The original plan on this Valentine’s Day was to pen a paean to the cold.
According to the National Weather Service in Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city had an average temperature of 6.2 degrees during January, 11 degrees colder than normal, the eighth coldest January on record and the 14th coldest month on record.
“You’re still skiing?” was the most common question I heard during the month. The question was said in such a way that each time I heard “Are you insane?” instead.
The original intent of this column was to not only proudly proclaim my sanity, but my love for the cold.
I love the accountability. Wear the wrong gear, don’t cover vulnerable skin or poorly plan hydration and fuel and pay a painful price.
Alex Honnold, known for climbing massive rock walls, said he likes climbing without ropes because every move must be clean and precise due to the consequences of failure. I’ll never free solo, in fact I doubt I’ll ever climb a rock wall, so stinging pain in my hands up to my elbows is the closest I’ll get to conditions requiring precision.
I love the experience. Cold is stillness, peace and pin-pricked silence. Fairy-dust hoarfrost. Slow, soft sunsets and mountains that, a friend notes, somehow look faker the colder it gets. High fidelity eagles’ wings cutting the air. Ski trails with few, or no, tracks.
In addition to that beauty, I also love that cold is intensely internal. I’ll admit it. I meditate. I put on masks that restrict my breathing for workouts year-round. I often wonder why I do these things, until I’m trying to stay calm while skiing and breathing through a ski mask at minus 10.
On Jan. 31, my relationship with the cold hit the rocks. I skied all the loops at Tsalteshi Trails, totaling 16 miles, in the morning. The combination of the squeaky, dry snow and exercising at temps a few ticks above zero left me exhausted. Disillusioned, even.
I had a long weekend of work ahead, including two outdoor events where my fingers would need to function for a few hours to write notes and take photos — Kenai vs. Tri-Valley hockey and the Ski for Women.
My one-month frosty fling was officially over. A new column idea was needed.
Then an odd thing happened twice, fortunate because I was too beaten down by the cold to learn the first time.
At the hockey game, I was dreading the postgame interviews. The body is usually hoarding blood at the core after two hours outside. When bare hands are pulled out for writing, the stinging starts quickly. I interviewed both coaches, feeling no feeling slowly creeping into my fingers.
Then I got into a brief but engaging conversation with Kenai coach Scott Shelden about the team’s prospects at the state tournament. It wasn’t until later that I realized I didn’t think about my precious fingers once during the state discussion, even as my fingers stayed out of my pockets.
A similar thing happened at Ski for Women, where costumed competitors were greeted by a scouring wind that plunged windchill well below zero. Again, I shuddered at the thought of post-race interviews, but everybody was happily chatting away — some visibly shivering — and I joined in the amicable and charged scene, forgetting about my dainty digits.
Why does social interaction make fingers feel better?
The last 10 years, I’ve learned our brain is wired for survival, not performance. When it comes to things like pain and endurance, the brain is firmly in control.
Pain does not necessarily correlate with tissue health, perception of fatigue doesn’t necessarily correlate with how much the body really has to give. It’s common for the brain to sound the alarm early because it wants out of an uncomfortable situation as quickly as possible.
After my interview experiences that weekend, I’m beginning to wonder if cold is similar to pain and endurance. Make no mistake, extreme cold is dangerous, but our body also is brilliant in dealing with it, when given the chance.
Watch a YouTube video by Canadian physiologist Dr. Gordon Giesbrecht, where he falls through the lake ice and then gives a 15-minute tutorial from the water on what to do in that situation, and one can’t help but wonder how much we overreact to the first tingling of the extremities.
One of the interviews at Ski for Women was with Patty Moran. I asked if she was surprised at how many skiers had come out in bone-chilling wind.
“Yes and no,” she said.
Yes if this were a normal, solo ski day. No because great cause and community cuts through the cold.
So in the spirit of Valentine’s Day, my advice the next time extreme cold threatens to keep you inside on a beautiful day? Couple up.