Falling off the heat ladder

Or ... Daniel Boone never dug a snow cave

  • Randy Udall

 

A modern snowmobile is more powerful than any machine that existed on the planet 200 years ago. Today's snowmobiles go far and fast. In an hour you can be 20 miles from the nearest road, high-marking a snowy, corniced ridge.

But if the engine breaks or you run out of gas, how quickly the tables can turn. One minute you are omnipotent, devouring space, living like a god. In the next you are frightened, drowning in silence, shivering like a dog.

The Inuit understood cold, and how to survive it. For centuries, they lived on Arctic shores, heating their igloos with seal oil. If there was no seal oil, they ate their meat raw. If there was no meat, they conserved heat with the most ingenious clothing ever invented. In contrast, we modern people have become dangerously cavalier about this thing we call winter, perhaps because we live inside a civilization that is one big bonfire.

Loren Eiseley once wrote that man's long adventure with knowledge has been "a climb up the heat ladder. The creature that crept furred through the glitter of blue glacial nights, now lives surrounded by the hiss of steam and the roar of engines ... and he is himself a flame, a great roaring furnace."

Energy consumption in the U.S. is approximately 1 million British Thermal Units per person per day, nearly twice what it is in Europe or Japan. That means we each use the equivalent of 100 pounds of coal, or eight gallons of gasoline, or one lightning bolt's worth of energy per day. With energy so abundant, our physical survival rarely depends on saving it. But winter sometimes introduces a new calculus, challenging us to think more deeply about energy conservation.

In the Rockies, winter is the big dog, the main event, and this year it returned with a vengeance. Mix deep snow and icy cold, spice with hubris, and you've created a potentially deadly stew for the unlucky. This year, the newspapers ran an avalanche of such stories: Two kids get out of a car at Colorado's Wolf Creek Ski Area, ride the chair lift to the top, duck a boundary rope, and are never seen again. A Utah couple photographing wild horses gets stuck in a snowdrift and vanishes from the Verizon map. An ER doc and his nurse fiancee go missing at Taos. Three snowmobilers disappear north of Vail.

Stranded in the snow, we face a thermal IQ test, our own personal reality show. There are only twelve rungs on the heat ladder. At 98.6 degrees F we are sentient; at 86 degrees, we are dead. "Stay calm, stay put, stay dry, don't sweat, dig a snow cave," the experts advise.

Great advice - but entirely counterintuitive. Stay put? Yeah, right. Panic says to flee. Wallowing through a snowdrift is sweatier than hot yoga. Dig a snow cave? If cold is the threat, isn't snow the enemy? The thought of finding shelter in the belly of the beast - tunneling in like a bear or a weasel - seems almost un-American. I bet Daniel Boone never dug a snow cave.

Short of energy, the American bias is not to conserve energy but to find something else to burn: Witness the current natural gas boom in Wyoming and Colorado. But what a blizzard teaches is that conserving heat is the key to survival. A snow shovel, not fire-starter, is the means of salvation.

Maybe we Americans are better at saving energy than we think. The Utah couple spent nine days and nights in their Dodge Dakota, practicing radical energy conservation, using the engine sparingly to stay warm. When they were out of gas and down to one granola bar, they fashioned a pair of snowshoes out of the seat cushions (something they recalled seeing on TV), and began walking. At night they huddled under trees, using carburetor cleaner to start campfires. Three days later a snowplow driver found them, in good shape. Their relatives said it was a miracle. But they weren't saved by divine intervention; they were saved by their heat sense.

As for the other lost adventurers, an exhaustive search failed to find the two missing snowboarders at Wolf Creek Ski Area, and they are presumed dead. The three missing snowmobilers north of Vail had a saw and a shovel. After three days, a Black Hawk helicopter rescued two of them. They were found near treeline, incoherent with cold, halfway down the heat ladder. Their friend had died earlier of hypothermia. The Taos ER doc and his bride-to-be were lost in a whiteout, but they dug a snow cave, lining it with pine branches. For three nights they shivered, which is how life keeps death at bay. When the storm finally broke, a Black Hawk rescued them.

Emerging energy realities - declining oil supplies, climate change - suggest that we Americans will need to save energy with a vengeance in the decades ahead. So perhaps it's good for us to spend time outside in the cold. If you go, be prepared. The fundamentals of wintersurvival have not changed in a thousand years, but technology has. Lost in a blizzard, stranded near treeline without a shovel, you might have one final lifeline: Open the cell phone and hope you have service. If you do, you can SOS the sheriff, text 911.

Thumbs stiff, night falling, what might you type?

"The gods are stranded. The apes are freezing. Send new chariots, por favor."

Randy Udall lives in Carbondale, Colorado. For 13 years, he directed the Community Office for Resource Efficiency, a nonprofit promoting energy efficiency and renewable energy in the Roaring Fork Valley.

High Country News Classifieds
  • GRAND CANYON DIRECTOR
    The Grand Canyon director, with the Grand Canyon manager, conservation director, and other staff, envisions, prioritizes, and implements strategies for the Grand Canyon Trust's work...
  • ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a part-time Administrative Assistant to support the organization's general operations. This includes phone and email communications, office correspondence and...
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • ONE WILL: THREE WIVES
    by Edith Tarbescu. "One Will: Three Wives" is packed with a large array of interesting suspects, all of whom could be a murderer ... a...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR, SALAZAR CENTER FOR NORTH AMERICAN CONSERVATION
    The Program Director will oversee the programmatic initiatives of The Salazar Center, working closely with the Center's Director and staff to engage the world's leading...
  • WILDEARTH GUARDIANS - WILD PLACES PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Salary Range: $70,000-$80,000. Location: Denver, CO, Portland, OR, Seattle, WA, Missoula, MT or potentially elsewhere for the right person. Application Review: on a rolling basis....
  • RIVER EDUCATOR/GUIDE + TRIP LEADER
    Position Description: Full-time seasonal positions (mid-March through October) Organizational Background: Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a 10 year old nonprofit organization fostering community stewardship of...
  • BOOKKEEPER/ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT
    Position Description: Part-time, year-round bookkeeping and administration position (12 - 16 hours/week) $16 - $18/hour DOE Organizational Background: Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a 10...
  • LAND STEWARD
    San Isabel Land Protection Trust seeks a full-time Land Steward to manage and oversee its conservation easement monitoring and stewardship program for 42,437 acres in...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Ventana Wilderness Alliance is seeking an experienced forward-facing public land conservation leader to serve as its Executive Director. The mission of the Ventana Wilderness Alliance...
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    The Quivira Coalition (www.quiviracoaltion.org) is a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education,...
  • GRANT WRITER
    "We all love this place we call Montana. We believe that land and water and air are not ours to despoil, but ours to steward...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    The Development Director is responsible for organizing and launching a coherent set of development activities to build support for the Natural History Institute's programs and...
  • WILDLIFE PROJECT COORDINATOR
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF or Federation) is America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 53 state/territorial affiliates and more...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Cinnabar Foundation helps protect and conserve water, wildlife and wild lands in Montana and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem by supporting organizations and people who...
  • TRUSTEE AND PHILANTHROPY RELATIONS MANGER,
    Come experience Work You Can Believe In! The Nature Conservancy in Alaska is seeking a Trustee and Philanthropy Relations Manager. This position is critical to...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR AT FRIENDS OF CEDAR MESA
    -The Land, History, and People of the Bears Ears Region- The Bears Ears and Cedar Mesa region is one of the most beautiful, complex, diverse,...
  • CONSERVATION SPECIALIST
    Position will remain open until January 31, 2021 Join Our Team! The New Mexico Land Conservancy (NMLC) is a non-profit land trust organization dedicated to...
  • OLIVERBRANCH CONSULTING
    Non-Profit Management Professional specializing in Transitional Leadership, Strategic Collaborations, Communications and Grant Management/Writing.
  • GREAT VIEWS, SMALL FOOTPRINT
    Close to town but with a secluded feel, this eco-friendly home includes solar panels, a graywater reuse system, tankless hot water, solar tubes, and rainwater...