The feeling of frostbite is terrible. It's stealthy like a sunburn in that you don't sense it until the damage is already advanced. Between -10 and -20 is the danger range. Any colder than that and I completely cover up. Any warmer and things get cold but don't freeze.
I'll be riding along and feel an uncomfortable sting on a patch of exposed skin. After several minutes of ignoring the discomfort there is a moment where the zing pinches and bites deeper into the tissue. Flesh freezes with astounding speed. It's like a gerbil bite. You know how they will nibble your finger playfully, pressing their teeth gently on your skin first, and then BAM, the teeth clamp shut and the sharp square incisors sink into your skin. That's what it's like, a bunch of tiny gerbils that all bite at the same time.
This morning it was -30 and I knew the gerbils would have their teeth bared so I covered up. On my ride in to work I didn't have any troubles with my skin but my front shifter did freeze up and I had to mash up the hill to campus in the biggest chainring. I had some business on lower campus (had to drop off the newly finished two person pedal-powered generator). I dropped off the gear, chatted with Frank about his almost ripe baby and walked back outside. The ride from lower campus to my office only takes three minutes.
"I don't need my balaclava it's only three minutes and it has warmed up to -15." I stepped onto the bike, my face warm and moist from my involuntary sprint up the hill. Moist skin is to frostbite what a dude with a chihuahua and a GoPro camera on a surfboard is to Jaws. Bad news for my chihuahua. Even well below zero, water wont crystalize into ice until it finds a nucleation particle--an ice seed. Moisture on skin, especially perspiration with all its tasty compounds provides plenty of seeds.
In front of the museum the gerbils sunk their teeth. "Ouch!" I chirped and grabbed my nose. Even through my thick mountaineering mitten I could feel the stiffness. I pulled my hand out of the mitten and sure enough, the tip of my nose and the tops of my nostrils were stiff like the corner of a plastic milk jug. Hand to my face I hammered to the top of the hill (still in my darn highest gear) and ran into the office. Not sure if my nose had just felt stiff or if it was really frozen I grabbed my little frostbite prevention mirror (after my first frostbite incident Rachel brought in a mirror to the office so I could make sure my headgear was giving proper coverage before heading out). The skin initially looked fine but as the minutes went by, the nose turned pink and puffy. I do wonder why, even though the whole top of the nose was solid when I touched it, I only got a blister at the very tip.
On the subject of frostbite mirrors and frostbite viewing in general, I've only seen my own still-frozen frostbite once. Last spring, when I walked in the door after riding up the hill Rachel screamed,
"Your nose your nose your nose! Quick, fix it!" I jumped into the bathroom and caught just a glimpse of the fast shrinking pure white spot on my nose.
Last night we saw a homeless-looking man standing next to his bike outside of Fred Meyers. He had a dirty down coat, jeans, and tennis shoes. It was -27. He was wearing plastic grocery bags as a second layer of socks--one from Fred Meyers and one Walmart. I have a place to go, money to buy protective clothing, and a frostbite mirror, because I have connections and resources. He doesn't and now his tissues are vulnerable to ice crystals. None of his friends are on LinkedIn. The thought of our system leaving his tissues exposed to the deadly air made me want to break down and cry. Ingrid and I went to get him a deli burrito but he was gone when we got back. For him it wasn't just his nose and neck that the wind could rip up but his thighs, toes, and fingers. I wanted to give him all my clothes. One December, when I was a missionary in northern France, my sister Maren sent me a pair of soft leather gloves. I gave them to a man on the street who said he'd give them back in the spring for me to keep till the next fall. My sister is incredibly giving-fiercely tender.
As we did our shopping I found myself singing Bob Dylan's "Only a Hobo" as a sort of prayer. The link is to a Slovenian music site (there weren't any versions on Youtube).