Cold Weather Survival

Cold Weather Survival

Six hours from the​ trailhead, 2 hours past his turn-around time and​ with storms filling in​ from the​ valley, Alex Theissen was at​ the​ edge of​ panic. What had started as​ a​ unremarkable spring outing in​ the​ White Mountains was going south quickly and​ the​ prospect of​ spending the​ night exposed at​ the​ timberline, with plummeting temperatures and​ not much more than some hard cheese and​ a​ foil survival blanket was becoming a​ distinct reality.

The impending sense of​ panic is​ familiar to​ any individual stranded on a​ windward shore with a​ gale coming on, disoriented in​ a​ maze of​ bike trails or​ caught, like Theissen on an​ exposed ridge with foul weather on the​ horizon. in​ many cases, what happens next is​ the​ crux moment wherein survival or​ full blown disaster ensues. in​ the​ case of​ Theissen, survival started with the​ acronym, S.T.O.P.

Sit ... Think ...Observe ... Plan ...

Rather than giving in​ to​ an​ all-too-human panic response, Theissen sat, took stock and​ acted in​ a​ way that likely saved his life. What follows is​ a​ briefing on what went through his head ... it's a​ lesson applicable to​ all hikers, hunters, canoeists and​ others who find themselves exposed and​ unprepared in​ falling or​ already frigid temperatures.

Shelter / Warmth
In cold temperatures, exposure can kill before anything else has a​ chance. in​ Theissen's case, staying above the​ timberline was untenable; thus getting below the​ treeline was his first priority. After that he would need to​ find or​ create shelter, and​ finally (if possible) create warmth.

While it's beyond the​ scope of​ this article to​ describe shelter making or​ fire building in​ detail (shelter can be found in​ tree wells, in​ snow caves, and​ in​ the​ hollows of​ river banks; tinder is​ less available in​ winter than summer, none-the-less evergreens will often yield dry needles, pitch impregnated bark can often be sourced and​ if​ the​ snow-pack is​ not so deep as​ to​ disallow it, reserves of​ dry leaves and​ grass can be found under trees, rock overhangs and​ in​ tree wells), suffice it​ say that without either, chance of​ survival diminish.

What Theissen did was find a​ root cavity that provided both shelter and​ tinder; he sealed it​ as​ completely as​ possible with packed snow, and​ insulated himself from the​ ground using evergreen boughs. He managed to​ nurse a​ fire which, while it​ really never took, provided a​ certain degree of​ comfort and​ localized heat.

Route Finding
There was no way Theissen was going to​ find his way back to​ the​ trailhead in​ the​ impending whiteout. and​ it​ needs to​ be stressed; there was NO way he should have tried ... even descending to​ the​ treeline was a​ challenge. That said, he was not lost and​ he had to​ keep it​ that way.

Route finding depends on visibility; thus traveling at​ night, in​ a​ white-out or​ in​ heavily wooded terrain increases the​ chances of​ becoming lost. It's doubly important in​ these conditions to​ think, observe and​ plan ... and​ to​ acknowledge that it's not always prudent to​ act. It's often better to​ stay put than it​ is​ to​ flounder around in​ unfamiliar terrain risking further disorientation and​ injury.

By marking his return route to​ the​ ridgeline, and​ traveling only so far as​ required to​ ensure shelter, Theissen knew that once visibility returned he would be able to​ find his way back to​ the​ trailhead.

Creating Visibility
If all went well, Theissen would hole up for​ the​ night in​ his makeshift shelter and​ walk out the​ following morning. This presumes of​ course, that he wasn't lost. if​ he were, creating the​ conditions to​ be found would be his next priority. Experts agree that the​ three following elements will increase the​ chances of​ a​ rescue party locating a​ lost hiker...

Visibility - created by smudge fires, markers, signals
Positioning - on ridgelines, open riverbanks, at​ the​ treeline
Mobility (or lack thereof) - stationary targets are easier to​ find

Had Theissen been lost, he would have returned to​ the​ ridgeline when conditions allowed, created visibility (stamped a​ signal in​ the​ snow, anchored his foil blanket, built a​ smudge fire ... ) and​ not strayed from the​ area.

It hardly needs said, that if​ you've got fuel and​ a​ means to​ light it, the​ ice and​ snow you're surrounded with are a​ viable source of​ hydration. if​ not, there are other sources. Depending on how cold it​ is, flowing water is​ frequently available under the​ snow pack in​ the​ bottom of​ creeks and​ at​ river bends. Animals and​ birds will keep patches of​ swamps and​ ponds ice-free. in​ the​ alpine, solar radiation can be powerful enough to​ create ice-melt against dark rock faces.

Nutrition can be more difficult, and​ needs to​ figure heavily in​ any self-rescue plan. Cold weather requires more calories from the​ body and, while it​ is​ possible to​ live weeks without food, hunger is​ debilitating and​ lowers the​ bodies resistance to​ cold and​ the​ ability to​ cope.

There is​ good reason why survival literature frequently describes frozen landscapes as​ arid ... there's not much alive, and​ there's not much to​ eat. as​ flippant as​ it​ seems to​ say it: getting out sooner than later is​ a​ very good idea. Once the​ situation has stabilized all efforts need to​ turn towards positioning one's self to​ being found or​ logically and​ methodically finding one's way out. One dies of​ starvation sooner in​ winter than summer.

As it​ turns out, the​ Theissen's storm passed and​ by 3am the​ White's were lit by a​ brilliant moon. There was enough light for​ Theissen to​ return to​ the​ ridge line and​ find the​ marked descent by dawn. the​ previous day he had stupidly decided to​ ignore his turn-around time. Every decision after that however was the​ right one, and​ by early afternoon the​ following day he was back at​ his car hungry tired and​ sheepish ... but alive.

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