Deadly cold

fairbanks cold

Fairbanks temperatures dropped well below minus-50 in January of 2009/Wikimedia Commons

The brutally cold temperatures that have long defined Alaska were easing across a vast stretch of the Interior on Monday even as the National Weather Service cautioned of the dangers of frostbite from winds whistling over the flats south of Fairbanks.


A wind-chill warning was issued for the Delta Junction area and parts of the Tanana River valley as the state witnessed a return of the sort of weather for which it is infamous.

“2018 was the sixth warmest year on record in Fairbanks, a cozy thought as 2019 starts off well below normal,” the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reported Friday. By Monday, the newspaper’s Facebook page was posting a photo of a Two Rivers thermometer just north of the city hitting 55 degrees below zero. 

“When I first moved up from the Lesser-48, lots of folks referred to minus-50 and below as ‘stupid weather’, ’cause stupid people tend to die in it,” observed Thom Swan, a Fairbanks-area dog musher and paramedic at a remote pump station on the TransAlaska Pipeline System.

Minus-50 is an extreme of weather that really needs to be experienced to be appreciated, but the late, legendary Alaskan Hudson Stuck captured the essence of it in the 1914 book, “10,000 Miles with a Dogsled.”

“The greatest mistake of all was starting out through that lonely waste with the thermometer at 52 degrees below zero,” he wrote. “The old-timers in Alaska have a saying that ‘travelling at 50 degrees below is all right as long as it’s all right.’ If there be a good trail, if there be convenient stopping-places, if nothing go wrong, one may travel without special risk and with no extraordinary discomfort at 50 degrees below zero and a good deal lower. I have since that time made a short day’s run at 62 degrees below, and once travelled for two or three hours on a stretch at 65 degrees below.

“But there is always more or less chance in travelling at low temperatures, because a very small thing may necessitate a stop, and a stop may turn into a serious thing. At such temperatures one must keep going. No amount of clothing that it is possible to wear on the trail will keep one warm while standing still.

“For dogs and men alike, constant brisk motion is necessary; for dogs as well as men—even though dogs will sleep outdoors in such cold without harm—for they cannot take as good care of themselves in the harness as they can when loose. A trace that needs mending, a broken buckle, a snow-shoe string that must be replaced, may chill one so that it is impossible to recover one’s warmth again. The bare hand cannot be exposed for many seconds without beginning to freeze; it is dangerous to breathe the air into the lungs for any length of time without a muffler over the mouth.”

Everyone who has spent time out in the real Alaska at minus-50 and colder has stories to tell about the misery of extreme cold.

A frozen hell

“Most of my minus-50 stories involve stuff that broke – mostly plastic car parts. But there is all that other stuff, too. Fortunately I haven’t shattered an axe head, but I’ve heard stories of those of who have,” Swan said.

“I have trashed snowshoe webbing I had to repair at minus-50. That was no fun at all.”

Frostbite or nip to noses, fingers and toes at some point is almost inevitable. Warm water, or even hot coffee, tossed into the air at such temperatures explodes into a cloud of ice as the water droplets transition instantly to from liquid to solid.

Such demonstrations of the power of the cold are entertaining. The weather itself is dangerous.

In extreme cold, even the smallest problems or errors in judgement can lead to serious injury or death.  Roberto Zanda, a 61-year-old Italian adventurer racer, lost both feet, a hand and four fingers on his other hand after he was overcome by bitter cold during the Montane Yukon Arctic Ultra in early February of last year just across the U.S.-Canada border in the Yukon Territory.

Zanda first fell victim to hypothermia, a dangerous drop in body temperature. That led to hallucinations during which an imaginary man in dark glasses told Zanda to abandon a sled containing his survival gear and a SPOT satellite tracker and head into the forest in search of an imaginary cabin.

From there, the situation spiraled downward. Zanda became stuck in a snowdrift, or thought he was so stuck, and took of his shoes and socks to get out. A phenomenon called “paradoxical undressing” is common in hypothermia.

“….Bodies are found partly or completely unclothed and abrasions and hematomas (bruises) are found on the knees, elbows, feet, and hands,” Markus Rothschild writes in a chapter on “Lethal Hypothermia” in volume one of Forensic Pathology Reviews. 

Usually people whose body temperature drops this far end up dead.

“The reason for the paradoxical undressing is not yet clearly understood,” Rothschild added. “There are two main theories discussed: one theory proposes that the reflex vasoconstriction, which happens in the first stage of hypothermia, leads to paralysis of the vasomotor center thus giving rise to the sensation that the body temperature is higher than it really is, and, in a paradoxical reaction, the person undresses.

“The other theory says that it seems to be the effect of a cold-induced paralysis of the nerves in the vessel walls that leads to a vasodilatation giving an absurd feeling of heat.

“In 20 percent of cases of lethal hypothermia, the phenomenon of the so-called hide-and-die syndrome also can be observed. Some of these bodies are situated in a kind of ‘hidden position,’ for example, located under a bed or behind a wardrobe. Apparently, this finding is the result of a terminal primitive reaction pattern, which is probably an autonomous behavior triggered and controlled by the brain stem. It shows the characteristics of both an instinctive behavior and a congenital reflex.”

Zanda was lucky that race organizers went looking for him and were able to follow his trail to where they found him off the trail half-frozen but still alive. He was nursed back to health and has since recovered, but walks on two prosthetic feet and uses a high-tech bionic hand.

Others have not been so lucky.

Stuck wrote of a “white man (found) frozen to death on the trail” while he was in the village of Bettles on the south slope of the far north Brooks Range in the early 1900s.

“The strong cold brings fear with it,” Stuck observed at the time. “All devices to exclude it, to conserve the vital heat, seem feeble and futile to contend with its terrible power. It seems to hold all living things in a crushing relentless grasp, and to tighten and tighten the grip as the temperature falls.

‘Yet the very power of it, and the dread that accompanies it, give a certain fearful and romantic joy to the conquest of it. A man who has endured it all day, who has endured it day after day, face to face with it in the open, feels himself somewhat the more man for the experience, feels himself entered the more fully into human possibilities and powers, feels an exultation that manhood is stronger even than the strong cold. But he is a fool if ever he grow to disdain the enemy. It waits, inexorable, for just such disdain, and has slain many at last who had long and often withstood it.”

End of the trail

In Janury of 2017, it claimed 27-year-old Travis Loughridge, a highly experienced veteran of Alaska wilderness travel despite his young age.

He was traveling alone along the little-traveled Shungnak-Huslia trail on a 110-mile trip by snowmachine from Shungak, a village of about 260 people on the Kobuk River in Northwest Alaska, to Huslia, an Interior village of some 315 famous in the 49th state as the birth place of the late George Attla, a legendary dog musher.

Huslia searchers who found his body said it was obvious he’d gotten his snowmachine repeatedly stuck in deep snow.

The story written in the snow told of his efforts to free the machine. The belief is that he worked up a sweat laboring in the cold.

Body moisture is a dangerous enemy in extreme cold. Sweat cools the body at the same time it seeps into fabric, diminishing insulating capabilities.

At some point, searchers said, it was obvious Loughridge recognized he was in trouble. He tried to start a fire of willows, they said. Willows don’t burn easily or well. He was unsuccessful.

Eventually, surely hypothermic and likely as confused as Zanda, he rolled out a blanket and laid down on it. Help, in his case, did not arrive soon enough. He was found dead.

The cold is not to be taken lightly.















6 replies »

  1. Its a whole different world below -45.
    Try oil changes and greasing equipment on an ice road construction project running 24/7.
    Theres time constraints because of approaching crew shift changes.If your lucky u have about 45 minutes to do atleast 2 oil changes plus grease and check the rest of the equipment.
    Time restraints because your grease or oil delivery hose will freeze solid in short order.
    And time restraints because below -45 with any breeze at all,you find out quickly whats really “windproof”in your gear,and what isn’t

  2. I don’t recall the year but, it was soon after “flat belts” replaced v-belts on newer automobiles, Fairbanks experienced a long cold spell (over 50 below) and those flat belts were regularly breaking around town. Folks referred to them as “snakes” all over the roads and were still visible when I drove through in late March of that year.
    Technology evidently fixed the problem as I’ve not seen/heard of the problem, since.

  3. During these cold snaps I always think of the Huskies “staked out” accross the state.
    Sure they endure, but I can see that K9’s too enjoy the warmth of a cabin.

  4. Good stuff. One of my favorite stories, read as child, was London’s “To Build a Fire”. Your post brings the same reactions, which is, for me, fear and at the same time, a little bit of longing to try myself in it. It’s OK, I can get over the desire to try myself in it. Hunting in the teens here in the South is enough, I’ll leave the real cold to the Alaskans.

  5. Craig, Great story and lots of long time lessons of the trail to add to ones wisdom. Coldest I have been was -53 on the Deshka River in the early 90’s. -30/-40 will freeze skin before you can feel it, this latest cold spell is a good reminder of the dangerous conditions to the unprepared.

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