Winter Hurts. The trick is not minding
By Shaun Roundy
Written for the Utah Valley Monitor in 2006
Way back in junior high, a friend asked me this question: â€œIs it colder in the mountains, or in winter?
I didn’t know. I thought the question could not be answered, just like “Do you take the bus to school, or your lunch?” I was wrong. It can. I discovered the answer earlier this evening.
“We have to ride,” Jared said on the phone. Jared and I belong to a type of outdoor adventure/service organization that launches nearly a hundred spontaneous outings per year. If someone sends a message to hike Timp at 11 p.m., at least 15 of us will show up within half an hour. If the message directs us to head to Bridal Veil Falls in February, 20 of us hop in our trucks and leave within minutes. If it’s Utah Lake on wave runners and boats, you’re likely to find over 30 of us there, even in November.
The organization is the Utah County Sheriff Search and Rescue team, consisting of over 40 volunteers who are always on call and expected to attend at least one-third of all emergencies the team is called to.
Change of Season
Winter weather officially arrived a few weeks ago and dumped enough white stuff to pave the mountain roads with snow, which meant we had to be ready. We had to make sure the snowmobiles were in proper running order before we needed them, so half a dozen of us headed up Spanish Fork Canyon after work to test them out.
Lucky for us, the temperatures never dipped very far below zero degrees Fahrenheit, as long as you didn’t factor in the 60 mph wind chill. Lucky for me, the electric handlebar warmers kept my hands from going completely numb and maintained a steady state of chill bains – the part where it feels like a hundred needles are poking every nerve ending in your fingertips.
Most lucky of all, a hundred cold days in the mountains have taught me something best explained in the classic 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia. Lawrence lets a match burn all the way down to his finger tips. When another soldier tries to do the same, it burns him and he asks what the trick is. “The trick,” explains Lawrence, “is not minding that it hurts.”
I don’t pretend to be any kind of “Lawrence of Utah,” but I quit noticing cold finger tips years ago. They’re part of the experience and better than warm fingertips kept indoors until March.
Lucky or Not
If we’re lucky, no one will get lost or dangerously cold or hurt or killed in the backcountry this winter. No one will get stuck in deep powder without water or matches or dry layers of clothing or extra layers to survive an overnight stay or a cell phone or radio to call for help. No one will get buried by an avalanche while hiking for fresh powder. No one will crash their plane into the mountainside in thick clouds. No one will break their leg telemarking through heavy powder or their back jumping their snowmobile off cliffs. No one will lose fingers or toes or the tip of their nose to sharp ice crystals forming beneath their skin.
If we’re unlucky and someone does manage to get hurt or cold or lost or stuck, we’ll show up to help out; and this year, we’ll do it better than ever.
Thanks to generous donations from Wing Enterprises and other local companies, SAR was able to purchase a snow ambulance this fall. Itâ€™s really nothing more than a glorified snowmobile trailer rigged specifically for transporting accident victims, but it could spell the difference between life and death should weather prevent helicopter access to a serious backcountry accident. It protects the victim from the elements and softens many of the bumps along the trail. It won’t tow through deep powder, but will transport far more comfortably across the miles of trail where it could be put to use.
Winter tends to be a slower season for rescue work, perhaps because it’s cold and most people tend to stay indoors. Perhaps because the cold is expected and people go into it prepared. Perhaps because snow cushions falls and limits how far most people can travel from the car. Perhaps because those who recreate in the snow usually understand concepts like cotton – including jeans – being the “killer cloth” sucking heat away from your body when wet; the utility of dressing in layers – and removing some to avoid sweating and subsequent dangerously wet clothing; and the importance of going prepared – with extra clothing, food, water, fire starters, whistle, cell phones and other essentials.
When a winter rescue is needed, however, it’s often serious – ice climbers falling 60 feet to the rock and ice below, skiers and boarders buried by avalanches, airplanes crashing through the ice of Utah Lake, and lost or injured people far away from help in a harsh environment – like tonight.
The tip of my nose was exposed between my goggles and balaclava for less than half a mile, but I know it will not recover. It will feel raw for days, develop a dark tan, and then the top layer of skin will peel away like a sunburn.
But I don’t really mind. It’s all part of the winter package deal and better than a warm nose kept indoors until March.
“Is it colder in the mountains or in winter?” The correct answer is “Both.”