The universally fatal core temperature for the human body is unknown.
In a series of barbaric experiments performed at the Nazi concentration camps of Dachau, doctors concluded that people generally perish at core temperatures of around 25°C. The lowest recorded temperature observed in a surviving adult was almost half that. Miraculous as that may be, it often takes far less.
One of Europe’s worst weather events occurred in 1964 when three competitive walkers succumbed to hypothermia during an annual event. Temperatures averaged around 7°C.
What we know about the science of freezing is that it is impossible to predict how it will happen – or when it will kill. For all the effort put into studying it, the cold has remained an enigma: indiscriminate in its effects, yet particularly merciless to both the unaware and the bold.
It starts before the car even leaves my sight. Struggling with the zipper of my jacket, I remove my gloves to get a more precise grip. The frigid air bites into the exposed flesh, and in a few short seconds my fingers begin to numb. The freezing metal burns to touch. Already my body has started to instinctually contract the capillaries within my extremities, redirecting blood flow away from my skin and towards my core. Various cultures throughout history have developed natural responses to such a phenomenon, however I am not so experienced. I forget the sensation before I’ve even replaced my gloves.
It’s been ten minutes since I left my car smothered in the snow, and I’ve spent most of the time hunched over in a steep climb up the mountain road. My body temperature has risen significantly since exiting the vehicle. Sweat trickles slowly down my torso, soaking through my undershirt. Bent double, I tire of the constant switchbacks and instead decide to cut up through the forested mountainside.
I tread slowly through deep snowfall, passing under naked branches that rattle like windchimes overhead. Tonight’s moon gently peaks over the jutting ridges before me, casting harsh shadows past the towering pines and bathing the ground in its silvery glow. A strong breeze creates a cacophony of noise above, punctuated by my regular, heaving breaths.
My temperature reaches its peak: 38°C.
I reach deep within my pocket, searching for the phone that I’ve been using as a watch. Fumbling through gloved fingers, it falls into the snow beneath me.
The cold is not an actual thing in-and-of-itself, but rather an absence. Temperature is the measure of the kinetic energy within matter, or essentially how fast particles vibrate. However, this is not what makes you feel cold. Universally, thermal energy flows from substances of higher temperatures to ones of lower, leeching the heat from it in the process. The lowest natural temperature ever recorded on Earth was measured at a Soviet research station in Antarctica: -89.2°C. The average temperature of the universe is approximately -270°C. Absolute zero, the absence of energy, is -273°C.
Guided by only pale moonlight, I stop to search the ground, sifting my gloved fingers through the ice. I’m sure it must have fallen around here, somewhere. I don’t notice that the hike that earlier warmed me up is now working against me, my sweat-soaked undershirt clinging firmly to my torso. My capillaries, dilated by the exercise, transfer the abundant heat of my core through to the skin, dispelling readily through the wet clothing. I can feel the frigid air pressing in.
I soon reach 37°C. This is the body’s typical temperature. It is not long before I drop to 36°C.
Hunched over, the muscles in my shoulders and neck begin to tighten in what is known as pre-shivering muscle tone. The chill which had once clamped to my skin has now punctured deeper, and as I attempt to search ahead for the road a dull and familiar ache begins to spread throughout my hands and feet. The pain gets worse, but despite this I continue to dig my way through the snow. I find my phone. The time reads ten past seven; I was meant to be at a friend’s house for dinner. It started over an hour ago.
Hypothermia starts at around 35°C.
My hands tremble violently. It’s an involuntary condition, the rapid contraction of muscles to generate heat. There is a limit to its effectiveness. It is only now that I realise the mistake I’ve made. I turn back.
After crouching in one place for so long, walking, even downhill, has become far more challenging. My legs feel stiff, having tightened so severely that they are unable to contract as easily as they once had. Once I coax them to do so, the trouble becomes getting them to relax. I throw myself from pine to pine, manoeuvring my way between the pockets of shadow beneath their canopies. I’m unable to appreciate the forest, nor the light. I don’t entertain thoughts of sauna, warm dinner, or wine. All I think of as I reach the crest of a small outcrop is the heated car waiting for me somewhere in the night. That is perhaps why, as I begin to speed up downhill, I fail to notice the buried log below. Stumbling over it, the ground snaps at me as I tumble down the steep hill. I roll for an age before coming to a harsh stop.
I lie still. The forest is quieter here, save for the blood pumping in my ears. My hat’s missing, as well as a glove. I force my eyes open, and a blur of muted colours flow inwards, brighter than they were previously. As I shift, I can feel ice packed inside my jacket, scratching my back as water trickles down the base of my neck. Scrambling to stand up, I quickly collapse once more, dizzy. I sink deeper into the snow.
There’s a generalisation in survival teachings referred to as the rule of threes. Normally, it states that one can survive three weeks without food, three days without water, and three hours in a harsh environment. It’s an overly simplified adage, with the last rule being rather loose. Most passengers of the Titanic died within half an hour of being submerged. An Icelandic fisherman survived after six.
My head is responsible for approximately fifty percent of the heat which drains away. A sharp pain grows in my ears, the frost piercing through so intensely that I somehow manage to search around for my hat, mashing it back on. It’s tiring. So much so that I decide not to look for the glove, though I know I should. I’m too exhausted to sense the urgency, deciding to rest.
For every degree below 35°C, the brain’s metabolic rate decreases by roughly ten percent.
At 34°C, amnesia begins to take hold.
I don’t know how much time has passed. My phone can still tell me, but the numbers slip from my mind the second I look away. I know I should be scared. I know I should be angry at myself. But these emotions remain stray thoughts which ebb at the edge of my consciousness, near yet undefined, much like the hand which lies naked in the snow before me.
At some point I find myself on my back. I drop my head back, the soft crunch of snow in my ear. At this temperature, my core body temperature will drop a degree roughly every hour, bleeding into the soft powder.
At 33°C, I become apathetic.
At 32°C, I enter a stupor.
This is moderate hypothermia. My body has given up on shivering. If my oxygen consumption were to be measured, it would have fallen by over a quarter. My kidneys, however, are at max efficiency as they struggle to process the amount of fluid which has shifted towards my core. I feel the need to urinate. That is all I feel.
At 31°C I would fail to recognise my friends if they came to rescue me.
At 30°C my heart becomes arrhythmic, pumping at two-thirds efficiency. My oxygen levels are at their lowest, with my cognition not far behind.
It’s almost midnight.
There are bells jingling nearby.
I lift my head from the blanket of snow, recognising the sound to be the cabin’s welcome bells. I’d gotten closer than I thought. Any attempts to stand are met quickly with another collapse. That’s fine. Crawling works.
After hours of dragging myself, or perhaps a few minutes, I still believe that the cabin is just beyond this clump of pines. Visual hallucinations are often not as elaborate as the auditory ones. I’m exhausted. I decide to rest my head once more.
I could list off more facts about freezing to death, but it wouldn’t matter. I didn’t know any of these things. I never will.
I don’t experience any epiphany. It doesn’t all click into place. In a series of misunderstandings, like a nightmare careening into terror, I’ve led myself to this moment. Every decision stripped away some ingenious piece of technology, developed for the express purpose of making us better than we are. In doing so, I reduced myself to little more than the tropical primate I was always meant to be, destined to survive in only the narrow sunlit strips of land around the equator. But I travelled beyond that.
In the infinite expanse of the universe, heat is as miraculous and ephemeral as we are. It exists only as matter does, of which we overestimate both. Though it is the former that defines the latter. In a universe with an average temperature of -270°C, it is heat that is little, and the cold that is large. From the immense darkness, a chill wells up within me.
It is not death.
You are not dead until you are warm and dead – as rare as that may be.
Author: Mitchell Gant is a second-year Creative Writing and Education student who is hoping a publication will finally constitute the title of ‘writer’.
Artist: Zoe Hawker is a multi-disciplinary student artist working with sculpture, installation, and painting. Her self-reflexive practice aims to decode the absurdities of our current culture.
Editors: Bea Warren and Euri Glenn