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Author: Frank Ross
When disaster strikes outdoors, in sub-zero temperatures, what you do and how you do it can be more important than how well you are prepared. Jeff King, 4-time Iditarod Champion, came up against the worst possible situation and survived. Keep your head on straight, and you can too.
Over the years, numerous news stories have been published about hunters and hikers that have gotten cold, disoriented and lost. In some cases they were found later, naked and dead. They simply slipped over the edge of mental stability and started taking their clothes off to get warm. It's a curious phenomenon, but when the human mind digresses under stress and severe conditions, strange things can happen. Once the mind snaps, it's all over but the crying and hymn singing.
Getting wet out in the frozen wilderness and surviving is a subject that 4-time Iditarod champion Jeff King knows about in both theory and experience, from his many years of racing on the Iditarod trail, and working with Cabela's clothing and footwear designers to develop warmer garments, boots and gloves. Knowledge is one thing, execution is another. When the chips were down, King proved he could keep his head on straight.
During the 1989 Yukon Quest, Jeff King woke up to find himself in just such a potential situation as his team surged over the Yukon River into an area of thin ice. "Actually, he said a little sheepishly, I was dozing off on the sled. We'd just come from a layover. The dogs had slept while I worked to take care of them. They were rested and ready to go, but I was very tired. When I woke up the team was flying across the ice. A team depends on a musher to be aware of such dangers and steer them around it, and often a team will sense danger on the trail as well."
"When I realized what was happening I had basically two choices. One was to try and turn the team and hope we could get back. The other was to keep going and hope that the team would stay on solid ice." That didn't happen. The next thing King knew, he and his team were in the water, fighting for their life. "If I hadn't had such great gear, remained calm and made the right choices," . . . his voice trailed off, perhaps not wanting to consider the alternative.
"The last time I had seen a thermometer, at the last check station, it was -38 degrees F," he noted.
"Getting wet under those conditions is something you want to avoid at all costs," he continued. "My choices were to stop and try to build a fire at that time, or go on and hope to locate dry wood. You can imagine how difficult it would be to try to get warm and dry your clothes with a small fire of green wood. I always carry fire starting materials -alcohol and matches- but that would have made a fire that would only last minutes. I needed hours."
King had been through that region many times, and could imagine how difficult it would be to get back up the steep banks through deep snow, trying to find dry firewood in huge quantities. "My experience told me that the best place to find dry wood was to continue on the river and look for piles of driftwood that gets snagged and piles up during the summer. I needed a pile about 8 feet wide 20 feet high and 30 feet long, something that would last a long time."
As precious minutes ticked by, his whole suit quickly became a solid sheet of steely ice. "The dogs have a great system for surviving. Their coat's fibers and the thickness are ideal for dealing with such a situation. By the time they got through shaking and rolling in the snow, it was like splashing cold water in your face when you need to wake up. They were invigorated and started running at a very fast pace. I began to contemplate how I would get them stopped if I found a pile of driftwood."
As they were running down the river, looking for driftwood, King knew that they were also heading toward a cabin that he knew about from previous years. It was a trapper's cabin and he knew it would provide shelter. Getting there in time was his main concern. "I was checking my watch, and it took 90 minutes. All the time I was keenly aware of my situation and the things that I had to do to survive. I had to force myself to concentrate and stay focused. I was also monitoring my physical condition, concerned that my fingers would get too cold to hold a match by the time that I found wood."
"I remember trying to move my body inside my frozen suit so that it didn't touch any of the icy fabric. It still had good insulating properties, as long as I continued to produce body heat that could be insulated. When I found the cabin it was the middle of the night, and the cabin was occupied by a trapper. I woke him up and he started a fire. It took a long time just to get the suit off and 6 hours to get warm and dry."
Certainly, clear headed actions were a factor in King's survival, but fabrics played an important role as well.
"Very few people are capable of dealing with the environment and how harsh it can be, but the advent of technology has given more people the ability to survive under severe conditions. My mentors and mushers that lived 100 years ago used to stuff dry grass in their clothes for insulation. I've been very thankful to work with companies like Cabela's, W. L. GORE and DuPont and to have access to their designs and cutting-edge innovations in fabrics," he said.
"I'm a big fan of Mereno wool, ThermaStat® for long underwear, and PolarTec® Power Stretch products as a first layer. Next comes WindStopper® fabrics, for vests and pants, but the real key for me is the Trans-Alaskan Suit. It provides insulation and ventilation to keep me warm but not overheated, and the fabric deals with moisture as well, wicking it away from your body. The next thing I use when it's really cold is a heavy Anorak, especially when I'm sleeping on top of my sled."
The average person is concerned with hours of exposure. On the Iditarod, it's days and weeks of continual exposure to the most severe weather. When it comes to staying warm a lot of it has to do with your physical condition. How long has it been since you've slept or eaten. "When the body is not cared for, it doesn't produce heat and starts to shut down."
Most of the body's heat escapes through the head, and that's an excellent place to start for both keeping warm and dumping heat if you're overheated. "I always wear some type of balaclava which allows me to either pull it up over my mouth and nose, or down under my chin, as the situation dictates. Over that, I wear a polar cap. A lot of people wear them, including myself, and they're very effective. I'm working with Cabela's on a new design for a hat that will be very innovative, but the Polar cap is excellent," he said.
"When it comes to hands and feet, I like this analogy. A refrigerator has insulation too. You can put an ice cube in a refrigerator and it will stay cold a long time. Your body has to produce the heat for these amazing fabrics to work. Without body heat there's nothing to insulate. When you start getting cold, your body protects the core organs and begins to shut down the heat from extremities. I'm an old plumber, and when we put in furnaces with a zone system, we could cut off one zone and it would be freezing there while the rest of the house is warm as toast. That's the way our bodies work. When it shuts down the outer zones to protect the inner core of organs nothing will keep your hands and feet warm. Keep your core warm and you'll have fewer problems with the extremities."
"I'm a huge fan of the insulated kangaroo shooting gloves that Cabela's carries. They're not in with the cold weather gear, so you have to look for them in the shooting section, but in my mind they are the warmest gloves on the market for dexterity, warmth and dealing with minimal moisture. When it's really cold, I like to wear glove liners, so I can slip out of my heavy gloves or extreme mittens and work with a harness without exposing my hands to the cold."
"I'm also a big fan of insulation loft. To me loft equals warmth. These high tech fabrics produce fantastic results, but you can't get by without loft," he said emphatically.
"Supplemental heat is another tool. We've added a pocket to keep a heat pack in the new design of the Trans-Alaskan III boot. People say, well if those boots are so great why do you need a pocket for a heat pack? But if your body isn't producing heat you are not going to be warm. When you are very tired or haven't eaten in a long time your body doesn't do as good a job of producing heat, and that's when supplemental heat is mandatory. I always keep a dry pair of ThermaStat gloves and several heat packs in my suit so they stay warm, and that's a very important step. If they are very cold to start with, a lot of their energy is burned up just getting the pack to an operating temperature. If you keep them warm before you use them, they'll produce more heat for longer periods of time."
When you're outdoors for any length of time, under severe conditions, what's on the outside of your body and the inside of your head can mean the difference between more than mere comfort and discomfort. It can mean the difference between life and a decided lack of it. If you're going outdoors for an extended period under harsh conditions, and determined to throw caution to the wind, you might want to leave your selection of hymns taped to the door of your vehicle, just in case.
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