If you’re cold when you start to ski, you’ve probably dressed right. You start out chilled, hands, torso, face, and then rev it up, muscles tight and cold. Your body is like a truck that sat overnight in the cold; slow to get going, moving with some reluctance, wanting a warm garage. The truck takes some time to warm up; your body is the same.
The skis always seem slow, the wind always seems to blow hard, you’re always chilled. Five minutes into it, I’m always aware of it; 10 minutes along the trail and my fingers are cold, and I wonder if I’ve just screwed up and gone too light on the clothes.
You never want that, the cold that does not go away. Last year at the Birkebeiner it was 15 below zero, and there were skiers at the start line who got chilled and never warmed up. There was frostbite, far too much of it, and discomfort all the way, start to finish.
You need to avoid that, but it’s always a balancing act; dress too heavy and you’ll sweat like you do on a summer day, and eventually you’ll chill, hard and fast and without mercy. Dress too thin, and you start cold and stay cold, and eventually you’ll hit that terrible zone when the body does not respond and you stand, weary and numb and your mind goes stupid and you are on the edge of hypothermia. Which is a bad place to be.
There comes a time, on the trail, when it all starts to come together, and the chill begins to fade, and the muscles begin to loosen and work to whatever power you can generate. Your body begins to heat up, your internal furnace kicks in, and you warm up with the exertion that you create.
I’m aware, early on, that I’m chilled, and I realize later on that I may have actually overheated, but I miss the time when the chill has gone, and things are as they should be. I know when I’m chilled, know sometime later I’ve warmed up; I just miss the exact moment that things reach a comfortable equilibrium, and once again the cold is at bay and I’m comfortable and good to continue.
It was cold this past week, 10 below on Wednesday, a day off for me. I waited until mid morning, and it had warmed up to just above zero, though “warmed up” is not the best term to use. On a January day when it’s below zero at daybreak, it never warms up. The best you can hope for is that it will, as the day progresses, be less cold.
It was above zero when I started out, and the sun was as high as it would get for the day. I started out chilled, but 10 minutes into it I was fine, and I skied for 21/2 hours, and the only problem I had was that I got a touch overheated. I unzipped my jacket and carried on. It was a very nice day in a Wisconsin winter.
But there’s always that thin line on a cold January day under a sun that holds no warmth, skiing alone on a long trail. There is the fine line between being OK and not. I have learned not to fear the cold of midwinter, but I have never lost my respect for the cold. I never, after all these years, take anything for granted.
It’s a strange dynamic, the weather and the sport.When I hunt, I never want to be chilled. I bundle up, layer on layer in the cold of November on the deer stand or in the duck blind. I never want to be cold then, not for a minute. I sit in the stand, warm after the walk out, and know that from the time I sit, I start to lose heat. On a cold day I can feel it slip away a bit at a time, and after the hours pass I am aware that I am just too cold to be comfortable, and then I make my way back to warmth, achy in the cold that by then has reached deep.
When I ski or snowshoe, I know I’ll be cold at the start, but if I’ve dressed right, I’ll warm up enough to be comfortable. What limits me mostly is not the cold, it’s my level of fitness; at a certain point I just run out of gas, and then its time to quit. The balancing act in winter is to be realistic about how long you can ski or snowshoe, and make certain that by the end of that time, you’re close to shelter.
I’ve had days when I just ran out of energy a long way from the truck and stood there, chilled, knowing how far I had to go, and that the cold holds no pity for those who make mistakes. That’s always the risk in cold weather sport.
But that’s the way it is in this part of the world. I’ve had my furnace go cold and lifeless on a night when it’s 20 below zero. I’ve seen cars by the roadside when the wind is blowing cold and mean and the car just quits and leaves the driver in a world of trouble. We live in Wisconsin, where in January the cold can dominate the world and, if pushed by a northerly wind, can leave you gasping for air, skin stinging and toes going numb.
We all got that reminder this week. Ten below on Wednesday morning; -13 on Thursday; colder on Friday daybreak. The snow creaked underfoot, as if in protest. Clear skies, sunny, days of uncommon beauty; but darn cold. January in Wisconsin; we get cold days during this month. So what do we do?
We can complain about it (and do so, and do it well for all the practice we have). But complaint does not warm the air. We can flee southward like refugees. We can stay inside, huddled around whatever source of heat we have, noses pressed to frosty glass, looking out at the stark January day. Or we can deal with it, and go outside and enjoy it as best we can.
I’ve skied when it was 15 below zero, snowshoed under a full moon when it was 20 below. I had good times. I’ll do it again. It comes down to dressing right and managing the time you spend outside.
But as much as I’ve done it, and for as much as I’ll do it again, there’s always that time when I start out and my fingers are cold and my body is chilled, there’s always the question to myself: Did I dress right? Did I go with too little? Will this day turn from a good time to a bad one? Will the cold win out on this bitter January day?
I push on, chilled at the start, and answer those questions.
An assortment of outdoor products is available at Mel’s Trading Post, downtown Rhinelander; call (715) 362-5800.