninhabited wildernesses outside the small enclave of Fairbanks. Beat thinks it's silly I'm so scared. "We're just training. We can do what we want!" But what if I just want to curl up in blankets and drink a jug of hot chocolate? It is Christmas, after all.

The cold snap that settled over the Lower 48 also grazed the Bay Area this week. On Wednesday San Jose reported a record low of 31 degrees. Brrr! The week of Solstice also marks the darkest time of year, with only nine hours and 35 minutes of daylight to work with here in Los Altos. While our winter sun might be lazy, in Fairbanks it is well hungover — heatless and dim, the sun emerges at 11 a.m. and slumps over the horizon for three and a half hours before crashing back into darkness at 2:45. With a wet and windy storm on the forecast for Los Altos, I decided to set out for one last ride in the sun, to say my goodbyes.

Living in a climate without significant temperature fluctuations has bred a lot of complacency into my routines. I donned my usual winter bike outfit — thin tights, long-sleeve shirt, gloves, hat, and a florescent roadie vest — and set out for the long climb up Monte Bello Road. My plan was to ride the singletrack on Black Mountain at sunset, and descend the road after dark. Near the top of the ridge, I started to see frost on the gravel, and then ice in the puddles. Thick ice, with new crystals forming around the edges. I'd felt a bit chilled, but I didn't realize that temperatures were already below freezing. "Hmm, I'm going to really wish I'd brought a jacket," I thought.

But it was my last day in the sun ... I wanted to live it up. A screaming descent down the Bella Vista trail seemed to freeze the sweat layer on top of my skin, and I couldn't even recover the chill on the climb back to the summit. Already shivering at 2,700 feet with ten miles of steep descending in front of me, I tried running back and forth along the trail to recover my body temperature. But it wasn't happening, and the sun was fading, and I needed to get home. "Oh well, it's only ten miles," I thought. "It will probably hurt a little."

The pain. I'd forgotten it. I used to go through this at least once a year as fall transitioned into winter in Alaska, and I was still learning to adjust my layering and effort levels. And, I typically go through it at least once a winter in California when I stupidly don't even bring extra layers on a cold afternoon. A temperature of 30 degrees with a riding speed of 20 mph has a windchill of about 17F, but it drives like a knife directly through the ventilation of bike clothing; might as well be naked.

It's nearly impossible to work up any kind of effort on a winding paved descent, so there's little I can do but sit back and take the cold beating. First my feet, hands, and face go completely numb, then my legs and torso start to sting. I go through a mile or two of shivering and then stop, then I feel a kind of numbness that I can only describe as wearing a hundred pounds of cold meat like a suit around my body. Damn, I was really cold.

Back at my apartment building, I couldn't use my hands to turn the key in the front door, so I had to wait for someone to open it for me. My own apartment door key necessitated a two-minute struggle, and once inside, I struggled to peel off all of my sweaty clothing, and immediately wrapped myself in all of the blankets I could find. Back in Alaska, I learned better than to jump in a hot shower right away. Yes, it does still hurt to transition from numbness to violent shivering, and finally to cold calm while wrapped in a blanket cocoon. But it hurts a lot more to go from half frozen to a hundred degrees in five seconds. You may have heard of the term "screaming barfies?" It's that pins-and-needles circulation pain that hurts to the point of dizziness and nausea. Either way, rewarming is seriously unfun. If only I did not have to learn this lesson every single year, even here in sunny California.

But it's probably a good thing I got this out of the way before venturing into the danger cold. Bay area hypothermia just hurts; in the same amount of time, Interior Alaska hypothermia can kill. I'm taking my hard-earned annual lesson to heart as we head to Fairbanks on Saturday. Happy Solstice, sun. I will miss you.


  1. Have a fantastic, safe trip! Most of all, have fun!

  2. One of the most beautiful days I have ever seem was in Prudhoe Bay, -50F below, sunny, and no wind. The snow sparkled like diamonds. Of course I had arctic gear on at the time and was toasty warm.

  3. Luv the winter. Moving in/on snow is difficult but the memories seem to be sharper, than summer hikes, even 30 years later. XC skiing along a river under a full moon, two inch high ice crystals growing up from the bank. A sweep of a ski pole sent a cascade of broken glass sparkling with moon beams into the silent dark void of the river. All I need to do is close my eyes and I'm there again.
    Jill & Beat be careful and have fun. Thanks for taking us along.

  4. Funny (in a sad way) how quickly you adapt to a new environment and your body forgets some of the hard-earned lessons of a harsher environment (I moved from Alaska to Hawaii many MANY years ago). And also how quickly the blood 'thins'. Have fun up in the Arctic in your annual freez-fest, and be safe up there!


  5. The days only get longer from here though :) I just returned from winter camping in the snow for a few days and had the same realization: California has made me one big pussy.

  6. However, I never lived in a cold part of Alaska. I lived in Juneau. My blood has never been "thick." :)

  7. I feel your pain! I just recently moved back to the Rocky Mountains after living in the temperate Midwest for a couple years and a couple days ago I froze my feet skiing so bad, I had pain shooting up my legs for a good half hour once I got inside! Had to jump around the house like a goon to get them back to normal :)


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