Freezing to death

As I write, it’s 21º F (-6.1º C) outside, not cold by my standards. For various reasons I understand, and some I do not, I have a bizarre natural cold resistance that welcomes the feel of -5 F on my face, and ice forming in my facial hair. But I’m resistant, not immune. I know this because I’m a great rarity: a survivor of third-stage hypothermia. And since some of what I’ve read about ‘what it’s like’ was obviously authored by someone who never felt it, maybe this is a good story for a cold night where I can feel ice in the air. I’ve told it enough times to friends that, maybe, it is time I wrote it down.

This happened at Ft. Lewis, WA, when I was in ROTC. I was young, in my second year, brash, opinionated, mouthy, motivated and clueless. I participated with a sub-group of the battalion known as the Ranger Company. It was purely voluntary, but among its numbers you could generally find the best of the battalion. They were tough, highly motivated, brave and dedicated to the military art. They respected the NCOs’ knowledge and soaked it up as fast as the latter would dole it out. They did extra futtockses (FTXes, ‘field training exercises’) involving long nights running around in the rain and cold at Lewis, being tired and miserable. They were in excellent condition, feared nothing, and were dedicated to winning or dying. They were not fanatics; they were rationally brave and intelligent. Had war come to NATO in the late 1980s, a number of Warsaw Pact formations would have been hurt far worse than they expected, thanks to some young men and women who had once worn a shoulder patch of purple and gold, and suffered in frigid misery patrolling in heavy fog and rain at 3 AM, and been expected to perform well anyway.

There I met some of the best people I’ve ever known. I didn’t complete the program in the end, for reasons which were about 90% the fault of my own immaturity, but I don’t regret my association with it. And one night, aged eighteen, it came so close to killing me that I could feel my life leaking out into the frosty night.

It was the usual FTX scenario: a night assault on a position with M16s firing blanks. (I hated that goddamn rifle so much that you couldn’t get me to buy a civilian assault rifle version for a buck. In fact, you’d have to pay me to take it away. Yes, I know they fixed some of its flaws. Still hate it and anything that looks like it.) A newly commissioned second lieutenant led us toward the pre-assault position. The idea was that a parachute flare would signal the ‘attack.’ We were supported by a psyops reserve unit, which had brought loudspeakers to heckle the opposition. They had a little camp area in the woods, where we had marshaled for the operation.

The night was cold but not seriously so, perhaps in the mid-twenties F, starry and moonless. The always-moist air of the western side of Washington, which can so greedily drain body heat, felt and tasted of ice. The lieutenant positioned us to await the signal, laying prone in the deep frosty grass, surrounded by forests. I don’t remember how long it took, but I was underdressed for a long laydown on icy ground. I hadn’t put the liner into my field jacket, and for whatever reason, the cold went straight into me.

The first stage of hypothermia involves convulsive shivering. This is not your ‘letting the dogs out to do their business for a couple of winter minutes’ shivering. I mean wracking shivering that you cannot suppress. That began for me at some point in the grass–I don’t recall how long it took, but the only other time I’ve felt shivers of that magnitude involved surgical anesthesia wearing off. At that point, I was at least somewhat mentally impaired and disoriented. It felt like it lasted an hour, though I doubt that’s possible. Time grew distorted as I lay there shuddering, miserable and unsure what I was supposed to do.

The second stage can involve hallucinations and an ebb in the shivering, though I promise you it still feels cold. I began to see strange hexagonal light patterns in the night sky, obscuring the winter constellations I knew so well from my teenage astronomy fixation. I also saw an aurora borealis, but not a real one. My mind conjured it from photos I’d seen, all of which were in static black and white. Thus, that’s how I saw it, not the authentic shimmery, changing, polychromatic Northern Lights of my wife’s Alaskan memories. For some reason, I noticed the starlight playing off the frost crystals on my field jacket sleeve. Some time during that stage, I saw some light explode in the sky and heard some noises in the distance. Only later did I realize that those were the signals for the ‘attack’ I was supposed to join in. I was confused and indecisive, and there I lay, awaiting some more definitive signal, or so I thought.

I was too young and dumb to realize my mortal danger during the second stage. It took the third for me to get the message.

After a while–and I’ll never know the actual amount of time–the last of the shudders faded away. Those who tell you that you feel warm in the third stage, certainly never lived through it. However, there is a sense of insulation from the cold as your body begins to mothball systems it deems non-essential: legs, arms, etc. You still know it’s cold, but it just isn’t quite penetrating the way it was when you thought you’d tear a tendon shivering. Evidently the lieutenant had failed to count up his people, and no one had registered that I was missing, because I later learned that no one was out looking for me. I’d heard a lot about how useless second lieutenants were, and how useless I too would be when I was (theoretically) commissioned one, but this was my first good look at the reality.

The hardest part, the hardest thing, about the third stage was the seductive reassurance of sleep. The brain rationalizes: you’ve finally gotten acclimated to the cold, now why not just give in to the fatigue and have a nap until morning? I tell the story through all the fogged memory of a mind impaired by my condition, but some memories are clearer than others, and one of them is why I live today. I had a moment of clarity that said: if you go to sleep now, you will die, out here on 11th Division Prairie or whatever the hell division prairie it is. I could feel life fading away, seeping out like sweat drains body moisture on a hot day. The cold had bitten, drank and was ready to sate itself. If I fell asleep, that’s where I’d be found eventually, dead at eighteen.

For some reason, for whatever reason, it registered with me that I had the choice to walk or die, and not much time to decide. I can’t explain why I made the choice I did, but I forced myself to my feet and started walking. Gods only know how I found the reservists’ bivouac, but somehow I wandered into it. No one checked me out, or seemed to realize that I’d been missing, and I didn’t say anything–I was both rummy and embarrassed that I hadn’t taken part in what I was supposed to do. In any case, they had coffee and stuff, and a fire of some sort, and there was ample opportunity to get warm. I didn’t tell anyone about my situation, so in the darkness and general banter of post-operation socializing, it went unknown and untended. Didn’t really matter; I wasn’t frostbitten and was no longer freezing to death.

Now as I look back on that night thirty years gone, I wonder how many other people have lived through that stage of hypothermia without some form of active rescue. I rarely read other survivors’ accounts. I wonder what others who died experienced, whether they saw the odd things I saw, why they fell asleep. Did it sneak up on them? Was there nowhere to walk to, probably true of most cases? What was it like for them? They felt the final ebb of life from their systems, the final fading, which I never did. And it’s too late for them to describe it, so I am as close as you can probably get.

The last time temperature had endangered my life, it had been sunstroke, and I’d been seven. The last thing I remember is them lowering me into a bathtub full of ice cubes. Before I was old enough to take a legal drink of beer, I had felt both extremes reach for my life, and come back denied.

I don’t fear the cold. Last year, when we got a rare cold snap down to -5º F, I couldn’t wait to go walking. I wore only rubber boots, sweats, t-shirt, windbreaker and a toque. I had gloves, which I removed early, and soon took my hands out of my pockets. I unzipped my windbreaker partway; it was getting hot in there. I took a twenty-minute neighborhood walk in the ice and snow, not long, just enough to feel it. It was so quiet, snowy, reflective, muffly, lovely. As usual with me, it was like an internal heater fired up (one whose pilot light had evidently been out that night at Ft. Lewis). When I came into the house afterward, I went straight to Deb and laid both my bare hands on her arm. They were hot, not cold, on her skin. She called me a freak, exactly as custom requires.

No, I don’t fear the cold. But I by the gods respect it. When I go out in it now, I feel it kiss me. Well, I know what it feels like when it gets to third base.

I think I’ll stick to the necking part from here on out.

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2 thoughts on “Freezing to death”

    1. Thank you, Christi. Yes, it does, and how odd it can be that a simple trip outside late at night can spur one to write about an old experience. One of these days maybe I’ll sit down and write about all the times I came close to getting killed. Not sure this was the closest (though it’s not out of contention).

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