Greg Ley was deep in the Rocky Mountains, training as an outdoor guide, when his group encountered tragedy. What happened next forever changed his beliefs about the importance of humans to the wilderness.
Hypo • thermia
Greek. Deficient heat
Nearly 1500 people will die from hypothermia this year in the U.S. It’s the #4 cause of death in the wilderness—after falling, drowning, and heart attacks.
It happens to newbies and experts alike. And it’s 100% preventable.
This guide, featuring HumaNature host Caroline Ballard, will show you the signs of hypothermia and how to treat it.
Caroline is out for a day hike. Her body temperature is a healthy 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit.
It was sunny when she left, so Caroline didn’t bring a rain jacket. But in the mountains, rainstorms can happen with little warning. Caroline gets caught in the rain. Her heart pumps faster, circulating warm blood when muscles are active, so her body starts shivering. Caroline doesn’t know that the most efficient way to keep warm is to move. She could run or do jumping jacks. But she stays still. Her extremities—her fingers, toes, and nose—are starting to hurt, and then go numb, as her warm blood retreats into her core to protect her organs. These are symptoms of mild hypothermia. Caroline needs to get dry and warm now, before it gets worse.
It keeps raining. Caroline is slipping into severe hypothermia. She’s stumbling and tripping. She can’t hold onto things with her hands. Her speech is becoming slurred.
As she gets colder and more severely hypothermic, Caroline’s personality changes. She becomes belligerent and makes poor decisions. She doesn’t feel cold or hypothermic anymore. She’s considering heading into the wilderness, rather than to the trailhead only half a mile away. She’s thinking there must be cabins and people in the wilderness.
Drowsiness overtakes Caroline. She sits down against a tree. She’s very tired. She has a weak, slow pulse. She’s only barely conscious. She is in extreme danger. Farther down the trail, two backpackers are headed back to the trailhead and spot Caroline.
The backpackers have first aid training and recognize that Caroline is severely hypothermic and needs immediate help. Their first task is to get her out of the rain causing her hypothermia. Anna sets up a tent for Caroline and has enough cell phone service to call for help. She knows they need medical backup. Micah starts the stove to heat up water. Meanwhile, they make sure they stay warm and dry, so they don’t become patients, too.
They get Caroline out of her wet clothes and gently pat her dry. They don’t rub or massage her—that could lead to cardiovascular problems. The goal is to get her heart to come up slowly to a normal rate, rather than quickly.
Caroline is wrapped in the hypothermia burrito wrap, with warm (not hot) water bottles tucked into her armpits, groin, and, if there are enough, placed along her torso.
By the time medics arrive, Caroline is warmer. Micah and Anna have given her a warm non-alcoholic drink. (Even though alcohol can make you feel warmer, it actually can make a patient more hypothermic because it interferes with the body’s natural reflexes, like keeping a stable core temperature.) Caroline is sitting up in a sleeping bag. She’ll get checked at the hospital, and she’ll be okay.
Photos and text by Erin Jones
Layout by Anna Rader
Models: Caroline Ballard, Micah Schweizer, and Anna Rader
The Center for Disease Control, Backpacker Magazine, American Alpine Institute
Heliograph by Chris Zabriskie is licensed under a Attribution License.
The Theatrical Poster for Poltergeist III by Chris Zabriskie is licensed under a Attribution License.
Cinematic Orchestra—Exit Music (Radiohead)
William Ackerman—Bricklayer’s Beautiful Daughter
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