You've all heard the old warnings from doctors and survival experts; stay bundled and keep warm, even when you're sweating in the winter, because once hypothermia starts taking hold, it's too late. And I'm sure you've seen National Geographic specials and stories from Everest about people going delirious with hypothermia, taking off their clothes and such, totally oblivious to their surroundings.
"That's Dumb", you think. "I wouldn't do that. If I were getting hypothermia I would do this, this and this, checklist completed, death averted. Done." And if you've never had hypothermia, that is an absolutely understandable sentiment; the idea that, were you presented with almost insurmountable environmental challenges, you would have the brains, the wherewithal, to persevere and succeed. And maybe you would. But don't count on it.
On Dec. 26th, 1995, I went out with my dad for our daily, hours-long afternoon walk. This had been going on for five years now, during which time we would walk as far as we wished, and talk; he would fill my head with religion and philosophy, and I would tell him the newest gems of knowledge gleaned from my Funk and Wagnalls encyclopedia set, purchased over the course of a year from the local A & P. We went out every day, rain or shine, blazing hot or bone-chillingly cold, and we loved it; it was our little tradition, just us, weather be damned. On this particular day, though, the posted temperature, windchill not included, was -47c. Great, we thought, a challenge. So we put on our dutiful layers, and headed out into the Arctic winds.
I suppose the first clue that things were a little too extreme was when the wind blew, when we both commented that even though we were wearing four layers each, it still felt like we were naked. However, soon after we started getting sweaty, and compounded the problem by partially unzipping our coats. Bad idea.
An hour into the walk, things started getting weird. We chose to walk to Wesco, which was a nearly abandoned train junction on the edge of town, surrounded by forest and lakes, with the odd corn field thrown in for variety. It was a great place to go, to get away from the bustle of town and immerse yourself in quiet, bucolic surroundings. We were walking along the tracks towards a pond, feeling fine and warm, when I looked at my dad's Kombi gloves and started laughing.
"Hey dad, you look like a Boxer!"
He looked down at them and started laughing himself. "Well I guess I am!" And started play-punching me. I tried to block with my own gloves, which resulted in both of us cracking up and laughing. And laughing and laughing and laughing. Then, I piped up with another witticism.
"Hey Dad, you're a boxer on Boxing Day!!"
It got to the point where neither of us could catch our frozen breath, because the thought of us boxing each other on Boxing day was just too funny for words. This is where delirium starts. You get distracted by something which is, at the time, hilarious, and you totally forget you were ever cold in the first place. To be honest, it feels fucking great; many hypothermia victims are found with a wide grin on their face, and I totally understand why. Years later I got a similar sensation when I smoked marijuana for the first time, that the entire world was funny and worth laughing at.
This is when my memories start getting patchy. We reached the pond, when suddenly we heard a loud crack sound. Later, we realized that it was so cold, the solid ice on the pond started cracking apart; but at the time, we thought there were hunters in the area. Despite that, we both wandered onto the pond, contemplating our surroundings. We looked at the bare white birch trees standing naked and exposed on the pond's edge, saw the hawk's nest high in a stand of spruce trees, felt the clear, winter air violate our bodies and loved it; it was a highly rapturous moment in life, and no drug I've taken thus far has replicated the feeling I had in that moment of time. It was the most spiritual moment a ten-year old could ask for. When a Vedic guru talks about having "suchness", or Aldous Huxley talks about art being a crude facsimile of the Truth, I guess this is close to the feeling they were talking about, a transcendental moment that dwarfs anything else in our lives. We felt like we had been there only minutes; turned out, it was over three hours.
At some point, now more than four hours into our journey, one of us started stumbling back home. Our mental faculties were far beyond conversation, now, and I suppose it's lucky that we had come to Wesco many times before since we knew the way home; if it had been a new place we had travelled to, we might not have been able to remember our way back. I remember stumbling, walking slowly, many metres behind my father, who was probably just as addled in the head as me. There is no thought now, only reaction; the body has rerouted heat and blood to only the most critical bodily functions, and independent thought is not among them. I suppose I followed my father because he was my father and that is what a child does, follow the father; one-third of the way home, on a residential street called Alguire Rd., is where I blacked out.
I don't know how I got home, but I did, since the next memory I have is walking into a wall of heat. The temperature outside was -47c; inside, 25c - so in the span of three footsteps into the side door, there was a temperature increase of seventy-two degrees, almost instantly. It snapped me awake, but only briefly; I suppose my mother got me out of my snowsuit, because I woke up at 3:30 PM the next day, exhausted and famished. In fact, for the next three days, all I did was eat, and then go back to sleep; it was not until much later that I understood why, that my body had burned that much fat just trying to stay alive. Luckily, since I was pretty much covered up, I avoided frostbite. My dad, bravado as he was, was not so lucky; upon arriving home he discovered several of his toes were purple, though luckily none needed to be removed.
Lessons to be learned
Never assume that your mental faculties are infallible. In fact, they are the first, glorious thing to go, and you don't even realize it, busy as you are busting a gut over some inane trifle. And once you've reached the transcendental stage, it becomes very difficult to rationally sequence your thoughts. So please, bundle up and stay warm; if it's more than forty below outside, figure out how many layers you need, then double it. If you are in a place you've been before, and you know how to get home many times over, then you might survive; but there is no real thinking at this stage, only reaction. People who do the autopsies at this point say, he was confused. But you are beyond confusion here - you know exactly where, what, and who you are, and you are completely okay with it. And nothing else matters.