The final stages of hypothermia are when all the really crazy shit goes down. Before entering a coma, a person who is freezing to death will often experience what is called “paradoxical undressing,” and then immediately afterward will perform what is known as “terminal burrowing.” The former is exactly what it sounds like; the muscles responsible for shunting blood to the core to preserve organ function begin to fail, and the sudden release of blood back to the extremities causes a burning sensation like a kind of hallucinatory hot flash, so the person (who is already disoriented and confused) strips off all of her clothes to try to cool down. This is when terminal burrowing sets in, wherein some ancient part of the brainstem is triggered, and the person behaves like our fluffier mammalian ancestors did in winter to prepare for hibernation: she crawls under a car or a shrub, or digs herself into a den of snow, in a last-ditch effort to get cozy. And then she dies.
Folks often wonder why a girl like me sought to spend her whole adult life training for the opportunity to conduct hands-on research in a place as indifferent and inhospitable as this one, a place where nothing macroscopic can survive on its own. It’s simple, really. To me, there is nowhere more extraterrestrial than here, and this was my chance to set foot on another planet. It’s like being on the moon, but since we’ve decided as a species for some reason to stop going there, this was the next best thing. The ground is always white, the sky is always black (at least in wintertime), and you can’t survive outside without a veritable space suit. I’ve even experienced a version of weightlessness out here in this unforgiving wind; I’m such a lightweight that my down parka and wind pants scoop up those thirty-five knots like a sail. I’ve been swept off my feet and hoisted aloft for ten yards before being repatriated to the snow, so I know what it is to be held captive by the sky.
The truth of the matter is that I came out here today with the explicit goal of never coming back. If I were being completely honest with myself, I’d admit that I didn’t nudge the handlebars one or two degrees, I yanked it a full-on right angle and throttled as hard as I could. The truth is I came out here to die, but now because of my little indiscretion and related paranoia, I’ll have to vanish as well. Fitting, I suppose.
Image: Stokes, Frank Wilbert. “Moonlight Gold–Head of Bowdoin Bay, Greenland 1894.” 1915. Chalk on paper. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.