What we know for sure, however, is that the key steps of our evoluation took place on the arid plains of Africa, and that we are therefore adapted to life in the tropics. The human body has an immense capability to adapt to heat, but the 10.000 years we've spend in colder climates has not allowed us enough time to adapt similarly to cold.
Only human intellect, our ability to manufacture protective clothing, create fire, and other such measures, has allowed us to explore all corners of the globe, and undertake daring feats such as Mike Stroud and Sir Ranulph Fiennes' unassisted crossing of the last continent: Antarctica.
Yet, even with these measures its dangerous work, and our bodies are our own worst enemies in arctic climates. As I ran the Sugarloaf today, I saw the first signs of what happens to our bodies when they cool dramatically, so let us evaluate this experience and use it as a safeguard for future runs.
Let's look at what I did wrong first:
- I did not plan a backup plan with Conor if we lost sight of each other
- My trousers and pants were windproof but not waterproof causing rapid cooling of my outer skin as water conducts heat away from my body with alacrity
- I did not carry my mountain whistle, compass, map, or any other sort of emergency equipment
- I was carrying only ear-muffs not a true hat, meaning 90% of my body heat was free to escape through the air
- I did not carry even a minimal supply of food (energy bar etc.)
- I did not plan with sufficient backup clothing back in the car as I was planning on a sunny day (never assume anything in the mountains, the weather changes at a whim).
Then what I did right:
- My boots were perfect for the environment, heavy goretex with protective snout and ankles
- Had basic familiarity with the mountain, and made brief stops to keep Conor in sight
- I was in proper physical condition to keep running at a required intensity to keep warm for at least another hour under the circumstances
- I ran below normal speed, sacrificing speed for caution. A sprained ankle would have delayed my descent enough for hypothermia to set in. A more serious accident would have been life-threatening.
- I had a good supply of pure water as well as gatorade containing the vital electrolytes potassium and sodium
- My experience with trail and mountain running was more than adequate for a run of even this difficulty
- I was confident (SAS instructor John Wiseman points out that confidence is one of the greatest benefits in the wilds in his book SAS Survival Guide. Panick is the main killer in crisis situations).
The run was borderline reckless, but not irresponsible (especially as I later learned that Conor was watching me scramble to the summit and was well aware of my position, even though I had lost track of him).
In the car, I started to have shivers. This is actually a good thing, the shiver reflex was created during our time in Africa where temperatures would rarely drop beneath 10 degrees Celsius. To keep us warm in our sleep under these less than extreme conditions, the body activated a shiver reflex meant to stimulate muscle movement and thus generate heat.
If you are suffering from extreme cooling, shivers is a good sign (meaning you're not suffering from extreme cooling yet). This can be an annoyance (and indeed a danger) when close motor control is necessary (as when climbing), but is generally harmless.
Once extreme cooling sets in, a whole different set of symptoms set in, but I'll cover that in another post.
Afterthought - As I Sit Here
I have paid the prize for my miscalculations (deservedly so, there is no excuse for bad preparation) as I sit here this evening. My body is more drained than it should be after a 9k run in the mountains, I have a slight "runner's cough" from the cold air, my upper body feels like it has a minute fever (37 degrees Celsius), I have a slight headache, and my feet are colder than normal.
I have replenished myself very well during the day with food and nutritional supplements, as well as Echinacea to boost my production of white blood vessels (and combat the weakening of the immune system that invariably follows physical exertion). Even so, I estimate that there is at least a 50% change that I'll wake up tomorrow with a mild cold ("the sniffles").
On the plus side, if I don't get sick from this, I never will!