Being Cold

   October is not the usual month to climb Devils Tower, but it has its advantages. The days are cooler, so there’s no hiding from the sun. Kids of all ages are back in school and itinerant climbers have headed South or hunkered down for the Winter, so the crowds are less. The downsides are the short days and the capricious Fall weather in the Black Hills. The area holds the record for the fastest temperature excursion, from -4 to +45 in two minutes. The reliably hot, dry high pressure of late Summer evaporates and local rain or snow events become a consideration again. The operational envelope is just smaller.

In October 2010, a small group of climbers got caught outside that envelope. They had made the classic gamble: go light and move fast. It’s a double or nothing kind of bet. With no light and no extra clothing, they ended up marooned by darkness on a large ledge system in the middle of the Southwest face. They did bring a cell phone, though. When they were clearly stuck and sleet began to pepper them, they called the Park Service for a rescue. Lacking any other recourse, the Park Service called two of us local climbers to help.

The term ‘rescue’ overstates our role. We really just brought up a rope and a light. We had to check their condition when we reached them, however, and after a brief evaluation we radioed back a report.

“Mild hypothermia.”

“What?” one of them stammered.

“Yes,” I replied, “It’s really disappointing how cold you can get before you die, isn’t it?”

And, no joke, it is.

Only rarely do other animals appear to suffer from cold. A wet dog on a cold day will shiver, but only briefly, and his tail can still wag while he shakes. Birds, small, hot-blooded animals who ought to dread cold most of all, will fluff their feathers and tuck their beaks in bitter cold, so they feel it. But feeling and suffering are worlds apart. Give the birds enough food and they will gladly stick around through the coldest weather. We suffer from cold. The naked human is comfortable at rest in an ambient temperature of 82 degrees Farenheit. We are a tropical species. In a few sub-groups we’ve lost pigment or gotten shorter and thicker trying to adapt to Northern life, but we never shook our vulnerability to cold-suffering. Furthermore, the suffering cold causes us far exceeds any adaptive purpose.

Pain is adaptive. Mild tissue damage, for the most part, causes mild pain. Severe tissue damage causes severe pain. Pain is refined. Pressure on expendable skin and fat is tolerable. Pressure on nerves, eyes and teeth hurts. Even the exceptions to this rule are at least logical. To have adequate warning that we are on fire, we must endure a paper cut’s false alarm. Clean amputations and penetrating brain injuries don’t hurt because, what’s the point?

Cold can hurt. Bare skin on cold metal hurts because the skin will freeze and die if its owner doesn’t move it. Frostbite hurts as it thaws. The pain says, “Stay still and leave it alone.” Science has validated that strategy as the best general approach to healing such injuries. However, pain cannot subsume, and thus make sense of cold.

Pain has quality. Cold, when it does not cause pain, has only quantity. Even a small dose will prompt us to put on more clothing, move or seek shelter. A mildly uncomfortable drop in body temperature prevents us from slipping into a sleep that never ends. But we can feel so much colder. If a person stops in the cold from exhaustion with no shelter around, they will stiffen up. Before they feel much colder, immobility ensues. It’s too late for urges to move then. Yet the lash continues to fall harder and harder. Even when death is a foregone conclusion, it may be hours before delirium comes to rescue the victim from their abuser.

C. S. Lewis thought we could make sense of pain, even in a universe ruled by a benign deity.  A simplistic, but still fair, summary of his thesis comes down the same wisdom high-school sports coaches have doled out for years: pain builds character. More precisely, to him pain is an inevitable result of man’s separation from god and has a hold on us only due to our prideful selves, our egos, which came from The Fall. Pain can teach us to let go our egos and thus return to god. There are a couple of fishy zones in Lewis’ tableau. Our own pain can teach us how to make others suffer, presumably pushing us farther off the path back to god. Also, pain can lead to degradation instead of destruction and rebirth, and in Lewis’  framework the blame lies with the victim for that result. Still, it would all hold together but for one thing. C. S. Lewis never had the Screaming Barfies.

The Screaming Barfies happen when hands rewarm from numbing cold. At some point, many people experience a mild version of the syndrome since they can stop to warm their fingers when the numbness starts. Ice climbers, since they are hanging on for dear life when their hands get numb, get the full value, and they are the ones who named it. It doesn’t happen every time, and its severity seems to vary randomly. At worst, it is a peculiar, soul-searing pain with no remedy. It is pain, but not a pain like other sorts of pain; it acts more like cold. In the barfies, cold actually subsumes pain.

The barfies are hard to describe because they really don’t have a quality of their own. They just hurt, bad. They are pure quantity, like cold. While they are happening, you would do anything to escape them. They make you swear. Even the most stoic, disciplined individual, though they don’t make a sound, is swearing on the inside. The first time anyone gets the barfies, they peel off their gloves expecting to see blisters and blackened skin. But, the hand inside is perfectly normal.

The Screaming Barfies don’t make sense. They are part of the riddle of cold, which afflicts not only the wicked and the righteous, but the enlightened and benighted in equal measure. If you have destroyed your precious self and linger in this world without a care, cold will bring the self back to be cold. We can’t understand or transcend cold, we must suffer it. And the thing is, we do. The barfies stop and we climb on at the risk of bringing them back. Entire populations spend their lives in cold regions, always a mishap away from one vision of hell and almost assured a taste of it in their lifetimes.

This behavior is as  hard to categorize as cold itself. In a scheme like Lewis’,  it can seem at once arrogant and innocent. But it represents a path besides his path of self-abnegation, the path of immolation, where the self chooses to fuel a venture with its substance. Immolation can be scary, even violent, but we are more suited for it. Piety breeds its own insidious pride, never visible in a cell or church or quiet study. Put it in the cold, though, and it will be exposed. We’re better off trying to embrace the moon and falling in the pond like Li Po. Or for those who don’t like poetry, ” Physiologists should think before putting down the instinct of self – preservation as the cardinal instinct of an organic being. A living thing seeks above all to discharge its strength… self – preservation is only one of the indirect and most frequent results.” That’s our way, and it’s the only way being cold makes sense.

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3 thoughts on “Being Cold

  1. Samir Chopra says:

    Thanks so much for this post; I had my ass frozen this past weekend. I also experienced the screaming barfies for the first time –while ice climbing — one of the most agonizing experiences ever.

    • keithnoback says:

      Thanks. And congratulations. You have experienced one of those things that one must experience to understand. Unfortunately, it is knowledge which most of us regret, kind of like statistics.

  2. Samir Chopra says:

    The funny thing was, my guide was shouting up at me from the bottom about them, and to minutes later, as I stopped to rest on that slope, they kicked in. I screamed down to him that now I knew what he was talking about. Yes, regrettable knowledge – some qualia I can do without.

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