The Strange Hush Of Freezing To Death

Withstanding bears, frostbite and potential madness, Brian Phillips recently tracked the Iditarod by land and air. At one point his plane, named “Nugget”, froze up on the ground during a visit to the Diomedes Islands, the border between Russian and US territory:

We were stranded out there for three hours. It was the first time I ever understood why freezing to death is sometimes described as peaceful or soothing or just like falling asleep, descriptions that had always Blizzard Blankets Xinjiang In Northwest Chinaseemed to hint at some unfathomable mind-transformation within the freezing person, some power extreme cold had to enchant the brain’s basic mechanisms of homeostasis. It didn’t feel violent, that was the thing. Even with the wind ripping past you. It was like certain parts of your body just accrued this strange hush. Like you were disappearing piece by piece. I thought I’d be warmer outside and walking around than inside Nugget, so I would sort of exaggeratedly move one limb at a time, my left arm or whatever, and while I was concentrating on my left arm my right leg would start to be erased.

More than affecting my sense perceptions, though, the cold seemed to affect the way I thought about my sense perceptions. I’d take my glove off to adjust a zipper and lose feeling in my hand almost immediately and instead of thinking Holy no I need to get my glove back on right this second I’d sort of pause and go My, how interesting that my hand feels as though it’s visibly translucent. Then my brain’s inbox would gently ding. PLEASE DON’T DIE.

A personal anecdote: the priest who gave me my first Holy Communion and Sacrament of Reconciliation, and whom I served as an altar boy, died a couple of years’ ago. He was walking home on a cold night and was discovered the next day dead on the street. He had died of hypothermia. He was one of the gentlest priests I ever knew – a quietly devout and simple fellow – and it seemed horrifying that this man died on a street, alone, perhaps after a fall. But it’s also a relief to think that freezing to death is not as painful and as wretched as one might imagine. One reason I have not given up the faith is because of the kind of humility and sincerity I saw in that first priest. Others were not so lucky. But we shouldn’t let evil obscure the great good so many priests do every day, in ways others will never know about, but that, bit by bit, begin to heal the broken world.

(Photo: A herdsman whose fingers were injured by frost bite lies in a hospital January 9, 2006 in Fuyun County of Altay Prefecture, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, northwest China. A blizzard that swept in from Siberia and plunging temperatures to as low as 43 degrees below zero centigrade forced the evacuation of almost 100,000 people and stranded a further 220,000 in Xinjiang, according to the National Disaster Reduction Centre. By China Photos/Getty Images)