When your Jeep spins lazily off the mountain road and slams backward into a snowbank, you don't worry immediately about the cold. Your first thought is that you've just dented your bumper. Your second is that you've failed to bring a shovel. Your third is that you'll be late for dinner. Friends are expecting you at their cabin around eight for a moonlight ski, a late dinner, a sauna. Nothing can keep you from that.
Driving out of town, defroster roaring, you barely noted the bank thermometer on the town square: minus 27 degrees at 6:36. The radio weather report warned of a deep mass of arctic air settling over the region. The man who took your money at the Conoco station shook his head at the register and said he wouldn't be going anywhere tonight if he were you. You smiled. A little chill never hurt anybody with enough fleece and a good four-wheel-drive.
Thus begins a chilling piece (at the exact moment I wrote that, the pun was not intended, but who will believe me?) on what it's like to freeze to death. This was written in 2004, but so much of the web is evergreen, hard as it is to hear above the ever cresting feed.
I thought of this when I went out for my first morning bike ride of the Bay Area fall/winter. This was an unusually warm summer, but the winter chill seemed to come overnight. I walked out the door of my apartment into the morning air and had to suppress the urge to cry. I turned right back around and went back in to don a snowsuit. Over time, my body will acclimate, but for now, it feels as if I'm wading out into a frozen tundra.
At 85 degrees, those freezing to death, in a strange, anguished paroxysm, often rip off their clothes. This phenomenon, known as paradoxical undressing, is common enough that urban hypothermia victims are sometimes initially diagnosed as victims of sexual assault. Though researchers are uncertain of the cause, the most logical explanation is that shortly before loss of consciousness, the constricted blood vessels near the body's surface suddenly dilate and produce a sensation of extreme heat against the skin.
All you know is that you're burning. You claw off your shell and pile sweater and fling them away.
But then, in a final moment of clarity, you realize there's no stove, no cabin, no friends. You're lying alone in the bitter cold, naked from the waist up. You grasp your terrible misunderstanding, a whole series of misunderstandings, like a dream ratcheting into wrongness. You've shed your clothes, your car, your oil-heated house in town. Without this ingenious technology you're simply a delicate, tropical organism whose range is restricted to a narrow sunlit band that girds the earth at the equator.
And you've now ventured way beyond it.