Hypothermia

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A lot of people in the United States love snow.  They have romanticized notions of cozy Christmas mornings and sledding with their families, but ever since I was a teen I’ve hated the winter.  Not sure about your feelings on the matter.  I think snow is fine when you just look out the window of your heated house.  If you end up going anywhere though, you have to push to the back of your mind that you are essentially walking into an environment that will end up killing you without a second thought.

It’s easy for us to forget this fact, since many of us have furnaces and take heated spaces for granted, but winter snow can lead to hypothermia for anyone unlucky enough to be caught unprepared.

A little while ago I was reading about the Dyatlov Pass incident.  I love creepy, weird stories about the wilderness.

You ever hear of that one?  No?

It happened in the ‘50s in the Ural Mountains, when a bunch of skiers disappeared while camping in the snow.  They were found weeks later, frozen solid and exposed to the elements.  They had destroyed their tents from the inside, and some of them were nearly naked and also missing things like eyes and tongues.

For years people went on about this as a secret weapons test by the Soviet government.  That the bodies were also heavily irradiated and strange lights had been witnessed in the mountains.

Doctors and scientists specializing in cold weather environments came to a different conclusion.   Based on the symptoms, they believe that it was simply hypothermia.

It sounds weird, but it makes sense.  Some signs of severe hypothermia include confusion and paradoxical undressing.  That means that your brain starts misinterpreting signals from the rest of your body while you freeze, leading you to think you are actually warming up.

Then you begin to strip down to cool yourself, and inadvertently accelerate your own death.

The missing body parts?  Scavengers that found the bodies weeks before the searchers did.

Truth is, if you’re at that point and away from civilization, you’re pretty fucked anyways.  Especially if you’re alone in the middle of the damn woods.

I’m getting ahead of myself though.  I hate winter, but love running.  I’ve used running as a way to de-stress ever since joining the Cross Country team in high school.  I’m not as good as I used to be, but I still like just getting out into the woods and letting the solitude and gentle rustle of the wind through the trees take my mind off things.

The last time I went running was just after a big snowstorm had hit my town.  Schools were shut down for a few days, my work gave me the time off, and I ended up stuck in my house.  That sounds like a dream to most people, but for me it was the sudden onset of cabin fever.

So, I decided to go for a run.  It was a few days later and the streets had been somewhat cleared, so I figured I could run alongside of the forest preserve outside of town.  I geared up and started running, and was immediately hit by how damned cold it was out there.  It wasn’t as cold as today though, I’ll give you that.

The streets were a bit slick, but the salt the city had spread gave me a bit of traction as I began to jog.  The worst part of it was the wind, since it cut right through my running clothes and stung my face.  I was wearing a hat and gloves and things like that, but I was dressed lightly enough so that sweat could wick away and I didn’t overheat in my layers.

I turned down Main Street, past people shoveling their sidewalks and trying to get their cars out of snow drifts.  All of ‘em looked at me like I was crazy to be out there dressed like that.  Luckily, I was almost to the outskirts of town.

These woods, you ever hear the rumors about ‘em?  I don’t know if you’re from around here or not, but people say that the woods themselves are cursed.  You’ll hear stories about Indian burial grounds and satanic black masses and stuff like that, but fact of the matter is people just seem to get nervous around this place because it’s so isolated.  You could find a spot to sit down and probably not happen upon another person for weeks.  Kind of rare to have that kind of privacy and connection to nature so close to the suburbs, don’t you think?

Sorry, lost track of myself again.  Running, right.

I kept running and came to Bass Road that runs right up there along the ravine, and all of a sudden the freezing cold was worth it.  The whole area looked completely unspoiled and like one of those paintings your grandma probably had hanging in the front room.

By this point, I was starting to cramp a bit.  I hadn’t run in cold weather in a long time, and the frigid air was burning my throat and lungs with each breath.

I looked down at my cell phone to see how far I’d run so far, when the world slipped out from beneath my feet.  The words “black ice” barely registered in my mind before I felt my leg slam into the guardrail and tumbled into the ravine.

The worst thing was hearing the snap from my leg as I slammed into a tree trunk.  Pain shot through my body as I slid to a stop and blacked out.

I was lucky though, as I can see now it could have been worse.  I could have hit a downed branch or something and had it pierce through my leg, but luckily for me it was just a clean break.

I woke up and felt the pain of my leg being numbed by the cold snow which was beginning to seep through my running clothes.  I tried to check my phone but had slipped out of my hands during the fall.  Looking around, I could see the damn thing about midway up the slope.

Taking in the surroundings, I could see I was at the bottom of the ravine.  My leg was wrenched into an unnatural position, but the combination of cold and shock prevented me from fully realizing the extent of the injury.  To my left though, was a small drainage tunnel sticking out from the side of the ravine.  I didn’t even know that the city’s water overflow system extended this far.  It was dark, and there was ice clinging to the circular, man sized opening.

I knew I couldn’t stand, so I tried to crawl up the slope.

You ever try to crawl up a slick, snow covered slope like that?  I know today you haven’t, but in the past?

It’s not very easy when you have both legs working, and its damn near impossible when you have a broken one.

That didn’t stop me though, I tried and I tried to climb.  Each time I got a hang of a tree or rock and begin to make progress, I’d end up dizzy and sliding back down the hill again.  I figured if I could reach my phone I would be ok.  I could call for help and get the fire department and an ambulance out here or something.

I can’t tell you if it was minutes or hours, but each attempt dragging my body through the snow was beginning to take its toll on me.  I was so cold, colder than I had ever been in my life.  Well, until today that is.

I could feel my sweat mingling with the melting snow, beginning to refreeze between my skin and my running suit.  My toes had stopped responding to me about midway through my third attempt, and my fingers were beginning to blacken.

The road was about 60 feet from me, but I couldn’t climb to save my life!  So, I did what anyone at this point would do.  I began to scream, yelling for anyone or anything to come save me.  Not a religious man, I’ll tell you that, but I started praying to any deity I could think of, and I’m pretty sure I even made some up too just to be safe.

That was when I heard it though, the roar of a pickup truck coming down the road.  I could hear it slow down on some of the turns and I heard the noise of its tires squeaking over the ice.

I began to shout.  Truck along this route, driving like a wild man?  That had to be John Peters, you know, the farmer?  He lived about two miles further down the road.

My throat gave out as I yelled, croaking and pounding my fist into the cold snow, I tried to call him I really did.  But it was no use; people out here around this time of year don’t exactly drive with their windows down you know.  Even if they did, no one would hear you up there anyways.

The truck passed and I was stuck.  I had lost all feeling in my leg, and it was getting dark.  The drainage pipe seemed to be the best place I could reach in order to keep somewhat warm during the night.  I crawled and I crawled, and each foot closer I made to the safety of the pipe felt like an eternity.

When I made it, I did my best to cram myself into the drain pipe.  It felt warm in there, so unbelievably hot.  After a while I realized that I must have been doing ok.  My body temperature must have been reflecting off the concrete tunnel and turning the place into an oven.

I was feeling a bit loopy then, but I remembered Boy Scouts when they said that if you warm up too fast with frostbite it does more damage than gradually heating yourself.  So, I took off my running suit, realizing that getting a bit of the cold air on me would help regulate my temperature.

It started to help, and I settled in for the night.  I figured in the morning a search party would be looking for me or maybe I could try and reach the road again.

Darkness fell over the woods, and I never felt so alone.  Then, as I began to shut my eyes to try and will myself to sleep, I began to hear him.

His voice reminded me of ice cracking.  You ever see those videos from Antarctica or the North Pole or whatever and the glacier fractures and falls into the sea?  It was like that.  Not like it was booming, but like it was permanent and inescapable.  It was nature and nothing mankind could do would get in its way.

“Come out and dance with us, join us in watching the seasons pass and the world turn.”

I know now that I was suffering from the hallucinations and confusion that stems from severe hypothermia, since an eerie voice out of the darkness didn’t shock me awake.  It comforted me, and frankly I felt like joining it.

Being able to think clearly now, I figured it out.  There’s another symptom of hypothermia I was showing as well.  It’s called terminal burrowing.  It’s where someone freezing will try and put themselves into as small a place as possible in order to warm themselves, not realizing that they are making it harder for people to find them, and basically choosing their own tiny grave.  That’s what I had been doing in the tunnel.  My clothes?  That was paradoxical undressing.

I could see figures outside in the darkness.  They were man-sized, but their proportions were all wrong.  Some looked desiccated and shriveled, whereas some had limbs longer than the other or necks that bent on a strange angle.

Seeing something like that in a horror movie or another context… I would have been horrified.  But there, crawling towards the opening of the tunnel, I was strangely comforted.  I wasn’t alone anymore.

That voice outside the tunnel that was calling me was trying to help me.  It knew that I had no chance to make it through the night, that I was living on borrowed time and it wanted me to join them.

That’s why I’m telling you this right now.  Today is colder than it was the night I last went running.  I just had a broken leg, not a damn tree branch stabbed through my thigh.  The cold numbed that yet?

Oh I wish I had been right, that they were there to help and that I would’ve been ok joining them.  But these woods are cursed friend.  They told me that they had to wait until someone else died alone in the snow before they could finally rest.  They said they had waiting for decades for someone like me to come along.  Someone foolish and alone, they said.

I guess I was lucky.  I’ve only been waiting here for 3 weeks until you fell down, but I really don’t want to think of how long you’ll be here.  Here’s hoping you won’t have to wait here too long though.  Here, let me help you with that jacket.

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