Hypothermia – A First-Hand Perspective

It was an off-Reecer Creek meeting of the Reecer Creek Rod, Gun, Working Dog & Outdoor Think Tank Benevolent Society. The subject on the floor was our coming 2018-19 El Niño winter, and concerns about outdoor activity and hypothermia.

Forecasters are suggesting a fair amount of midwinter snow and/or rain along much of the coastal part of Washington, with strong suggestions of a relatively mild and dry winter for the rest of us. “So,” Homey mused, “this means hypothermia is not a concern for campouts this winter?” His question triggered flashbacks. “Well,” I smiled, “even a mild winter is still winter! Dress properly, pay attention to the weather, and use your brain. Hypothermia does not require freezing temperatures. I learned a critical lesson about hypothermia on a rainy, windy, 40 degree night. It was just this time in November, three decades ago – maybe the longest night of my life.”

My good friend Joe Zbylski had hunted at extreme elevations around the globe. Between us, we had more than 1,200 nights outdoors, with many in severe weather. As a physician and surgeon, Joe was an expert on hypothermia. As a meteorologist, I figured I was, too.

Mid-November, we headed into the Galiuro Mountains of southeastern Arizona after years of planning to hunt the little Coues whitetail, a beautiful desert cousin of the critters up north. (First scientifically described by US Army physician and naturalist Dr. Elliot Coues while at Fort Whipple, Arizona, 1865-66, “cows” is the proper pronunciation, but many call it “cooz.”) Two days in, we decided to move to a more remote location.

We drove up into a saddle between the two highest mesas in the area. We could reach remote country that hadn’t been hunted much, and scouted the country in opposite directions.  That afternoon, I took a Coues buck in a draw off the south mesa. We met at supper.

Joe was lusting after the country to the north, but it would require a spike camp. He decided to hunt south the next morning, and, if he found nothing, we’d pack up onto that northern mesa. I was all in – I really wanted him to find a buck.

Our weather had been picture perfect: sunny 60 and 70 degree days and crisp, starry nights. That morning, while Joe was south, I talked with three young Arizona hunters. One of them expressed concern about a “feeling” that a storm was coming. I looked around. A few clouds, but no evidence I could see for a storm and nothing on the radio. The kid was clearly wrong.

I carry a notebook and pen wherever I go. Following are the actual entries I made that night, holding a little Mag-Lite in my teeth.

“9:00PM.. I’m huddled in a WET down bag on top of Table Mtn. Raining off and on heavy w/wind I guess at 30-40 mph. 40+/- degrees. We packed up here this afternoon–took 2 1/2 hrs. Hard, steep climb–cliffs/rocks. Seemed like a good idea at the time. Who knows about these Nov desert storms?  Not me! Not cold–just wet (a little) and wishing I could sleep. Joe is snoring away. We just carried along a light rain fly & it ain’t much. Had a good supper. Did see two deer–one buck–when the weather broke for awhile at sunset. Otherwise it’s been foggy rainy and windy! Thinking about the kids.

“11:00PM. Water wicking into/onto my bag, all over my back. Made couple adjustments w/rain fly, but little help. Wind is so strong, can’t keep it away from my bag. Trying not to move because most of me is warm, if VERY uncomfortable. Right foot in a pool of water…feet OK–thanks God, for wool. Meditated again.

“11:38. Very uncomfortable–legs, butt ache terribly. What if I got rain gear from pack and walked back to truck? Could walk around and get out of wind? Would work? ..Can’t sleep, time crawling. How will I get through nite?

“12:25. Both feet soaked, not cold. Back and both shoulders/upper arms soaked–only cold on the TOP shoulder, exposed to rain fly still whipping around. Down side wet..but warm. All wool good. Still so cramped. Turned over–difficult, very squishy, more comfortable.

“1:18. Ask Joe how he’s doing–rain fly doesn’t sag him so much. Says Oh just grat! Off & on perods of uncontrolble shaking. Think I’ll walk back to truck. Walk around otside to wrm up a little? Bad idea, says. Wet & windy still. Joe hands me Hershy minute ago. Almonds even. Helps. Only forearms & shirt pockets dry. Must protect journal, pen, glasses. Don’t standing this til light.

“1:45 Oh God. Now I see. Had chance to hear the kid about storm. Really wanted to get up here…Joe to hunt this place. Two guys w/100s fall & winter nites! And we din’t take tent–just this damn water retarded rain fly. One little screwup. Not using intuition..trying to FORCE WX to be OK. Meditat agin. And agan.

“3:00 Somtimes lesons com HARD. very hard.”

Morning finally came. The fog dispersed, the sun was warm, the desert was beautiful.

Be careful out there, Homey. Hypothermia can sneak up on you. Every time I go out, I remember.

Written by Jim Huckabay. Posted in Uncategorized

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