Photo Journal: Lessons Learned on Hypothermia

I missed the snow, so I biked up to the summit of Mt. Greylock, the highest point in the state.

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We had a warm couple of days and a lot of rain, which turned a solid foot of powder snow into mud, grit, and slush. It made for terrible riding conditions, and a quick 10 miles on Saturday left my drivetrain grinding with sand. It was warm enough, though, that I was dressed like I was in Colorado; bare calves, light gloves, and no face mask.

In 2009 or 2010, we had a warm December, and I went off to tackle Greylock. That was pre-bike tour and I didn’t even come close before I was gasping for air. I decided to give the mountain a Round 2 and set off with layers packed into my frame bag, since I was sure I was going to freeze on my way down. I had no idea.

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Rain turned into freezing fog, which actually made for a pretty cool ride. The overarching mindset in the United States makes hiking and biking clear-weather activities, but the experience of riding through a forest you can’t see 30 feet into before it fades into the clouds is unique and totally worth having. Here, at the base of the mountain, the road had been pretty chewed up by ice and traffic. I was wearing my windproof tights and socks, but my top half had a single merino wool layer and some thin wool gloves. I stayed warm off the climb.

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Greylock closes the road that runs from base to summit around late October, and it doesn’t get touched until Spring. They don’t plow it or clear it, so I had the entire mountain to myself. I had no idea whether or not the top was covered in ice, since the mountain always gets more precipitation than we do in the valley. I kept climbing.

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There were downed trees. I remember hooping and hollering when I saw this one, the first of a couple. When Jim and I hiked the mountain during Hurricane Sandy in 2012, we actually watched a 40-foot tree come down about fifty feet off the trail we were on. The road gets at least one or two trees in each major storm; it’s the nature of winding your way up through protected forest. The DCR has a crew that goes out on white pickup trucks during the open season to chainsaw these apart, but I had to climb over this one.

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I built up a nice layer of ice on my wool. I’ve touted the material before; nothing performs better for activities like this. Wool fibers pull water past their outer scales into the fiber’s core, which lets my body heat warm the water and retain heat. A soaked wool shirt doesn’t feel clammy, and actually performs better than a dry one for heat retention. Wetsuits use the same principle, and a lot of surfers use merino-lined wetsuits during the shoulder seasons in northeastern beaches. At this point in the ride, I was starting to get chilly. Not a good sign…

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As I got close to the top, the trees got shorter and I broke into the conifer line. The snow and ice on the road got worse, but it was totally passable. With two crashes weighing heavily on my mind, I decided to walk over this part.

The fog was intense. It was frigid cold and soaked every surface of my bike and my clothing. I could see it billowing in white tufts just a few feet off to either side, and it completely concealed any kind of view. I’d seen the town from up here so many times, I didn’t mind the lack of scenic overlooks in the slightest.

Some of the rock walls along the side of the road were cleaving, and I saw some pretty big chunks scattered across the road with the usual logs and trees. It’s pretty obvious they don’t want motor vehicles up here this late in the season.

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Made it! The summit was freezing, and the fog had turned back into rain. I snapped a couple of pictures before I put on my raincoat, rain mitts, and warmer mittens. I was really shaking and taking pictures on my phone was a real challenge. I was glad I didn’t bother with the real camera; it was so wet!

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It occurred to me on this ride that I had never really read the inscription:

“In Grateful

Recognition Of

The Loyalty And

Sacrifice Of Her Sons

And Daughters In War

They Were Faithful Even Unto Death”

The traditional “V” replaces a “U” because stonemasons didn’t want to use a gentle curve. I believe this came from the ancient Romans, but it endures in our more modern stonework even when letters like R, O, and D curve just as much.

I immediately began descending and, soaking wet, began suffering. It was 10 degrees colder than I anticipated, and the windchill was killing me. My wool stuff was great for high-exertion, but didn’t offer enough insulation for coasting. I would have been overdressed if I was biking around my town, but the trouble with a long, 10 mile descent is the complete lack of activity. Without pedaling, my fingers, toes, legs, and stomach froze. I got really cold. I got worried.

I started grabbing the air repeatedly and curling my toes. With no feeling in my hands and feet at all, this was eerie, and I had to balance moving my extremities around with braking since I was still on a road littered with debris and ice. By the time I got to the bottom, I couldn’t feel my left foot at all.

I headed for the last mile to home, and the feeling crept back into my fingers with a vengeance. I must’ve looked pretty funny riding down the street cursing from the stabbing pain in my fingers. As circulation returned, all my nerves fired off a few times just to tell me they missed me, and just like that, it was past.

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When I got home, my feet were frozen. I rubbed and kneaded feeling back into my pink-and-white toes, and the ability to curl them literally returned one toe at a time. It was an interesting first-hand encounter with hypothermia, a serious chill that I won’t underestimate twice. Winter riding is tricky like that; you’ve got to balance your exertion with your coasting, and it pays to over-prepare.

If I was doing Greylock again, I’d bring thicker socks and pants, an extra puffy, and bigger mittens. I will definitely give Greylock one more go before the temperatures rise; it’s a great 20-mile loop, a great workout, and a great destination in my backyard.

BONUS:

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Wool & Prince was nice enough to send me the Better Button-Down for testing. These guys are a start-up based out of Brooklyn that made a big buzz by touting this shirt with a “100 Days” project, where guinea pigs wore the shirt consecutively for a third of the year. I do think the science is in wool’s favor for this, but even Backpacking Light’s extensive testing did show some odor buildup in wool after three months, so the extent of the shirt’s longevity is something I look forward to being as critical of as I can.

I’ll put it through the gauntlet and see if I still have any friends and family around at the end of it. I don’t know if I want to risk ruining it on a backpacking trip, but I’m definitely intending to dance, drink, commute, travel, and work in it as many days as I can without washing it, starting with the holiday season.

Hapy Holidays and Keep Riding!

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5 comments

  1. adventurepdx

    Glad you survived! I think this is where a good wind barrier comes in handy. Wool is great and I love it, but it doesn’t always do the best for breaking of wind. I just got the new lightweight windbreaker/anorak from Riv and really like it, dorky as it looks. I’ve noticed the difference.

    And I’ll be heading out in some good fog soon, too…

    • Max Dilthey

      I am totally on board for windproofing too, and the raincoat did a pretty good job with that for my top half. I think my problem this time around, especially for my feet and hands, was a lack of insulation underneath the gore-tex and windstopper. I’ll be stepping it up next time.

      Rivendell gear makes me feel cozy just looking at it. Old-school cool!

      Happy Trails!

  2. dalesjournal

    That’s real hypothermia weather with the moisture freezing on your shirt! Sounds like a good trip to pack a windshirt and a spare base layer— go ahead and soak one with a nice dry one to change into. Spare socks and some overshoes would have been good for those frozen toes.

    Try it at 60mph on a motorcycle in a hail storm. Ccccccold!

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