Tuesday, July 21, 2009

How Cold is C-o-l-d!

As an extreme mountaineer cum skier cum adventurer with almost my entire lifetime spent in cold places, the two questions that I most often face are:

1. Why do you climb?
2. How cold is it up there (Everest, South or North Pole, Greenland, Alaska, etc)

I am still rather fuzzy about the first question since I do not understand this perennial urge deep within to go climbing with or without reason so I would like to answer the second one. What is cold all about! I won't go into the science of 'COLD' or 'ICE' but just my own understanding.

The feeling of cold simply put is the act of your body losing heat to the surrounding atmosphere. The effect of losing body heat is also linked with the wind speed at the moment. So to understand cold, we also have to understand, 'Wind Chill Factor'. For the same absolute temperature, the rate of losing heat (in effect the feeling of being cold) would increase with the increase in wind speed. For practical purposes, when we climb or ski and are being exposed to the elements it is important to cater for the wind chill factor, since it is this temperature that will affect our body, specially the exposed parts like nose, eyes, extremities, etc.

Despite having undergone fatal temperatures innumerable times I find it hard to explain how cold is really cold in words since it is something that is to be experienced and seen. It cannot be enshrouded in words or metaphors. And since for most of you cold is only a theoretical phenomenon, you won't be able to imagine no matter how hard I try to explain. Therefore I would adopt the cause-and-effect method of explanation. What happens visually and perceptibly when it gets cold! For the sake of simplicity, the temperatures I have quoted are all in deg Celsius and are absolute ones without wind chill factor. The observable phenomenon of one temperature would be automatically included for the next lower temperature so I won't repeat it, but add the new ones that would crop up at that temperature level. So the lowest temperature that I have observed, as related under, would include all the phenomenon of all the previous temperature ratings plus the ones I have specifically written against it. A disclaimer though, all these perceptions and observables are my personal experiences and they may differ for another individual pursuing similar activities. So sit by a nice warm fire and enjoy the cold.

Zero C: I will start with 0 C since anything warmer is not really a part of my world. This is comfortably cold. You enjoy the feeling. A tingling sensation like an ant crawling spreads on all the exposed parts of the body. Intermittent shiver courses from head to toe and the body jerks involuntarily at times, just to generate some warmth from within. You need to put on at least two layers of fleece, down or wool to stay warm. Nose tip feels mildly numb though you don't lose sensation entirely. The fingers of hand tend to curl by themselves. Touching any metal with bare hand can be unpleasant. Extended exposure of any body part will lead to chill blain and cold nip, but not necessarily frost bite.

Minus 10 C: This is generally cold. You need at least three protective layers of medium down, wool or fleece. All body parts should ideally be covered. This is the stage when the cold would start seeping into your bones. You will feel cold from inside as well. Your breathe will cloud instantly and breathing might be difficult. The cold air will cut into your lungs. Speech will start to slur as vocal chords and tongue will begin to lose synchronization and your jaw would tend to be out of control. Touching any metal with bare hand is forbidden as it will instantly stick and you might need a surgery to peel the metal off from your skin. Extended exposure will certainly lead to first degree frost bite and might lead to more advanced stages.

Minus 20 C: This is the first stage of serious cold. You need at least one layer of heavy down coupled with medium or heavy wool and fleece. Hydration is very important. Faculty of speech is greatly degenerated. Touching of any metal will lead to instant frost bite. Prolonged exposure will lead to third degree frost bite leading to gangrene and amputation. Mind starts to freeze as well and thought process will become sluggish. Vision may blur. Thin crust of ice will start forming on everything, either living or inanimate. Exposed skin begins to crackle like paper and nose will be numb and seemingly non-existent. Any body movement requires twice the effort and all major organs will slow down and work very laboriously.

Minus 30 C: This is seriously fatal cold. This cold actually kills. At this stage nothing is to be taken for granted and extreme caution is needed to do even the smallest of things. Touching any metal, ice or cold water is absolutely forbidden. Every effort needs to be made to conserve body heat and to minimize heat loss. You need at least three layers of heavy down, wool and fleece with as much area of the body covered as possible. Speech is now nearly impossible to control and mostly garbled words will come out, so one need to speak really slowly and deliberately. Mind freezes almost entirely and faculty of thought becomes nearly that of a primordial form of life. Icicles form all over the face, wherever the expelled breath touches skin, and everything is encrusted in ice. This ice does not melt and is broken off in chunks. Eyeballs too start to freeze. Every breath of air slices through the internal organs like a surgeon's knife. It is impossibly difficult to breathe. Any sweat on the body will freeze instantly. Any exposed part will instantly darken due frost bite and will lead to amputation in no time. Skin will suffer deep cold burns and will peel off instantly. In such temperature the skin does not follow the usual stages of skin tissue degeneration, it rather jumps straight from healthy tissue to dead and rotten tissues since blood circulation is so poor and lethargic, specially to the body peripherals.

Minus 40 C: This is absolutely fatal cold. Boiling water if thrown up in air, turns to ice by the time hits ground. Eyeballs can freeze and crack and pop out of the sockets. No amount of clothing will keep or make you feel warm. You will be perpetually cold and frozen. Your body will shiver incessantly. Mind has completely frozen and you will behave more like an automaton or a zombie, working on pre-programmed routine. Body will go into seizures and will revolt even a moment's exposure to such temperatures. Body will lose water at an insane rate and skin will turn pale and moisture less. Body will reject food as your palate will freeze. Body will go numb.

Minus 50 C: By now you are so dead that you will not feel anything at all. And if you are not, then you are very close to it, and you will be in a kind of suspended animation looking at your own body in a disjointed manner and wondering what you are looking at. The body tissues and mind is now beyond any feelings or sensations. All your sensory organs are frozen stiff and your major organs as well. If you live to see and experience this temperature then you would be a medical wonder (I certainly am). Only the heart might continue to beat faintly and intermittently.

Minus 60 C: By now you are in hell literally and figuratively. What clothes! Even if cocooned under 10 layers of the best down in the world, you will feel naked and exposed. Your entire body is in fire, burning in cold. Your body parts will break and fall off. You will be frozen for eternity. Death will occur in less than a minute. Body will lose all moisture and shrivel up like a mummy.

Don't ask me what happens beyond this since the lowest I have experienced is precisely an absolute of minus 60 C and a wind chill factor of minus 103.33 C with a wind speed of 100 knot. But then, with all my curiosity intact, I really don't wish to find out what happens further below. So if anyone of you ever reach there and find out and do return to tell the tale then do update me as well. I can only wish you the very best and send you my warmest regards.

I would conclude with an anecdote though, which I was told at the US South Pole Station. This is true. During winters the average temperatures at the South Pole falls to between minus 60 C – 70 C and during those times it is more difficult to rescue someone from there than rescuing someone from the moon. Ponder over it.
Like I always say, that cold and ice combine two antithetically opposite characteristics: that of annihilator and preservator. We have bodies still up on Everest that are more than half a century old, but looks fresh as new. These people died of the cold and have been preserved by the same cold for generations to come. During my Everest expedition, one of my members actually thought that the body was that of an exhausted climber who had dozed off, and he tried to shake him awake; it looked that fresh and untarnished.

My idea here is not to scare any of you, since I firmly believe that ice is very nice and at least once in your lifetime you must experience the phenomenon of frozen thoughts. With that happy thought I will take leave now and go looking for colder places while you guys go and stock up your woolies… you never know when would you need them and I might not be available for consultation then.

Though there are cold and colder places on Earth but if I may end with a cliche, then there's no colder place than a cold heart and i am yet to reach there. And for all my female readers, I really don't know if this is true, but it was said by that greatest of all bards; that two women placed together makes cold weather.


  1. Nice crisp explanation and your posts are really mind blowing.

  2. wow! interesting - very difficult for us to understand as we have had not much exposure to the cold... and hence, the distinction of cold vs. ice a lil more abstract to grasp!
    thank you for your post!

  3. I dont know what is the coldest that i Have been to but I climbed 20,000 feet on the 1st of January and at first I was happy to be alive but Now I want to do it agian...

  4. You never cease to amaze me Satya :)

  5. Really S, u never cease to amaze me either... cold does scare... anything beyond 0 is way out of my league!!!!
    enjoyed your ending ;-)