Published January 19. 2013 4:00AM
While out for an early morning run the other day a frigid gust to the face instantly coated my eyelashes with crunchy icicles.
“Whoa! I think that’s No. 8, or maybe No. 7,” I said to my buddy Bob, who, unlike me had wisely donned sunglasses before we set out.
“You know, the Fagin Coldness Scale,” I reminded him.
I couldn’t see his face because we were loping side-by-side, and anyway he was wearing dark glasses, but I’m sure Bob rolled his eyes. Over the years of running together we’ve learned to put up with each other’s inane observations.
Short of dashing indoors and soaking your head in warm water, the fastest cure for frozen lashes is to remove the gloves and cup your hands over your eyes while exhaling onto your palms – but in extreme conditions this maneuver can induce frozen fingers, which as I recall rated No. 6 or 5 on the FCS.
Pick your poison: If you don’t sacrifice digits while thawing out eyelashes your eyelids get stuck, which rates even higher on my coldness scale.
Years ago I devised the FCS to measure the relative effects of gelidity, modeled after the Beaufort wind force scale.
Developed in1805 by Francis Beaufort, an Irish Royal Navy officer, this scale references observable effects of wind speed, often with descriptions that convey force more colorfully than simple numbers.
For instance, so-called “light air,” rated No. 1 on the Beaufort scale, produces ripples without crests on the ocean surface, while on land slowly drifting smoke indicates wind direction, but leaves and weather vanes remain stationary. Higher on the scale, No. 5, a “fresh breeze” of 13-17 mph creates many whitecaps and small amounts of spray, while on land branches of moderate size move and small trees in leaf begin to sway.
As wind intensifies the seas heap up, spray reduces visibility, huge waves crash, shingles rip from roofs, trees snap – and by the time you reach the end of the scale, No. 12, a hurricane with winds exceeding 74 mph, the sea is completely white with foam and spray, while on land windows smash, sheds and barns topple, and debris and unsecured objects are hurled about.
I’ve never reached No. 12 on my FCS, in which you basically turn into a contemporary version of
Otzi the Iceman (a.k.a “Frozen Fritz,”) the well-preserved natural mummy of a man from about 3300 BC, found in 1991 in a glacier of the Otztal Alps near the border between Austria and Italy – but I’m pretty sure I’ve gotten to 10 or 11. Various stages en route to these levels include having spit freeze before hitting the ground, involuntary shaking as if you were operating an invisible jackhammer and explosive outbursts of profanity.
I’m thinking of one long night years ago on Camel’s Hump in Vermont, in which the temperature inside a dilapidated shelter where some friends and I hunkered down dipped to about 20 below zero and a water bottle that I had placed inside my sleeping bag next to my body nonetheless froze solid.
On another occasion, some of these same friends and I climbed New Hampshire’s Mount Washington in February when the mercury plunged to about 30 below and the wind howled above 100 mph. There’s no point in calculating wind chill in those conditions, because it applies only to exposed skin, and you’d have to be really reckless to leave even one square inch of flesh uncovered.
On a separate Mount Washington excursion in comparably Arctic conditions I accompanied a madcap band of meteorologists from the summit weather observatory to the base by riding plastic sleds down the Auto Road. I hadn’t planned on this adventure and didn’t think to pack a face mask.
As I recall by the end of that wild 7.6-mile descent, when I’m sure we hit speeds in excess of 30 mph, it took a few hours for my face to thaw out sufficiently so I could speak English rather than some unintelligible, aboriginal language comprised of numb-jawed mumbles.
A few years ago I spent a week in late January, mostly alone, as winter caretaker at a near-mile-high hut in the White Mountains, and occupied myself in the sub-freezing darkness by waving my arms and pacing for hours around an unlit wood stove (fuel was in extremely short supply).
At least I was warmer than the time I flipped my kayak in an ice-choked river without wearing a dry suit. A friend with matches managed to get a fire going long enough for me to dry out and resume our voyage.
Friends who don’t share my passion for winter recreation sometimes ask, “How can you stand the cold, and I answer, “I can’t.” In fact, I hate being cold.
Even now, seated at my computer near a roaring wood stove I’m wearing fleece pants, polypropylene jersey and a wool sweater.
As I’ve often remarked, there’s no such thing as bad weather – only inappropriate clothing. Like many of my friends who savor the outdoors, I literally am a man for all seasons.
During my forays into the mountains in winter I don an expedition parka, double-insulated plastic mountaineering boots with supergaiters, Gore-Tex wind pants, a heavy balaclava, ski goggles, neoprene face mask and overmitts containing chemical handwarmers. For the most part I remain comfortable.
I once spent a night in a blizzard in a bivvy sack – basically, a cross between a tent and a sleeping bag – and actually managed to get some sleep.
We are now entering the coldest part of the coldest season, and I’m looking forward to heading north soon to the mountains – with, of course, appropriate clothing and adequate gear.
I’ve taken a course and have been certified in ice-climbing, and own crampons, an ice ax and other equipment, but for the most part I enjoy simply tramping around woodland trails, following animal tracks in the snow and embracing elegance underscored by winter’s rich contrasts.
The booming echo of cracking lake ice shatters the night stillness like a rifle report; during the day trees creak and groan; ravens squawk and jays shriek shrill alarms. Boots crunch. Amid so much seemingly lifeless gray, cardinals flit by like crimson darts; jagged icicles glitter in slanted sunlight from emerald boughs of spruce and hemlock.
Before long, skunk cabbage and crocuses will poke through the snow, maples will drip sap and peepers will begin their cacophonous vernal chorus.
We have only a few weeks to savor the season, so get out there and enjoy it – and stay warm, my friends.