Whether you’re in a survival situation or not, there are several precautions you should take when traveling the back country, especially during the winter months. The simplest but most important concept in wilderness travel is stay warm and dry. The reality is, hypothermia will creep up on you, and before you know it you’re in big trouble.
When you consider hundreds of Canadians die annually from exposure (some sources state thousands annually), it’s something that should be taken seriously. Males between the ages of 15-35 represent more than 80 per cent of all injuries in the back-country; this may be due to the testosterone goo that is lodged between our ears and prevent us from listening, learning or reading signs, especially those out-of-bounds signs.
Since there is already a glut of safety information out there for back-country travelers, I thought I would share my intimacy with exposure and the sneaky behavior of the beast.
It was a chilled November evening in 1979, the last night of a seven-day exercise in the mountains near Chilliwack. We had already lost a third of our party due to various sprains, exhaustion, and even one broken bone. The entire week had barely been above zero with freezing rain 24/7, accompanied by a stiff wind. I don’t think there’s a word out there for the misery we felt and shared.
On that evening it was my task as lead guide to take us into our bivouac, which we would reach near midnight. We were drenched to the bone, it seemed the entire week we were climbing ever higher into a stiffening wind, never descending or finding reasonably level ground. It was no different on that evening, but in hindsight I was numb, no feelings of pain or external discomfort, with a slight shiver, the signs of hypothermia creeping on as we marched onwards and upwards, captives of our pride.
Captain Williams had noticed that I had started to stumble, but in questioning me accepted that all was well. A short while later I stumbled head first into a puddle and made no effort to extract myself. Thankfully Capt. Williams hauled me out, we stopped for a short break, but again my pride would not allow me to see the signs and be hauled off the mountain.
I knew I was tired, but hypothermia never crossed my mind. I was convinced all was OK, and that I was only exhausted and a small break would allow me to complete my task. All the signs were there and increasing: shivering, loss of motor skills, and slowed reflexes.
Sitting in class, studying wilderness first aid and the signs we’re to look for not just in others but in ourselves, seem straightforward. But on that evening I learned that exposure blurs our recognizance skills, not allowing us to see the danger until it’s too late.
Everything after that break was relayed to me later. I have no memory of arriving at our bivouac, and upon reaching our destination I collapsed, hitting the cold ground I went into convulsions with my gear being spewed in every direction, and finally I fell into unconsciousness. I was flown off the mountain immediately.
I awoke two days later, covered in daisy-fresh sheets and a pillow wrapped comfortably around my head, with the soft glow of an evening light. To this day I cannot tell you why, but that hospital bed was the most comforting I’ve slept in to this day.
Cold shock and hypothermia came as an all-inclusive package, with pneumonia as a bonus. It took months to recover my strength and stamina. If it hadn’t been for the group I would have been another stat of the testosterone age group.
Lawrence Woodall is a North Island-based guide and outfitter who has spent much of his life in the outdoors.