Hypothermia: Object Lessons

10:19 p.m. on December 14, 2012 (EST)
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Have you ever had a hypothermia scare? What happened? And what did you learn or change?

I'll go first: I was 14 and snowshoeing alone in late March when the temperature suddenly went UP. The snow got wet, and so did I. Then rain came, not forecast. Nothing I had on was waterproof. By the time I got out I was past shivering, past even the sickening core-shudders, and into full drunken delirium, laughing and giddy and almost sleepy enough to lie down. No longer feeling cold at all. Luckily, by that time I could look down the mountain and see home, or I probably would have stopped.

There's no frostbite risk at 5 degrees Celsius, but it's the closest call I ever had. Up till then I thought deep cold was the big danger, that and falling through the ice. Nope.

My lesson: stay dry, and beware of 'mild' in winter. If you have a story, please share!

1:22 a.m. on December 15, 2012 (EST)
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When I was in scouts we went on a backpacking trip to Lake Colden in the Adirondacks in October.  On the way in the catwalk on Avalanche Lake was floating off its supports because of raised water levels (the beavers had been busy) and it collapsed on the last member of our group.  After arriving at Lake Colden it rained and rained and rained, nice cold rain.  We decided to head back out, but since the route through Avalanche Lake was no longer a possibility, we decided to go over Mt Colden to exit.  As we ascended it continued with the cold rain (temp was in the 40s) and I was wearing a cotton sweatshirt, which was completely soaked.  When we approached the summit and left the shelter of the trees, we were exposed to 60 mph wind, which chilled me very quickly.  I did not realize that anything was wrong, but I was obviously not thinking clearly because when my sleeping bag fell off my pack I looked at it absently and walked on.  Fortunately someone else in our group was still on top of things and picked it up.

Eventually it was decided to turn back and we camped that night at the lean-to on Opalescent Creek where it enters Lake Colden.  We built a huge fire and got everyone warmed up and dried off.

In hindsight, the scariest part is that I felt that nothing was wrong.  It is easy to see how someone could become hypothermic and then do things that would normally be out of the question, not realizing how wrong those things are.

11:00 a.m. on December 15, 2012 (EST)
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Cold and wet are the scariest conditions.  Fire building is toughest after a long downpour, especially with shaky hands and clouded judgement.

I have been underdressed a few times when I was young and never made those mistakes again.

I have mentioned being in a sleet storm before on Aug 31 in no BC ......and a wet down sleeping bag.  I was afraid to go to sleep I was so cold.  It was above treeline with no chance for a fire.  Fortunately in the north the sun was up by 0400.

I slipped and fell in a river once in eastern WA while washing one morning.  It was Labor Day with warm weather, but I only had cotton clothing.  I was really cold all day.

Most of the other experiences have been related to recognizing early stage hypothermia in others and having them add clothing and sometimes building a fire.

A few times on river trips people have gotten really cold from swims usually in the spring.  One particular canoe trip on the Carson River the weather was good for April.  Several people were canoeing without wet suits, but the conditions were not that difficult.  Two guys capsized going around an overhanging tree right after we launched.  They got colder as time went along and started to make some dumb mistakes and got wet again.  By the takeout they were in much worse shape than anyone had realized.  We got their clothes off them and got them by the truck heater and they were fine.

11:14 a.m. on December 15, 2012 (EST)
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I remember as a child of maybe 12, my friends and I would stay up late over Christmas break and go for long, midnight hikes in the woods. One time it was very cold and I suddenly felt sick. I told my friends, who were older than I, that I needed to get home. By the time I got there I was pretty lethargic and shivering. We had a wood stove back then and I instinctively curled up next to it wrapped in a wool blanket. I was fine in a little while, but years later I recognized the symptoms of hypothermia.

Maybe ten years later or so, while spending the winter alone in the bush, I was moving camp on a very cold but clear day. I found in the bright sunshine that I needed very little clothes to stay warm while working hard, breaking trail. But when I stopped to make camp I suddenly started shivering uncontrollably. I couldn't set up my tent and found it hard to think clearly. I managed to pull out my sleeping bag, and crawled inside. After shivering for a while I was able to start up my stove, an MSR-XGK, and get some hot liquids into me.

What surprised me the most from that experience was how quickly hypothermia can strike. That taught me an important lesson in thermoregulation...and understanding my own limits.

11:39 a.m. on December 15, 2012 (EST)
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ppine said:

Cold and wet are the scariest conditions.  Fire building is toughest after a long downpour, especially with shaky hands and clouded judgement.

If it's wet, the air temperature doesn't even need to be all that low for it to feel very cold. In the Sierra this *summer*, I had packed rain gear suitable for waiting out quick showers, not sustained heavy rain, and certainly not hiking in rain with a pack.

It turned out there were periods of sustained rain, and I usually opted to continue unless I was approaching a high pass. The inability of the rain gear to keep me try under those conditions, plus its complete lack of breathability & resulting sweat build-up, got me quite wet at times.

On one day in particular, near the Bear Creek area on the JMT, I got so cold that I could barely get my fingers to function.  I found a campsite, put on what remaining dry clothes I had (didn't have many extras as I had packed as light as possible for what I expected to be a typical Sierra summer), barely managed to get my shelter (tent) set up, and wanted to make some hot food. I had a heck of a time getting the bear canister open, as it required turning some tight screws with a quarter (Bearikade). For a while I thought I was going to have to take the canister to a campsite nearby to ask the people there to help me open it!

Ultimately I finally got the canister open myself (whew!), ate some food, and warmed up. But that could have turned out worse.  And it wasn't even "cold" out ... I would guess in the 50's, and I was only in the rain for an hour or so.  Still, the chill came on very quickly.

In subsequent rainy spells I made sure to stop & button up before reaching that level of discomfort. That was one lesson. The other was to not go backpacking in cool/wet weather again until I have found some gloves that keep my hands warm under those conditions.

2:34 p.m. on December 15, 2012 (EST)
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For sure it can happen without low temp.

I was cycling in Fla at night in summer. Temp approx 75.

Worked up a good sweat and was wearing a cotton t shirt.

then me and my partner stopped to push the bikes for awhile, and a cool ocean breeze  happened.

I began to shiver uncontrollably,  and had no idea what was happening.

Luckily my partner did, pulled off my wet T shirt and began to vigorously rub my back between my shoulder blades. This  worked and after about five minutes I began to feel better.

Crazy, but true and I have never worn 100% cotton again.

4:10 p.m. on December 15, 2012 (EST)
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Only time I came close was in June in upstate ny. Ater several days of low temps and rain, I did a long 'lake swim' in very cold water. Got the shakes while swimming toward the end. Was fortunate I could get inside and warm up.

4:28 p.m. on December 15, 2012 (EST)
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Rkusa, your partner was smart. When you're cold, taking things off might not seem like a very good idea. But sometimes wearing wet clothes is worse than wearing none.

For sure it can happen without low temp.

The ironic thing about my experience was that if the temperature had stayed below freezing, or if it had dropped even colder, I would have had a lovely day. It was the rising temps that nearly did me in.

10:00 p.m. on December 15, 2012 (EST)
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Taking off wet clothes might be beneficial sometimes. However, a sign of advanced hypothermia is that people feel hot and start stripping off layers when it isn't warranted.

8:20 a.m. on December 16, 2012 (EST)
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Leadbelly, you are right again. Feeling cold is just the beginning. I was only cold until the shivering stopped. By the time I got out I'd unzipped my coat and considered dropping it (or using it as a pillow on that comfy-looking snowdrift). I wasn't cold again until I was home under blankets with a hot water bottle under each arm. Then the shivering returned.

It's hard to explain to people who haven't experienced it just how impaired your thinking can be. I sometimes wonder how many of the 'falling' or 'getting lost' mishaps in the backcountry are, in fact, hypothermia.

8:52 a.m. on December 16, 2012 (EST)
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This sounds like a classic example of Paradoxical Undressing. It is caused by the physiological response to cold. When a person's core temperature drops below a certain threshold the body's response is vasoconstriction. This means that , in order to conserve energy otherwise needed for the internal organs, the body constricts blood flow to the peripheral area. In as many as half of all hypothermia victims this results in a sensation of warmth and subsequent desire to undress.

Your feeling of being chilled once brought in to a warm environment could be the result of your body resuming normal blood flow to the peripheral regions, bringing that now cold blood in to your core area.

I have found that if a victim is conscious, giving them warm fluids helps.

9:49 a.m. on December 16, 2012 (EST)
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When I was a hutkeeper on the Milford Track in NZ I came across a guy near the  high point of the track taking his clothes off in rain and high winds. There was a shelter/linch hut a bout a half mile away so I sent some other hikers ahaed for help and tried to keep him dressed and moving. Ended up piggybacking him for short stretches, and hew was a big guy. Eventually a group came down with a stretcher and we loaded him up, got him to the hut, and starting warming him up. He ended up staying there for the night and going down the next day. He was an older (i.e. probably retired Kiwi) in one of the big guided groups. At that time at least the guides let them get pretty spread out even in bad weather, so I guess it could have turned out a lot worse. I worked for the NP at the "self-service" huts but used to follow my people up to the pass on bad weather days just to make sure everybody made it over OK. 

11:46 a.m. on December 16, 2012 (EST)
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Some good stories.  I like bHeiser's story because it shows how quickly simple tasks can become difficult.  It is very awkward when you know you are in trouble and have so much trouble helping yourself.  There is strength in a group.

I used to spend a lot of time in the Cascades when going to school.  We were in the field at least a couple of days during the week and also on weekends.  In the winter at 2000 feet it was often in the 30s with lots of rain.  I never got used to those difficult conditions and eventually opted for some new country.  Even the cold of CO and WY was easier to deal with because the precip came as snow.


5:23 p.m. on December 16, 2012 (EST)
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Actually most of the stories here are merely folks getting chilled, but not hypothermic.  As North1 and Lambertiana point out, true hypothermia makes you stupid, uncoordinated and often you cease feeling cold.  Rambler and Arson, both fine TS members,  started a couple of interesting threads a while back on this topic; a search of this forum will return a fine list of additional, related, posts.


5:48 p.m. on December 16, 2012 (EST)
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Ed, thank you for those threads, I'm glad you remembered them and thought to share them. Excellent writing and quality information in both, and neither came up in my 'hypothermia' search. Worthwhile reading I'd otherwise have missed.

5:55 p.m. on December 16, 2012 (EST)
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Ed, the mnemonic is "The Umbles - Fumbling, Mumbling, and Stumbling". Still, getting chilled so that your body temperature is lowered below even 95F is a Big Red Flag warning to do something NOW!

per North1's comments about warm fluids - As he posted, it is important that the victim be conscious - an unconscious person can gag and choke, possibly vomiting. It is risky even when a victim is starting to lose awareness, even at LOC 3, and certainly when less than LOC 3. However, it should be pointed out that warm fluids taken internally are basically useless in terms of warming physically. The only real benefit of warm fluids internally is (1) the psychological aspect and (2) getting calories in the victim (such as hot chocolate). The uselessness of physical warming becomes obvious when you consider the basic physics - if you have the victim drink a liter of fluid at 110°F (about the hottest drinkable, especially for someone thoroughly chilled), the warming for an average 70kg (154 pound) person whose body temperature is down to 90°F is 1/35th of a degree, providing the the excess heat is distributed instantly throughout their body (remember that the human body is mostly water - try pouring a liter of water at boiling into 70 liters of water at, say, 90°F in a bathtub to see for yourself how small the temperature change is).

The best techniques for warming with hot fluids (or the chemical heaters) is to place the heat sources in their armpits and groin where there are major blood vessels close to the skin surface. Change into dry clothes, of course, and move the victim out of the wind.

The other urban legend ("wilderness legend"? about stripping the victim naked and putting two other people stripped naked into a sleeping bag will just result in 3 hypothermic people. But if one of your party is becoming chilled or hypothermic, you better check everyone - often if you have one victim, you have others heading that way, too.

I haven't been hypothermic myself, but have had young scouts get themselves chilled and well on their way to true hypothermia (they get wet in snow or rain, but deny being chilled until it becomes extremely obvious).

5:59 p.m. on December 16, 2012 (EST)
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Thanks, Whomeworry. There is plenty of information out there for those who are interested. From my own experiences I have learned there are 4 stages of hypothermia; I suspect my childhood instance was stage one, or mild. I remember being chilled and a little disoriented. The second time it occurred would definitely fall into stage two as I was rapidly losing my fine-motor skills and could not even put the tent poles together after several attempts. What saved me was the fact that I did not panic; I crawled into my sleeping bag and got some hot liquids into me. But, if I had continued struggling with the tent, I would not be writing this.

The take home message, I guess, is how quickly hypothermia can strike, especially after a change in activity levels.

12:07 p.m. on December 17, 2012 (EST)
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I almost forgot about an incident in BC.  The previous day there was a guy traveling alone that had been struggling with the conditions for 2 days.  He was eventually med-evaced by Parks Canada in a boat and sent to Bennet Lake to take the train back to Skagway.  I found out later that he was incapable of walking.

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