Chill Factors

Photos and Story by David McCue

Click to Enlarge
Click to Enlarge

Finally the winter seems to be upon us, not bone-rattling cold yet but some good early signs.  When I leave the house in the morning I have already started to consider my base layer and socks. At night when I walk the dog Orion is ascending in the night sky, our breath is misting, and leaves are crunching crisply underfoot. My dog lingers longer eating the now frozen grass she missed all year. She is a miniature black and white jersey cow I suspect.

At long last it is getting cold. My neighbors and co-workers have started to complain about the first hard frosts; I quietly relish their misery and hope for many more and harder frosts to come. The Earth is moving a little farther from the sun for a few months and I think this separation is a good thing, we can all get back together and discuss summer at some later date, meanwhile if my backyard becomes a mini tundra, I’ll be as content as a caribou.  Beasts well known for their equanimity in the cold.

Cold is such a subjective thing, we all have internal thermometers that differ from each other and even change through the day for ourselves.  I have long felt the reporting of the wind chill factor and its summer equivalent the heat index is an overused qualifier, but humans have always loved to talk about the weather so why not embrace these nuances?  Cold does feel different according to time and place and our perception changes with the conditions.  So If there are fifty Inuit words for snow, how many factors are there of cold?

In the interest of advancing our understanding of this important science I have compiled a partial list.

A breezy day at Canaan Valley. Click to Enlarge!
A breezy day at Canaan Valley. Click to Enlarge!

Wind chill is the classic and not to be ignored. If you are a thousand feet above the tree line on a continental  ridge and a 50 mph wind carries your extra gear and skinnier partner howling over a cornice; the cold just became a lot more intense (you should also reconsider your notion of recreation).  For most of us in the southeast, situations are generally less extreme but a cold wind carries off precious body heat no matter where it blows.  A forty mile an hour gale when it is 10 degrees outside, whether in Montana or Appalachia, will most certainly get your attention.

So wind chill is a given, but here are some additional factors of chill:

1. The Wet Chill factor
Granted if you are skiing and wet you are not dealing with intense cold otherwise you would be molded into a sheet of ice and probably not moving at all; nonetheless, 31.5 degrees and soaked to the skin makes our outer wear and inner mood twice as heavy and can destroy any pretense of a happy day. This is the one time I’d say not to tough it out, go inside immediately and discuss better days to come over hot chocolate or a local microbrew.
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2. The snowmaking factor.

Critical base building at Beech. Click to Enlarge!
Critical base building at Beech. Click to Enlarge!

This factor is especially prevalent for skiers in the southeast. It’s absolutely necessary, and especially at times in the season like now we should be grateful for every possible window when the snowmaking crews can work their magic.

But let’s be honest, skiing into the teeth of a snow blower is not an experience to be relished, particularly if you forgot your goggles.  DON’T FORGET YOUR GOGGLES!! Which brings me to the next factor:

3. The I forgot my damned goggles factor.   
Goggles, gloves, beanies or bonnets, forgetting any essential piece of gear will make your day a lot bleaker, or at least more expensive because let’s face it, if its 17 degrees with strong winds or blowing snow you are going to buy the forgotten necessity at the base lodge which is not the most economical way to equip yourself for the cold.

4. The waiting for a shuttle factor.  

Heading to Silver Creek for some night skiing. Click to Enlarge!
Heading to Silver Creek for some night skiing. Click to Enlarge!

As you stand on the roadside scanning the bend for headlights of a shuttle bus, not only does the inactivity let the cold night air settle more deeply in, but time can actually slow, allowing its grip to tighten.

So stamp your feet and hope for the best but don’t keep checking the time – keep your hands in the warm pockets of your parka

5. The missed last shuttle now inebriated and hitchhiking factor.

9 PM and 10 below at the Mansfield base at Stowe
9 PM and 10 below at the Mansfield base at Stowe

This is a particularly grim variation of the waiting for a shuttle factor.   As a learning experience it has value if only to insure you will never let this happen again.  Sure your intentions were good, head home early and be ready for first chair but then the apres-ski session got boisterous.

Now here you are praying the last worker of the evening shift will stop and give you a ride. Nothing makes the cold more intense then regret and desperation.

6. The Oh my God that looks scary factor.  
This is often experienced when looking down an unfamiliar expert slope.  Perched on the precipice as you look beneath your ski tips at a distant feature that could be a cliff band, you get that special chill of terror breathing down your neck.   But remember terror is first cousin to thrilling exhilaration so point those skis and go for it; your racing heart will warm you up.

7. The Oh my God I’m alone out here factor.  

Hello? Hello?  Is there anybody out there?
Hello? Hello? Is there anybody out there?

This is a feeling akin to the fear factor, often accompanying it.  This can happen at times in late sessions of night skiing, particularly in a pool of shadow or on an empty lift.

But it’s more intense in an off trail or back country setting as you realize that twilight has not just arrived but is actually dwindling. It’s often accompanied by the chilling question of whether you might be more than a little lost.   I’ve had some late evening bushwhacking exits in the Canaan valley and Colorado.

Where are you Whitegrass?  I could really use some soup
Where are you Whitegrass? I could really use some soup. Click to Enlarge

So far all has ended well but a new frost sets in the soul and the night feels cold and silent as uncertainty sets in.  But there is no place so warm as the lodge or car when you finally arrive and it all becomes a grand adventure now complete and worth every shiver of cold and doubt.

I should also say that any of these factors occurring simultaneously can have an exponential effect on how you experience cold.  For example being alone anywhere in high winds and unfamiliar terrain with bare hands and no bearings may as well be the Yukon.  You find yourself muttering snippets of Robert Service poems and looking for a moose to gut and crawl into.

Because the feeling of being cold is such a subjective experience it is useful to have some objective markers.   Shivering is one symptom as your body forcibly tries to shake off the cold.  However shivering is not necessarily proof that it is truly cold; shivering can also just be a symptom of Cheimatophobia, the fear of being cold.  Still, if it’s cold AND you have Cheimatophobia, shivering can worsen and spiral into a feedback loop.  If this is the case skiing really may not be right for you.

Timberline hits the mark
Timberline hits the mark

You can carry a mirror which is not only useful for emergency signaling if you actually are lost, but is also a good way to check if your lips are blue.  It’s less embarrassing than asking strangers on the lift to evaluate the hue and shade of your lips unless that is your go-to ice breaker.  When off-trail and making a transition, if the ale in your backpack has become a beer slushy you know things are well below freezing.  But let’s face it the best indicator is a thermometer, and 9 degrees is the benchmark.  If readings are in the single digits I consider it objectively and undeniably COLD.

This has all gotten a little dire so to close let me say I have never regretted a cold day in the mountains only the unseasonable days spent waiting.  We have spectacular gear and there is not much weather a good base layer and appropriate outer wear can’t fix.  So put on your gloves, don your balaclava, and go forth to shralp and slay.

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David McCue
David McCue grew up in Amarillo, Texas and annoyed the natives of New Mexico and Colorado by skiing on their mountains throughout his childhood and teens. He put down his neon 200cm GS skis for nearly twenty years until the fateful day he took his own young sons for a half day to Cataloochee. He has never looked back, except when alone and deep in the trees. A carpenter by trade, the uncertainties of the housing market have further honed David’s snow skills. He now resides with his patient wife on the banks of the Haw River in central North Carolina and annoys the natives of West Virginia by skiing on their mountains.