C-c-c-c-cold! It starts with a stinging, a burning around the edges of
my fleece neck gaiter, around the edges of my goggles, in my
fingertips. That's when I know the cold wind is hitting my skin.
That's when I know I need to cover up. I might as well have my
fingers in the flame of a candle, my face in the hot blast from an open
oven door. The sensation is the same. How is it, I wonder, that
freezing and burning can feel so much the same?
Uncovered skin is a dangerous thing out here, where temperatures in
September hover around minus 47 degrees Fahrenheit, not counting the
extra chill caused by the wind. With a high wind blowing, you might as
well be standing out in 100 below.
the Scott Base store they sell pocket thermometers, the kind you can
stick to your window, carry in your pocket, or attach to the zipper of
your jacket. But none of them go low enough to be of any use. Out here,
in the Antarctic early spring, the mercury would just sit there at the
bottom, pooling in a red ball, trying to go lower, trying to sneak
through the glass and drop, drop, drop.
If I cover up quick enough, the burning, stinging on my cheeks, on my
nose, on my fingertips, goes away and I'm left with a warm tingling
feel, or later, a feeling like a mild sunburn. It is comfortable, in a
way, but I also know my skin has been dried out, that the moisture has
been sucked out of it, that I've been burned by the wind.
Once I've covered my face with my neck gaiter, the inside of the
fleece starts to frost up because of my breath and I feel a coolness
around my mouth. My neck gaiter gets wet. I can feel frost start to
form around the edges of the fleece, around the edges of my hat. My
warm breath rising meets my eyelashes, which turn to lacy ice. When I
blink, I can feel the coolness of the eyelash icicles against my skin,
and little droplets form where the ice begins to melt. I look around me
and all the faces I see are rimmed by frost. There are icicles hanging
off mustaches and beards, frost forming misty white and thick on the
edges of wool hats, and thin frosting over goggles and glasses.
If I sweat, it is worse. If my feet have been hot before I go outside,
if my socks have gotten the least bit moist, the moisture cools and my
feet might as well be inside a refrigerator. If I've been walking,
the heat builds up inside the layers of my clothing. I can feel the
cool streak of sweat down the center of my back, dripping down over my
tailbone. I feel it on my breastbone too, and building up at the back
of my neck. I pull down my neck gaiter, unzip my parka, unzip my fleece
layer, unzip the neck of my long johns, take off my hat and mittens. I
imagine a great puff of steam escaping, whooosh! into the air. In
minutes my exposed skin is burning again. I have to cover up.
I wear thick wool socks and bunny boots. Bunny boots are huge rubber
white boots. There is lots of room inside, lots of air space to warm.
Tight shoes would be a bad idea here. But the drawback to bunny boots
is that there is no way to let moisture out, so I have to carry extra
socks and change them whenever my feet get moist. I wear long
johns-preferably two pair, a light pair and a heavy pair. I wear fleece
bottoms and a fleece top. Over that I wear a thick, black, wind-proof
set of bib overalls. I wear a heavy red down parka, a balaclava-a
fleece hood that slips over your head, like a Spiderman mask, and
covers your head, the sides of your face and your neck. I wear a neck
gaiter, usually just a piece of fleece that is open at both ends. You
can pull it up to over your chin and nose, tuck it under the edge of
your goggles for extra protection, or you can let it slide down in a
warm folds around your neck. I wear my Alaskan beaver hat, with the ear
flaps pulled down, and ski goggles. I pull my park hood up, yank the
draw strings tight and pull the fur ruff over my face. Last of all, I
have my mittens.
When I walk all covered up like this every step seems like an enormous
effort, and I long for just a pair of shorts, sandals, maybe even bare
feet, and a T-shirt. I long to run, outside, with just a thin layer of
clothes on. My feet feel like they weigh ten pounds each, as if with
every step I am moving bricks. I take small steps and I walk slowly. I
have never been so bundled up in my life. I have never had to wear so
much to stay warm. I have never recognized so fully how vulnerable I am
in my own flesh, how little my thin skin protects me against this kind
There are two ways to be harmed by the cold. One is hypothermia-which
is the lowering of the body's core temperature. The symptoms are
fumbling, mumbling, confusion, shivering, grumpiness. The other is
frostbite--when your skin actually freezes. I think of the apple that I
in my refrigerator , way at the back, under the ice box. It froze. It
turned to mush. I think how easily my fingers could freeze. They tell
us to watch each other, look at each other's faces every now and then
to watch for white frosty patches. We are always turning to one another
and asking, "How's my face?"
If I let my feet get too cold, my toes being to feel like rocks in my
boots, like they don't belong there, and I want to stop and take my
boots off and shake them out. I can't move them. They ache and burn.
When I pull my boots off, I feel that my sock is wet. I cup my toes in
my hand. They feel so delicate, as if they might break off. I read in
the book Endurance, about Ernest Shackleton's heroic journey to
safety after being trapped in ice and having his ship wrecked in the
Weddell Sea, that one of their party had frostbitten toes. The doctor
of the group waited until they turned black then snipped them off. The
dead toes fell into a pan below the makeshift operating table and made
a loud clatter.
I cup my toes in my hand, then test the heat of the stove gingerly with
my fingers, checking to make sure it is not too hot to put my
stockinged feet against. It is not too hot. I won't burn my socks, so
I put my foot directly against the metal side of the stove, flat, and
lean back. At first I feel nothing, just cold still, but after a while
a slow warmth. If this warmth had a color it would be the color of
butter--soothing, dense, thick warmth. As my toes awaken I can wiggle
them all together, then one at a time. It seems they take shape again
in my sock, they feel like toes again, like flesh, like part of me. How
many times can they do this, I wonder, before I damage them? It must
not be good for them to nearly freeze and then thaw so many times.
After being so cold, then warming up again, I always feel sleepy. The
cold wears me out. I could sit down anywhere, slump against a wall, and
fall asleep. But usually, I take off my big clothes, leaving them in a
pile on the floor, and take a long hot shower.
Analysis:In this piece I tried to pay close attention to a
physical sensation, in this case, cold. I tried to describe different
stages of being cold, and compared being cold to being burned. I
described what it was like to be so bundled up, what the sweat felt
like inside my clothes, and what it felt like AFTERWARDS. Paying
attention to what something feels like in your body is often very hard,
because we often just are not aware enough to describe it. This
exercise lets you focus on the very smallest details of physical
sensation. For a writer, being able to describe physical sensation is
important because it is one of the ways you engage a reader. Anyone who
has been cold before will recognize what I am writing about and my
story will trigger their memories of their own experience.
Writing Exercise:Write about 250 words describing, in as much
detail as possible, a physical sensation. It can be anything--the
sensation of stretching in the morning, of looking at the sun, of
sneezing, of an itch, of laughing, of being hugged, of being wet from
swimming, or wet from the rain, of falling down, of flying, of putting
your hands in the dirt in your garden. Pay very close attention to how
the sensation starts in your body and trace its progress.
Photo above right: A well-dressed Antarctican.