SI Vault
William Oscar Johnson
December 14, 1981
A big meanie named Earl huffs and puffs but fails to faze a leadership school trek through Wyoming's Wind River range
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December 14, 1981

Just Blowin' In The Winds

A big meanie named Earl huffs and puffs but fails to faze a leadership school trek through Wyoming's Wind River range

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Lannie ran this lecture with a wad of tobacco in her lower lip. Her subjects were hypothermia and frostbite. Ordinarily, both can be dealt with in an unemotional manner, but when they are discussed in the dark of night, deep in The Winds, with snow falling and the temperature near zero, they take on the aura of ghost stories.

Hypothermia, Lannie explained, is the lowering of the temperature of the body core, first to the point of danger and, finally, of death. Heat loss occurs in a variety of ways—conduction (meaning bodily contact with something cold), convection (wind), evaporation of sweat or radiation (body heat escaping from a capless head, for example). "Shivering is your first warning that hypothermia might be setting in," said Lannie, spitting tobacco delicately into a cup held in her mittened hands. "From shivering, you eventually lose more and more muscular control. You begin to stumble. Your movements are stiff and difficult. Eventually you become absolutely supine. If your temperature gets down to 94° or 95° F., you won't be able to warm yourself up without some help—like warm liquids and bundling up in a sleeping bag with one, or preferably two, people. If you find someone in a coma, there's not a hell of a lot of time to do anything."

Lannie spit again and said that death from freezing can occur at a body temperature of 90° F. She also pointed out that a giveaway symptom of hypothermia is loss of mental awareness, an inability to make decisions and, eventually, a disorientation so severe that the victim may do something truly insane—such as ripping off his clothing even as he is about to freeze to death.

"It's weird stuff, hypothermia," Lannie said, "but remember, if you start to shiver, beware."

Quietly, Tenzing added, "Paul Petzoldt always said, 'Never trust a man who's shivering.' "

The group sat silent, eyes wide and hearts thumping. Lannie spit still again and moved on to the next tale of horror: frostbite. "What happens," she said, "is that when you are getting cold, the body begins to shut down the blood supply to the extremities—particularly the fingers and toes—in an effort to get more blood into the body core. A toe will freeze at about 26° F. Ice crystals form and disrupt the cells. This damages the tissues in the same way a burn does."

Lannie went on to explain that there were three degrees of freezing: 1) frost nip, which creates a white spot on cheeks or fingers and can be cured with heat from your body, 2) superficial frostbite, which actually freezes the layers of skin (but not the flesh) and turns into very painful, but relatively harmless, blisters, and 3) deep frostbite.

Lannie gazed around in the eerie candlelight. She spit in her cup, then said, "Deep frostbite means frozen to the bone. The flesh is like wood. It turns waxy white. It is one of the worst horrors known to man. Once it thaws, you get horrible blisters. The flesh turns black and blue and all kinds of yukky colors. Water oozes out of it. It smells terrible. If you get deep frostbite in the mountains, there is only one thing to do. Keep it frozen and ski out. There is a danger of gangrene. Once it thaws it becomes so painful that you can't even stand the weight of a bedsheet on it."

We sat hushed and uneasy. Lannie spit and then said, "It's not all bad. They no longer amputate frozen parts. If you hear a doctor say, 'We've got to cut those toes off,' you get the hell out of your bed and crawl out of that hospital. It is not necessary to amputate anything because once the dead tissue has been sloughed off, it will repair itself."

Gary Hauk, the instructor, spoke in an ominous voice: "I know a guy who froze his toe. The skin turned black as coal. One day in the hospital he reached down and pulled off a black cap of skin. Underneath it was a nice rosy pink toe, just like new."

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