by Stephen Jabaut
It was a morning like any other.
Just your typical Upstate New York polar vortex bringing the air temperature somewhere well below zero. It was however, a gorgeous day with blue skies and green pines and there was fresh snow on the ground. I decided to go for a jaunt on cross country skis through our family's backwoods out to the lake for some crisp air and exercise. Because it was so cold, I layered up. I put on some Wool Knee Socks with long underwear and topped with a wool sweater, jacket and cap to keep me cozy as I began to traverse the woodland trail. The property I grew up on in Northern New York extends into the Adirondack Park, which is 6 million acres of public and private land. The public portion is entirely open for recreation by the people. I made my way through the frozen swamp that leads to the brook where I could really get moving on the skis. I passed by old fallen evergreens and immense beaver dams until I made it to the frozen brook. Lucky for me there were snowmobile tracks making a groomed trail to making classic skiing a breeze. When I made it to the mouth of the winding estuary, I was feeling toasty from the work out and took a moment to enjoy the vista of the expansive mountain lake before me. Summer homes, long abandoned since the coming of the cold, dotted the shores of the Dunham's Bay as I entered Lake George.
I was 100 feet from shore when I heard a noise, look down and saw black water where white ice once was holding me. I immediately knew that I was going in. I was able to catch myself just below arm level and keep my head from going under water. The undercurrents of Lake George had prevented the ice from freezing as thick as it had in the estuary and it could not support my weight. Every time I tried to pull myself from the freezing waters, the ice broke beneath my body.
Ok, Breathe, Focus, What do you do?
I knew I had to lose my skis and poles so I slid them far away from me across the ice. By the time I had one pole, two poles, and my left ski off, my fingers had lost all dexterity and it was looking like my last ski would be staying on. This meant that no matter how I distributed my weight on the ice, it would be nearly impossible to pull myself out without getting to shore. I spotted the nearest dock, and in what felt like an eternity did a series of pushups out of the water to break a path to shore. Each time pulling myself from the water, feeling my muscles become more fatigued and useless, and each time breaking through submerging and becoming colder. But I had to breathe, I had to keep it together. Lose it and you're dead. By the time I made it to the dock, the right side of my body was almost completely numb. The left side retained a bit of energy because I had a free leg to kick and tread water. Using the last (and I'm talking last) bit of strength in my body, I slung my deadened right arm around the dock post and leveraged my left upwards and somehow managed to pull most of my body out of the water. It took some calm maneuvering to free my right leg, still bound to the ski, out of the hole from which I came. And I ripped the whole boot off my foot as soon as I did.
So here I am, standing with one boot on, on an abandoned dock with no one around for miles.
I am out of the water but I am not out of the woods. I ran up to house to which the dock belonged and did my best to kick down the glass door on their back porch with my ski boot. They must have had some beastly installation because my kicks did not even make a dent. I looked around and saw some distance away another cottage, and made my way. I recognized that my time was running out. That the body can only handle so much, and soon if I could not get warm, or get help, my organ systems might begin to fail. Lucky for me, this house was not as nice as the first out and I punched through their window on my first try, cutting my hand wide open in the process. I looked for a stove (the gas was off), I looked for a shower to run hot water (the pipes were frozen), and I even found a fire place that was miraculously stuffed with dry wood and newspapers (but unfortunately my fingers were to frozen to work the lighter to ignite said fire). Maybe there was a blanket in the house. There were all of these plastic bins around the summer cottage. I tried to open them, but again, dead fingers, so I began to smash them open. (In the freezing cold, everything shatters). And of course, each and every bin that I destroyed was filled with beautiful pillows and it was not until that last bin that I found a large blanket to wrap myself in.
OK, now what?This is where I sat down and began to lose hope. I have no way of reintroducing heat to my body. I had a vague idea of where I was, but no letters of address to be found, and my phone was soaked through so how would I even be able to call out... and that's when I saw it. Jammed under a desk, piled on some dusty phone books was a little piece of crap phone that looked like it came out of a 1970s office space. This was it. Life or Death. I picked up the phone. Dial Tone. I called 911, and even though the phone was not in service, you can always call in an emergency. Always. Oddly enough the man on the other end of the line was a good friend of mine's father. He kept asking about how I used to play football with Bryan in High School to keep my mind off of what was going on as my temperature continued to drop. The EMTs found me shivering violently on the phone with Mr. Fidd, wrapped in a white quilt, and covered in my own blood. They put me on one of those bright orange gurneys and I distinctly remember how clear blue the sky was, and how tall the trees were. It was very apparent that this was a serious situation, and they shredded the clothes from my body and put me in a sort of incubator suit with heat pads on my fingers and toes. Even after making it to the hospital and being put in warm blankets with hot air coming in, I did not stop shivering for several hours, but it looked like I was going to be OK. My vitals were all stable and my extremities had the proper blood flow. The doctor came in and spoke with me, and told me that I was stupid for skiing alone in conditions like that, but very smart for figuring out how to survive. I had never really taken Wool vs. Cotton into consideration before. It was pretty much all the same to me. But this doctor let me know:
"Wool keeps you warm even when it gets wet. If you were wearing cotton, it would have frozen and then you would have had sheets of ice stuck to your body. The wool helped save your life."
I ended up losing all sensation in my hands for several months, but considering how it could have gone, I count myself as very lucky to have chosen wool that day, and continue to wear wool today. If it saved my life, there is a chance it could save someone else's too.
- Stephen Jabaut