I can’t remember what the name of the river was. There’s been a lot of them. Seems like it was the Breitenbush. It was definitely a late-January day in Oregon. And the river was running high. I got in the water and surfed my way down. I was stoked to be boating in the wrong season.
When you’re playboating in a kayak, in whitewater, you get wet. And when I was bumming my way around the West coast, I had no money. And my gear was shoddy. And before I knew it, I was deathly cold.
We reached the take-out and my speech was slurred. I couldn’t release my sprayskirt because my motor skills were gone. Ice had formed around my drytop. I said something silly to my friend that had nothing to do with running rivers: “I need to get my oil changed.”
Huh? And then it hit everyone in the group: I had hypothermia. And we were deep in the canyon with a mighty hike up to the car. Things didn’t look good.
Hypothermia kills. Get sweaty, riding out of bounds at your local resort, drop into a drainage you think you know, only to get lost, and hypothermia can be the Grim Reaper, threatening you at every turn as you try to find your way out. Here’s what it feels like as hypothermia kills you:
You didn’t bring an extra pair of clothes, your gear was shoddy. You didn’t pre-plan. Once your body is cold enough, you begin to shiver uncontrollably. Like, literally, uncontrollably. You can barely form half a sentence as your teeth chatter, your muscles start to ache as if you’re cramping—because you are. Your body tries desperately to produce heat. It starts to become an out-of-body experience quickly.
Then You Feel Hot:
Once your body temperature goes below 95 degrees that uncontrollable shaking suddenly stops. You feel warm, almost cozy, and the disorientation starts in earnest. You’re high as a mother*****. The body is working to maintain heat around your most important assets–the heart, brain, and lungs. Circulation in your arms and legs starts to go bye, bye. The heart rate is slow at this point, weak actually and the blood vessels widen. There are actually tales of climbers being found frozen to death with their clothes folded next to them after they became disoriented and felt hot. They weren’t warm. They were really, really cold.
Death Becomes You:
At this point, it’s curtains. If you haven’t found help by this time, you’re in serious trouble. The heart rate continues to slow until ultimately, it can no longer get oxygen to every part of the body. You go into a deep sleep (unconscious). You’re dying. The dreams are a trip but believe me, that’s not what you want.
Don’t Let it Happen:
Avoiding hypothermia is pretty much common sense: don’t get wet. When you do, be prepared with a change of clothes. Eat and sleep well. Don’t drink alcohol in survival conditions (it makes your blood vessels dilate and allows for greater loss of oxygen). Use freakin’ layers and understand what that means. As you get warm in the backcountry, remove layers to avoid sweating too much. Put them back on as needed, but avoid getting wet at all costs.
And rely on your friends. My boys grabbed my boat and helped me carry it out of the canyon. They helped me strip down and get dressed. Two things saved me: the hike out of the canyon brought my body temp up and the car was right where it needed to be when I reached the road. I was lucky hypothermia didn’t kill me.