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Backpacker Magazine – October 2013

Survival A to Z: Cold

A Q&A with Dr. Gordon Giesbrecht, a.k.a. "Dr. Popsicle."

Dr. Gordon Giesbrecht, a professor of thermophysiology at the University of Manitoba in Canada, has gone so far as to inject ice water straight into his veins. Hereís what heís learned.

BACKPACKER: Youíve repeatedly dunked yourself in near-freezing waterófor science. Can you describe what itís like for people who donít know?

GORDON GIESBRECHT: You normally gasp uncontrollably a couple of times and then hyperventilate for a minute or so. At first it feels cold, then painful, then numb.

BP: Sounds pleasant. What sorts of insights have you gained from all this teeth-chattering?

GG: Early on, we discovered the warming power of shivering. At rest, humans produce 100 watts of heat. Hypothermic humans can produce 500 to 600 watts. Thatís a third of a hair dryer.

BP: Whatís the most persistent misconception people have about cold exposure?

GG: People think they become hypothermic in cold water within minutes. In reality, it takes adults 30 to 60 minutes to become even mildly hypothermic. If you donít panic and just get your breathing under control, you are more likely to make good decisions to get out of the water and save your lifeóof course, thatís the hard part.

BP: So how do you do it?

GG: Donít panic. This minimizes the psychological aspect of hyperventilation. Mentally decide to slow your breathing down. Try to take deep, slow breaths and you will break the cycle of uncontrolled breathing and the consequent difficulty in controlling your limb movements.


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