Hypothermia: The Chilling Truth

By Gerde Applethwaite

Shorter: T’is the season to feel the brunt of the cold weather on your weary bones. Here’s the quick low-down on Hypothermia.

I have been really cold on several occasions, of note are: once while surfing in Northern California’s 53 degree water while clad in a completely clapped-out rental wet suit, once in Amsterdam on Sint Niklaas Eve while wearing ridiculous shoes as I trudged through the snow on my way to a party (doing my best, quite unintentional, imitation of Hans Christian Anderson’s  The Little Match Girl) and a few times while on the motorcycle – most often while wet from a rainstorm. On all of those occasions I got so cold that I got the shakes and I couldn’t stop them for quite some time and I guess it is important to note that it was all user inflicted. I mean, had I taken the time to dress for the weather and the environment I could have avoided all of it.

Infants and seniors are more vulnerable to Hypothermia as are people with heart conditions and folks who are taking anti-depressants, anti-psychotics or sedatives. My intention here is to give you an overview of Hypothermia and hopefully inspire you to go researching on the intertoobz at your convenience (see the reference note at the bottom of this article.) I cannot give you credible medical advice but I can certainly steer you toward those who can. If you live in a cold climate or plan to spend any time in one you should really get to know the information and advice surrounding Hypothermia. Be advised too that it is possible to suffer from Hypothermia even if you are not resident in what is considered a cold climate. Seniors die in their homes every year because older people’s natural body temperature monitoring senses become less useful to them and they do not realize how cold they are – then the addled brain syndrome, so much a part of Hypothermia, sets in and damage or death follows.

History is littered with folks who have learned the Hypothermia lesson hard way. The most infamous of which is Napoleon Bonaparte who decided to go after the Russians. It didn’t fare well for Napoleon or his 500,000 troops. Various Polar explorers, prepared as they were, learned the hard lessons of Hypothermia as have many climbers and Sherpas on missions to summit Mt. Everest.

Napoleon smashed his way, in mid-1812, toward Russia (can you hear the Tchaikovsky cannons in the background) with the simple mission to convince Alexander the First not to support the Brit’s. by buying British goods through proxies. Seems like a small thing right, but Napoleon brought his half million with him to help with the coaxing. The Russians played an effectively brutal game of cat and mouse with Napoleon that extended the time line and turned out to be increasingly catastrophic for both sides. Bonaparte started out in Spring but the thing dragged out into November and the Russian winter.  Russians were forced by their leaders to flee their cities ahead of Napoleon’s advance and forced as well to leave no food or supplies behind them. By August Napoleon was near Smolensk and after a great deal of back and forth the Russians fled the city but not before destroying supplies that would be useful to Napoleon. This caught Napoleon and his gang by surprise and further diminished his capabilities as his re-supply lines were already under constant threat from raiding Cossacks.  – an army of 500,000 needs its supply lines. Soon one of the key elements in the Russian victory would come into play: Hypothermia. The French troops were not prepared for a Russian winter and tens of thousands died of the cold. By the time it was over Napoleon staggered homeward with just 27,000 fit troops and a cadre of wounded. The painting at the top of this post by Adolph Northen is the most famous of those that depict Napoleon’s ignominious retreat.

For an extraordinary documentary about one tragic attempt to summit Everest you can do no better than to watch the 2008 PBS piece by David Breashears entitled Storm Over Everest. If this documentary doesn’t make you want to go out and buy heated gear before your next cold weather ride then you have ice in your veins.

Hypothermia and Hyperthermia are two different things, they are opposites and some folks confuse one for the other. Hyperthermia is the state of having a fever (which can be caused by disease and/or environmental factors) while Hypothermia is a substantial drop in body temperature and that’s what i’m talking about here. There are 3 stages of Hypothermia (some say 4 stages and add a final stage called Profound Hypothermia): mild, moderate and severe. I will only speak to mild Hypothermia here.

Most of us will only experience mild Hypothermia but mild as it may be it is certainly enough to kill you. In mild Hypothermia your body temperature is in that range from just below your normal temp. down to 96 (some readings say 95) degrees Fahrenheit -  it only has to drop below 96 degrees Fahrenheit before you enter moderate Hypothermia. When you are in the mild zone your ability to use to your hands and feet in a coordinated manner diminishes and you will at some point start to shiver — most importantly your mental faculties are now no longer reliable. If you are out on your bike (adding to the potential complexity of the mix is the fact that its already a challenge to drive in rain or ice or snow) any one of these things can be fatal.

Generally you will be coldest first in your extremities, so hands and feet are the most likely candidates for Hypothermia damage as well as the exposed nose. It takes more effort to circulate the warm blood out to your hands and feet and as you get colder your body tries to keep the core warm in order to keep you alive — you will risk frost nip, then frostbite. You manufacture heat in your muscle tissue and this will include your heart and liver. You lose heat predominantly thorough your skin (90%) and the lungs – the other 10%. I was told some years back that you lose 25% of your body heat through your head – something about all of those capillaries and such in your scalp. It turns out not to be true (except in infants and their heads should always be protected in even moderately chilly weather.)  Adults, you lose the same amount through your head as through the rest of your outer wrapping.

Remember you also lose your ability to think clearly and that starts at level one. When you combine the loss of rationality with the diminishing control of your arms and legs then you are seriously courting a crash.  When I got cold on the bike I would often go in somewhere and get a cup of hot coffee. Coffee and alcohol dilate your blood vessels and send the instant sensation of warmth back to your hands and feet at the expense of your core. For a while you feel good again. The core sacrifices warm blood to warm the limbs through now dilated vessels and the body’s core thereby loses its ability to maintain its equilibrium. The new blood in your limbs is now re-chilled when you are re-exposed to the weather making you feel even colder than before you had the coffee or the alcohol. The stress of a body core now colder than it was before can lead to heart failure or stroke. The limbs cannot be rewarmed until the core can be maintained at a warm temperature. Let’s say you are not the one who has suffered from mild Hypothermia but its your pal Stan (I hope, for the sake of this example, that you do not actually have a pal named Stan but if so please accept my humble commiserations.) You rush over to Stan and you take charge. You immediately start to warm up his cold hands and feet – makes sense, right? Within minutes blood rushes back to his extremities, Stan develops an Arrhythmia that turns into a heart attack and before your eyes Stan dies. When the warming process begins it should start at the core. Did you know this? I did not. My first move would have been to warm up the cold hands and feet. There is much to learn. Please read the outside informational sources and do the homework – someone’s life could depend upon your knowledge and skill. Forewarned is forearmed.

I knew a guy with a great rat bike who took two of those gallon and a quarter semi-rectangular vegetable oil plastic jugs, cut them out and glued on foam yoga mat type material. He slid them over his handlebars and bent some bronze TIG wire into shape on the inside to keep the wind from pushing the jugs against his clutch and brake levers. Some pop rivets and some bending and voila – hand protection for next to no money. It worked a treat and was of course completely within the decorative theme of the bike. There is a company called Hippo-hands that make a nice looking professional version of the same idea. I think they are slowly phasing out the business now and although they still have merchandise for sale the inventory is thinning out. I have a pair of something similar but smaller that I use on both bikes: they have a sort of faux-fur lining inside. I forget who makes them. I have had them going on twenty years now and I still get cold on some rides. No electrics for me as yet and I don’t know why. I am really ready for heated gloves at a minimum. It is also time for me to start looking into heated body gear.  On a ride I will get really chilled and then swear to buy some heated gear right away and then somehow never get around to it. I think this may be the year.

We have a pretty decent selection of heated gear and their accompanying controllers. Take a look. Expose as little of your body to the wind as possible. Wear a Balaclava or a necklacava. – we have those too. We also have great winter gloves. Make sure you are prepared before you set out on your next cold weather ride. Your choice of clothing is important. Synthetics and wool fabrics will hold their heat better when wet than will cotton. You can still perspire underneath all of those layers of clothing even on a cold day. If you wear clothing that wicks out the moisture away from your skin then you will have less heat transference from your body into your clothing. Polypropylene and polyester fabrics are moisture wicking.

Note: I used 4 sources for the medical information contained herein: The Mayo Clinic website, The NIH website, The Princeton University website and Wikipedia. I recommend you go to all of them in order to get more detail than my cursory overview provides. You will find treatment and diagnosis advice and you will also find notes on prevention.

Of course, if you have any questions about our heated gear, gloves or ancillary clothing do not hesitate to give us a call. I wish you all good riding in 2014.

Gerde Applethwaite

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