This Is What It Feels Like to Freeze to Death

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Jan. 11 2014 7:00 AM

Brrrrrrr

The Longform guide to ice, cold, and snow.

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It was cold last week, but was it Antarctic cold?

Photo by Torsten Blackwood/AFP/Getty Images

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The Cold Hard Facts of Freezing to Death
Peter Stark • Outside • January 1997

A step-by-step account.

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But then, in a final moment of clarity, you realize there's no stove, no cabin, no friends. You're lying alone in the bitter cold, naked from the waist up. You grasp your terrible misunderstanding, a whole series of misunderstandings, like a dream ratcheting into wrongness. You've shed your clothes, your car, your oil-heated house in town. Without this ingenious technology you're simply a delicate, tropical organism whose range is restricted to a narrow sunlit band that girds the earth at the equator.
And you've now ventured way beyond it.
There's an adage about hypothermia: "You aren't dead until you're warm and dead."

Empire of Ice
Jeanne Marie Laskas • GQ • September 2008

Life on an oil rig in the Arctic.

He has lived here, on and off, for two years, ever since the island was built. How do you build an island to put an oil rig on? You wait until the ocean freezes. You can’t dig water, but you can dig ice. You dig to the bottom and excavate a foundation, about eleven acres in all. You find a source of gravel—in this case, a pit ten miles away—because you need a lot of it. Crews built ice roads and started hauling. They kept hauling, 20,000 truckloads, traveling a total of 400,000 miles, the equivalent of about sixteen trips around the world. They had to hurry. They had to get it all done before the ice roads melted. They dumped gravel, dumped and dumped, sculpted a six-acre rectangle out of it, then got to work on a retaining wall: more gravel—8,000 sacks of it weighing 13,000 pounds each—one on top of the other, bam, bam, bam, a barrier to fight back the summer sea. They had to hurry. They had to connect the island to shore, six miles away. They dug a trench, a crazy-long trench, in which a subsea flow line would carry oil. It cost $500 million to build this island, not to mention the brawn of constantly revolving crews of as many as 600 people working in temperatures cold enough to kill.
I have listened to engineers explain all this, and overall it has been hard not to look at them and think: My Lord, we need oil.

A Sea Story
William Langewiesche • The Atlantic • May 2004

The Estonia was carrying 989 passengers when it sank in 30-foot seas on its way across the Baltic in September 1994. More than 850 lost their lives. The ones who survived acted quickly and remained calm.

Survival that night was a very tight race, and savagely simple. People who started early and moved fast had some chance of winning. People who started late or hesitated for any reason had no chance at all. Action paid. Contemplation did not. The mere act of getting dressed was enough to condemn people to death, and although many of those who escaped to the water succumbed to the cold, most of the ultimate winners endured the ordeal completely naked or in their underwear. The survivors all seem to have grasped the nature of this race, the first stage of which involved getting outside to the Deck 7 promenade without delay. There was no God to turn to for mercy. There was no government to provide order. Civilization was ancient history, Europe a faint and faraway place. Inside the ship, as the heel increased, even the most primitive social organization, the human chain, crumbled apart. Love only slowed people down. A pitiless clock was running. The ocean was completely in control.

Into the Unknown
David Roberts • National Geographic • January 2013

In 1912, 300 miles deep on a trek into the uncharted Antarctic wilderness, Douglas Mawson lost most of his crew and supplies. The story of how he got back.

Whatever its cause, Mertz’s death now threatened Mawson’s survival as well. The food was almost gone, and his own physical state was deplorable, with open sores on his nose, lips, and scrotum; his hair coming out in clumps; and skin peeling off his legs. And he still had a hundred miles to go. “I am afraid it has cooked my chances altogether,” Mawson wrote in his diary. But he added, “I shall do my utmost to the last.”
Using only the serrated blade of his knife, he cut the sledge in half. Then he fashioned a makeshift sail by sewing Mertz’s jacket to a cloth bag. Three days after Mertz’s death, Mawson discovered to his horror that the soles of his feet had completely detached from the skin beneath them, which spurted pus and blood. He taped the dead soles to his feet, and put on six pairs of wool socks. Every step thereafter was an agony.

A Dip in the Cold
Lynne Cox • The New Yorker • April 2008

Swimming the coldest waters on Earth.

I have been a long-distance swimmer since I was fourteen. Initially, I was interested in breaking other people’s records—the record for crossing the Channel, for example. When I was in my twenties, I decided to tackle waterways that had never been swum, and crossed the Strait of Magellan, went around the Cape of Good Hope, and swam between various Aleutian Islands. In 1987, I swam the Bering Strait, from the United States to the Soviet Union, and seven years later I swam through the Gulf of Aqaba, from Egypt to Israel and Jordan. Then I became interested in the limits of endurance. I wanted to know whether my body could tolerate extreme cold. In 2002, wearing only a swimsuit, I swam for more than a mile in Antarctic waters of thirty-two degrees Fahrenheit. In the Arctic, water can be two or three degrees colder; still, I wanted to swim portions of the Northwest Passage, travelling from Greenland to Alaska, using Amundsen’s account of his journey as a guide.

This Side of Ultima Thule
Jeffrey Tayler • The Atlantic • April 1997

A dispatch from the frozen, drunken wasteland of Eastern Siberia.

But Siberia is anything but ethereal. It is perhaps the dreariest, most nullifying place on earth. Stretching from the Ural Mountains to the Pacific Ocean, from China and the deserts of Central Asia almost to the top of the world, its expanses show little variation across their 4,000 miles east to west or nearly 2,000 miles north to south. Siberia is flat, flat, flat—with the exception of low hills, called sopki, in its eastern regions, and remote mountains, such as the Suntar Khayata, so far north that few Siberians have ever seen them. Broad rivers—the Ob', the Irtysh, the Yenisey, and the Lena,  for example—wend their way across the tundra toward the Arctic Ocean, but by October they freeze over so thickly that they can be used as truckways until spring. There are huge expanses of taiga, and permafrost covers more than half the land, reaching deeper than 4,200 feet into the earth in the north. The few native Siberians (Evenks, Yakuts, Tuvins, Buryats, and Khakases, among others), once disparagingly termed inorodtsy ("those born of another stock") by the Russians, and natsmeny ("national minorities") by the Bolsheviks, have effectively been disenfranchised by their Slavic neighbors-turnedconquerors. The Soviets forced most of them to forsake their traditional nomadic ways for the settled life of reindeer kolkhozes (collective farms)and similar absurdities. Today many simply drink themselves to death on cheap Russian vodka.

The Coldscape
Nicola Twilley • Cabinet • November 2012

Our entire way of life depends upon the “cold chain,” the network of artificially refrigerated spaces that have reshaped the modern world.

More than three-quarters of the food consumed in the United States today is processed, packaged, shipped, stored, and sold under artificial refrigeration. The shiny, humming stainless steel box in your kitchen is just the tip of the iceberg, so to speak—a tiny fragment of the vast global network of temperature-controlled storage and distribution warehouses cumulatively capable of hosting uncounted billions of cubic feet of chilled flesh, fish, or fruit. Add to that an equally vast and immeasurable volume of thermally controlled space in the form of shipping containers, wine cellars, floating fish factories, international seed banks, meat-aging lockers, and livestock semen storage, and it becomes clear that the evolving architecture of coldspace is as ubiquitous as it is varied, as essential as it is overlooked.

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Max Linsky is a founding editor of Longform.org.