-96F Below Zero
Updated: Feb 16
A few years ago, I was pinned down in a horrific blizzard and decided to call a friend. How are the dogs in the -96°F windchill?” A friend asked me on the satellite phone.
“Heck, they’re fine. Humans are the wimps out here. I wish I were as tough as those dogs,” I replied.
When you think about it, humans are as vulnerable as babies in cold weather unless we cover our naked bodies with multiple layers of fleece and caribou skin boots, goose-down parkas, wool hats, scarves, and mitts. Living in extreme cold temperatures is a deadly business, but the human body is a remarkable creation.
I’ll admit, 35 years ago, it was tough for me to handle -40°F. I remember wearing heavily insulated mukluks, coveralls, and parkas with large beaver skin mitts the size of baseball mitts. I hadn’t dressed like that in a long time, except I wore a parka for a while when it was -72°F windchill last year.
Now, -40°F feels mild. Maybe it’s not ideal weather for wearing shorts and a t-shirt, but relatively speaking, it’s not too bad. Nowadays, I’m comfortable with fleece jackets and light insulated coveralls and gloves, although I still wear heavy caribou mukluks most of the time. They’re just as comfortable as any temperature, warm or cold.
Over the past four decades, I have acclimated to the arctic environment, and I’m sure there are some genetics involved that helps the acclimation process, but if I can acclimate, so should the dogs. My point is that since the Alaskan malamute roots are from the Arctic, a malamute living in, let’s say, Arizona can acclimate to the arctic environment as well. So, if you think your malamute is a couch potato or cream puff sissy, think again. I bet he or she would become as comfortable in the Arctic as a polar bear, given a chance.
Now, for those folks that do not know what it feels like to live, sleep, camp, and work in blistering cold weather, let me give you a peek into the frozen world of an Arctic winter. First, if you’ve ever watched my dogs in cold weather, their energy increases tenfold, and the same with me. Your energy rises the colder it gets outside, and I believe it’s more of a survival instinct than anything else. The faster and harder you work, the warmer you are.
After you awake in the morning and crawl out of the tent to meet the new frozen day, you feel the cold slap you in the face like a steel plate. Nonetheless, you march outside to check on your furry friends, which are toasty warm and snuggled up tight and conserving energy. But they’re glad to bust out of their warms beds to meet you with smiles and wagging tails.
You will be surprised how your lungs feel when you take that first deep, invigorating breath of -65°F air. It’s the cleanest air on earth. If you are not a runner or are not into cardiovascular exercises, you will most likely cough as you suck in the cold air. And if you exert yourself, run, ski, or snowshoe, you might cough like you have the flu. But don’t worry; this is normal for folks that aren’t in shape. What happens is that the cold air expands in your lungs and stretches your capillary, and you aren’t freezing your lungs. That is just an old untrue tale. I mean, if you could freeze your lungs, I’d have done it years ago, as well as every living creature and human being in the Arctic, including the Inuit.
Many folks will undoubtedly get frostbite in those temperatures when they step outside their tent. So, you might feel like bees are stinging your nose and cheeks. This stinging feeling, my friend, is frostbite. Small blotches on your face are turning white while the skin is crystallizing. If you do not warm the frozen areas immediately by placing the palm of your hand on the icy patches, they will eventually blister and peel, and some may scar a little. It’s nothing to worry about; at least you’re still alive, and the dogs are doing fine. Luckily, my facial skin has acclimated, so I don’t wear any face covering whatsoever. The only time I pull my hood up is when it’s really windy. But becoming acclimated over 40 years hasn’t been a painless experience. To say the least.
While feeding the happy-go-lucky, howling dogs, you’ll notice everything is seemingly louder than usual. Like your steps in the dry snow, the dogs rustling about, and your breath as it vaporizes when it hits the cold air.
Your eyelashes will occasionally freeze together so that you might walk around with one eye open and the other frozen shut. Again, this is normal, don’t blink.
Now, you are occupied thawing your frostbitten face, prying your eyelids open, stomping your foot to get the blood flowing to your frozen big toe, and cussing, all the while trying to feed the dogs. Then, a glimpse of sunshine crests the mountain peak. You throw back your hood to absorb the five minutes of winter sun before it falls again behind the mountain, only to get attacked by those “bees” on your cheeks. You’re at the mercy of Mother Nature, and there’s no escape. Then, a hint of envy comes over you. If only you were an Alaskan malamute. But you’re not.
Now, you pack your bags and prepare to hit the trail. You must grit your teeth, work fast, and get through it. Then, in 30-40 years of traveling in the frozen Arctic, you will begin to feel somewhat comfortable at -96°F.