23 March 2008

Surviving Cold

January, 1982

Remind me... why did I volunteer for this?
It's 6 A.M. and I'm wide awake. I'm comfortable in this sleeping bag...
well, except for my feet. There's no way to know the temperature in this coffin-shaped hole I've carved out of the snow but it DOES NOT feel cold, even though it's 30 below zero outside the pine boughs and snow covering my head.

Yeah, I volunteered...
"Cold Weather Survival School" in Ely, Minnesota. I've been corresponding with "Mike", the guy that set up this course for months, asking for advice to establish an all-weather survival course for the Aviators in my command. His challenge...
"Come up and attend the course yourself. You'll learn a bunch and come away with plenty of ideas!"

So here I am, bored, but not all that cold. The temperature actually rose to -15 today, but the sun slipped beneath the horizon just after 4 P.M. and with this clear sky the air got noticeably colder instantly. Several of us stood around the bonfire chatting for a while but there is no way to be comfortable there...
It's the first time I've had the experience of being warm and comfortable on the fire-side of my body, while the side away from the fire begs for me to turn 180 degrees! I'm wearing a polyester snowmobile suit, and in trying to get warm, stood close enough to melt the suit's outer layer from my right knee down. We finally realize we'd be more comfortable in our sleeping bags, wish one another a good night, and head off to our shelters.

We were told we could increase the temperatures of our shelters by 10 degrees if we dug them all the way to earth. I had to dig a little more than four feet to expose the ground, but I'm glad now that I did it... my body temperature actually makes the shelter feel warm. My feet are a different story, however. Our first night in Ely, our group of 20 students all slept in a group shelter. Our accumulated body heat actually melted the snow on the roof of that shelter and the melting snow dripped onto the foot of my sleeping bag, soaking it. I have to sleep in the fetal position to keep my feet out of the wet/icy part of the bag. My legs ache. I try to extend my feet into the bottom of the bag, but the ice/dampness suck the heat from them to the point of pain in just seconds.

And the darkness! Over 15 hours of it!
We're learning "survival" stuff while the sun is shining... learning how to build our individual shelters, how to dress warmly, how to easily build fires, how to keep from losing tools to the "snow monster", how our bodies require far more water than we think because we are in fact experiencing "desert" conditions.
(If the snow is yellow when you pee, you're not drinking enough water.)
But the sun goes down and it gets colder, forcing us all to our shelters. After 8 hours sleep I am rested, but don't want to leave the shelter and be exposed to cold so extreme the bonfire isn't adequate.

One night in the group shelter, two nights in my individual "coffin"...
I graduate.
I'm amazed at what I've done... amazed at what I've learned. Properly prepared, I realize I can survive almost anything if I just don't panic.
I come home, write my school syllabus, request and receive approval for funding, and start my school. There's great satisfaction knowing lives may be saved because of my initiative.

But ask me...
Would I ever go back and experience sleeping outside at 30 below zero again?
Not no, but HELL NO!


cary said...

I loved mountain warfare training. I loved cold weather warfare training.

I have been called "weird" by more people than I care to count.

elay said...

This was interesting. the way you described it made me feel like i'll probably freeze if i were in your shoes. i don't think i'd be able to take all that cold weather you have in there.

the closest that i got to this kind of experience is during a field training excercise and everything was all soaked and cold because of the non-stop rain here. its nothing compared to 30 below zero that you have in there, but i would never want to go through anything like sleeping outdoors, all wet and cold ever again.