Thursday, January 12, 2006

Nude Snow Hiking Jan 8-11, 2006, North Cascades

Some people claim that I'm crazy and I have to agree with them. Hiking nude in a snowstorm is a crazy (and dangerous) endevour but I'd just come back from a couple of days of trying to survive winter snow camping at the 5,000 foot level near Spark Plug Lake off Highway 2 and I wasn't really ready to give up the fun just yet. While the rest of the party headed on back to civilization I overnighted in Skykomish, visited some friends and checked out the accumulating snow up at Scenic Hot Springs. The next morning I just felt like a solo hike.

Hiking in increment weather is kind of a challenge to me and always has been. I'm one of the lucky ones in that my metabolism runs pretty high after repeated excursions out into the cold . . . and there are a few tricks I use to keep myself warm and safe when I hike in conditions that have the danger of hypothermia. I strongly suggest you do not try this yourself . . . because hypothermia is a sneaky character and you probably won't recognize the symptoms until it's too late and you're in serious trouble.

The first rule is always hike with someone else so that you can watch out for each other. Well, I'd already violated that rule when I started out that late morning under skies that I knew held the promise of winter storms by afternoon. But I'm crazy and you are not.

Today's hike did not start out as a nude hike . . . I merely wanted to hike and enjoy nature . . . alone. And alone I was. After a couple of hours heading into the mountain spurs overlooking the Foss River Valley I really felt good. Euphoric to be sitting atop a ridge and staring down at totally pristine beauty and quiet, peaceful solitude. To the south and west . . . in came those dark, manacing storm clouds. Did I mention I was stupid? Did I mention that I had a grin on my face?

I stopped for a mountain lunch and hot chocolate (I always carry a thermos on cold weather hikes). It had been drizzling pretty much the entire morning. The poncho had kept me dry. But I hated the need to be wearing clothes and as I stood there on that ridge I thought . . . well, there isn't much wind out and the air temperature was hovering around 40F or so. I wanted to see how far I could hike back nude before I gave up and put protective clothing back on. It was five miles back to where I'd parked the car and I had no illusions about making it that far. I figured I'd go fifteen minutes or so before I became uncomfortably cold. I started carefully removing my clothes under the protective shelter of my poncho. Maybe it was my way of defying Mother Nature?

With several days of snow camping recently behind me, I'm already acclimized to the cold weather. My boots shield me from the snow already on the ground and I make a habit of moisturizing my skin every day before a hike (nude or otherwise). But I'm not ready for those first few hundreds of freezing cold rain drops that hit my bare skin when I stand up nude from under the cover of the poncho. I almost give up right there and if it wasn't for my obstenance I would have. After a moment or so, the shock wears off and I open up myself to the environment. Already I can felt my skin reacting to the cold air and moisture and if I don't get moving pretty soon the cold is going to sap my heat.

Once moving, I'm generating more than enough heat to keep my core warm. The feet are toasty warm; the head, where 60% of all heat loss takes place, is covered and I even have a place for my trusty floppy blue hat atop the wool cap. Hands are the first to feel the cold as my body begins to shunt arterial blood from the arms back into the body. They are also wet. On go the glacier gloves and a mantra to myself to keep exercising the fingers to prevent cold stiffness.

Rain changes to big wet snowflakes . . . then smaller dryer ones that start falling in abundance. Soon they start sticking to my skin, taking their time to melt . . . a sure sign that my shell skin temperature is dropping. Occasionally, I shake off the snow on my hat. Yet, I'm not shivering and actually feel pretty good. My nipples are pinpoint hard from the cold and there is a certain numbness to a dangling part of my anatomy, but the weather out is certainly above freezing (even with the slight wind), so there is no chance of frostbite to a very valuable part of me. I trudge on and the snowfall gets heavier. About an hour into it and I stop for some hot chocolate. I'm still not shivering but I do feel some warning signs . . . cramping of the fingers and hands even though they are protected inside the gloves . . . signs that blood is being withheld from my extremities. I didn't feel the cramps in my legs but they had been working continuously and were probably pumping out the heat I needed to keep my core temperature on up. In retrospect, the cramping should have been my give-up signal. If the arterial shunts of my arms were being used to keep me warm then my legs would be next and I needed my legs to get me to warmth and safety. But as I said . . . I'm crazy. No shivering. I kept going, still not feeling the gross effects of cold . . . definitely not feeling the cold of snow sticking to my legs and arms.

Fortunately, as I hiked lower, the snow changed back to cold rain with some sleet . . . unfortunately with a little bit of wind to it as the sky darkened (storm clouds and approaching nightfall.) I set up a brutal pace now . . . because going all the way had become a personal challenge. Occassionally, I felt a deep tremor of a shiver but shook it off. I started making mistakes . . . walking right through deep puddles instead of skirting them to keep my boots (and feet) warm and dry. Branches whipped my bare skin but I barely noticed what would normally have been a sting of a whipped-back branch.

Twilight was falling in the shadow of the ridge . . . and the temperature was dropping fast. Parts were hurting from cold . . . I mean hurting! My buttocks (used to this pace) kept cramping . . . and now the cramping was being felt in the hamstings and the calf muscles. A numbness started suffusing the upper sections of my arms. Yet I felt I must be close and I want to finish this hike nude. Did I say I was crazy?

Strange thing. When I spotted my car I practically ran to it and fumbled the keys out of my fanny pack . . . dropping them twice in stiff fingers. And then the cold panic passed the moment I unlocked the car door. Instead of getting in to safety, I calmly stood out there in the dumping sleet and removed the pack and belts and such with deliberate care . . . careful to get them properly stored before I got myself into the car.

It hit me the moment the car door shut behind me . . . the shivering as I towelled myself off and got the engine started and the blower on high. I took me several minutes to work my boot laces undone so I could pull on some clothes. It was almost a half hour later and full darkness before I felt warm enough to do much of anything. The rest of the contents of my thermos helped immensely.

I felt chills all the way back into Seattle (a two hour drive). My skin had warmed up and the numbness painfully gone from the really cold appendages of mine. One area remained cold for another hour and that was the quarter inch of fat covering my abdomen. Every other part of me was feeling the warmth . . . except this thin layer of fat across my stomach. Fat may be an excellent insulator but it's a good thing to remember that fat also stays cold longer than the richly, blood-supplied muscles and other organs. Thinking back on it, cold-retention in the fat layers of hypothermic people was one of the discussion points in my wilderness medicine classes.

Would I do it again? Damn right I would. Like any other commune with nature, I have never felt as free as when I'm hiking nude. I don't think I was ever in any real danger, but the warning signs were beginning to appear and I did violate one very important safety rule . . . two are safer than one. And I've confirmed . . . hypothermia sneaks up on you.
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