Deep cold demands caution

Posted Dec. 11, 2008, at 5:48 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 13, 2011, at 10:37 a.m.

Sometimes — silly as it may sound — you just forget how cold it is here at the South Pole. Once you have adjusted to the subzero temperatures and become accustomed to working at 40 below zero, the caution you had when you were still struggling to cope with the cold may slip.

Last week I ran outside to check in a cargo box. I was outdoors for less than two minutes when I absentmindedly went to pull the cap off my pen with my teeth. I almost pulled my own tongue out — I had forgotten about the metal clip on my pen cap.

Right. Don’t do that.

My real reminder not to be careless came several days later, when I got superficial frostbite on my fingers. I was refueling a loader at the very end of my shift when it happened. Tired, and thinking that the task would be short, I left my thick mittens in the cab, opting instead to wear my thinner glove-liners. But when a routine pump malfunction left me standing outside holding the metal nozzle for far longer than I expected to, I lost sensation in all of the fingers on my right hand.

Frostbite is marked first by numbness. When you don’t feel anything, it’s easy not to realize that you’re damaging your skin. It’s only when the frozen skin thaws out that it begins to really hurt. As I stood on the loader tracks, fuel nozzle in my numb hand, I thought: OK, I can’t feel my hand, but I’m sure it’s not that bad yet. I’ll count to 10, and the tank will be full, and I can go inside. OK … I’ll count to 10 again, and the tank will be full. Between poor judgment and fatigue, by the time I got the pump fixed my right hand felt like a block of wood. I banged my left fist against my right hand’s fingers to make my numb hand let go of the fuel nozzle.

Once inside the shelter of the warm fuels shack, I recognized the hurt I had done to my fingers. I was grateful for the privacy of the small building as I painfully regained sensation in my hands, yelling out loud and waving my arms in the air in an attempt to speed up the recirculation of blood to my fingertips.

With frostbite, your skin gets cold enough that the water in your flesh freezes. These frozen crystals inside your skin are sharp, cutting at the cells around them. One temptation when warming frostbitten skin is to bang it against something, or to clap your hands to try to regain sensation. This damages the skin further. It’s best to rewarm skin slowly, with motion and warm air, then later by running frostbit areas under lukewarm water.

My frostbite was mild and superficial, similar to a second-degree burn — looking at my hands carefully, I saw none of the trademark black blistering. Yet when I awoke the next day, they were still painful and numb. It looked like I had grabbed a stove.

Now, after a week, my fingers are slowly healing. Because it was the ends of my fingers that were affected, I still could do most of my work, especially with gloves on. But little things — putting in a hair elastic, tying my boots, reaching into my pocket for my lip balm, typing an e-mail — elicited a hiss. To my embarrassment, a friend had to cut up my food that first night.

Full frostbite is not common, but it does happen. People speak of “South Pole tattoos”— marks on the sides of your cheeks from a gap between gaiter and goggles. I’ve seen people come in with black raccoon marks around their eyes, where the skin around their goggles was exposed.

For the most part, though, severe cold injuries are easy enough to avoid. You just can’t get careless.

It’s funny — refueling a loader is a simple task, one that I continue to do every day — nothing particularly special or dangerous. With minus 40 degrees feeling more comfortable to me, it’s easy to slip up and make mistakes. Now, almost healed, the skin on my fingertips is puffy and white, with fresh, healthy skin waiting below it. My frostbite was mild — but now my fingers are triply prone to getting frostbite again.

It’s a reminder to me to use common sense. Antarctic common sense, that is.

After all, this is the South Pole. It’s cold here.

Meg Adams, who grew up in Holden and graduated from John Bapst Memorial High School in Bangor and Vassar College in New York, shares her experiences with readers each Friday. For more about her adventures, go to the BDN Web site: bangordailynews.com or e-mail her at madams@bangordailynews.net.

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