Paul Andersen: Icy, sparkling, invigorating, beautiful COLD
For years I hadn’t felt real cold, not until I stepped out of the car last week at Camp Hale, the long-abandoned training grounds of the 10th Mountain Division near Leadville in a valley wide and blanketed in snow.
The temperature was below zero with a 20 mph wind, and the frigid air bit into my skin and penetrated my layers as if they were gauze. I felt the sudden realization that prolonged exposure to such frigidity could kill me.
Robert W. Service in his famous poem, “The Cremation of Sam McGee,” put it this way:
“Talk of your cold/
In the parka fold/
It stabbed like the driven nail/
If our eyes we’d close/
Our lashes froze/
And sometimes we could not see…”
The stabbing, driven nail at the historic train stop of Pando was hammered in by a wind chill of minus-20. The burning cold recalled to me the years I lived in Gunnison in the early ’70s when the temps dropped to 50-below as seen on the bank thermometer on Main Street.
My old VW bug wouldn’t start on those frosty, clear, still mornings. It barely turned over with a sort of moan. So, I walked the couple miles to classes wearing a ridiculously huge red down parka given to me one Christmas by my parents.
I remember opening the package and slipping on this enormous, enveloping monstrosity of a coat and looking like the Michelin Man. We all laughed, but I wasn’t laughing while walking to classes. I was appreciative of every puff of goose down that kept me warm in cold like I had never imagined.
On those especially cold mornings there was nary a breeze to stir the glittering air that was illuminated with the crystalline sparkles of diamond dust — all ambient moisture frozen in suspension. The weak sun taunted and beckoned me to the sunny side of the street.
That kind of cold rarely visits anymore, a casualty to climate change and the irreconcilable cost of cheap, easy mobility and cheap dirty energy. This cessation of real cold is a critical loss because deep, penetrating cold awakens a primal humility to seek shelter and a warming fire and to find appreciation for human vulnerability amid nature’s extremes.
This below-zero cold touches our origins as warm-blooded mammals that could freeze like popsicles if not properly clad, fed and sheltered. God forbid one would venture into such cold and fall into a creek or break through the ice on a lake.
I had stopped at Camp Hale to put on boots and skis, to track among the ghostly concrete foundations of barracks that once housed the mountain troops, and to see if I could not hear the whisper of commands, ribald songs and the laughter that cloaked the deadly deployments of the 86th Infantry Regiment and others who faced death in mountain garb.
After feeling the sting of the wind, I jumped back into the warm car and watched as flecks of snow whisked off tree limbs. And I thought about those thousands of young, fresh, eager mountain troops choking on coal smoke spewed from the heat and cook stoves required to keep them thawed, those men who prepared for heroic campaigns in the Aleutian Islands of Alaska and the Apennine Mountains and Po River Valley of Italy.
This same bitter cold battered the 10th ski troopers who hunkered down in flapping wall tents and braved the elements wearing thick, woolen pants and stiff canvas anoraks. These young men were tough and enduring and brave together as they sought the strength of the mountains to perform their specialized service as skiing, rock climbing warriors who had yet to face the crucibles of battle.
How soft we have become, we who shelter from the storms unless conditions suit our pleasures for powder skiing and hut trips, whatever recreational electives we pursue as people of the mountains who, like the troopers, cherish confrontations with elemental forces.
What I’m feeling is my Scandinavian blood thickening like 30-weight oil, my hemoglobin warmed with burning calories, recalling Viking forebears who took the wind and cold and embraced adversity with the courage of warm hearts.
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.