by Brian Laidlaw
I sit weekly with a little meditation group comprised of fellow writers, and last night we tried a guided meditation instead of our usual silent one. Someone looked on her phone and found a six-minute recording of a program called something like “Visualization for Calmness and Tranquility;’ she set the phone to low volume on the floor of her apartment, and we closed our eyes as a woman’s voice, whispering from the tiny speakers, told us to let the tension fall from our shoulders… pay attention to our breath as it entered our noses and throats… bring our awareness to the pressure of our sit-bones resting on our cushions…
It was a surprisingly effective, moving recitation. A few minutes in, the calm woman’s voice said, Picture yourself on a mountain. The highest mountain in the world…
I’m reading Chris Jones’ Climbing in North America, a classic overview of the history of mountaineering on this continent. One chapter describes the early attempts by climbers to ascend, for the first time, the north face of Mount Baring — a remote peak in the Northern Cascades — as follows:
“In 1951 Schoening and Richard Berge had established the route partway up [Mount Baring]. In spite of repeated attempts, on one of which Berge fell to his death, no one had been able to push the route higher.’
Like Nabokov’s famous parenthetical gloss of a character’s death (“Picnic, lightning’), Jones’ treatment of Berge’s demise is casual to the brink of absurdity. And yet it reveals something essential about the attitude with which individuals take up the climber’s mantle: the mountains are a manifestation of a kind of physical eternity, from whose slopes all mortals are destined, eventually, to fall.
The calm voice says, There is a warm breeze of calmness and peacefulness moving through your body as you sit on the top of the highest mountain in the world. You look up into a blue, perfectly cloudless sky, as the calmness radiates through your body… through the entire world…
Through a quirk of phrasing in Jones’ passage, it reads to me almost as though Berge made “repeated attempts’ at the north face, on one of which he died, and on other subsequent ones of which he was unable to push the route higher. Do you feel this grammatical ghost, like I do? Do you feel this eternity?
Climbing in North America was published in 1976. It’s a big square book full of black-and-white photographs that hoist my stomach into my sternum and make my palms sweat. In its pictures of monstrous peaks, cols of bone-white snow are slashed into by vertical, charcoal-black blades of shadowed granite. The peaks and saddles are often shrouded in bands of cloud, and loose snow coils skyward from their cornices, evincing howling updrafts from the glacial valleys below.
The account of a 1965 winter expedition on Denali (then Mount McKinley) describes the team coming down from the peak. The passage begins, “They were tired, and the descent in the dark would be treacherous. They decided to bivouac at the pass. The decision seemed reasonable, but it turned into a nightmare.’ The story goes on:
“They were awakened by a wind that threatened to rip away the parachute that covered them. The temperature was in the vicinity of —40 º F., and they estimated the wind at 100 miles per hour. The combined effect gave a wind chill temperature of around —150 º F… Their position was desperate… They wedged themselves between the rocks, but it was hopeless. During their battle with the wind they had exposed their hands and lost the use of their fingers.’
In the 2004 piece “Frozen Alive’ in Outside Magazine, Peter Stark writes,
“Were you a Norwegian fisherman or Inuit hunter, both of whom frequently work gloveless in the cold, your chilled hands would open their surface capillaries periodically to allow surges of warm blood to pass into them and maintain their flexibility. This phenomenon, known as the hunter’s response, can elevate a 35-degree skin temperature to 50 degrees within seven or eight minutes.
Other human adaptations to the cold are more mysterious. Tibetan Buddhist monks can raise the skin temperature of their hands and feet by 15 degrees through meditation. Australian aborigines, who once slept on the ground, unclothed, on near-freezing nights, would slip into a light hypothermic state, suppressing shivering until the rising sun rewarmed them.’
In the 1932 publication Magic and Mystery in Tibet, travel writer David-Neel describes the aforementioned Buddhist meditative practice in purely qualitative terms:
“The neophytes sit on the ground, cross-legged and naked. Sheets are dipped in icy water, each man wraps himself in one of them and must dry it on his body. As soon as the sheet has become dry, it is again dipped in the water and placed on the novice’s body to be dried as before. The operation goes on in that way until daybreak. Then he who as dried the largest number of sheets is declared the winner of the competition.’
I have read other accounts of the practice where the sheets are replaced by blankets made of yak fur; whether this is another legitimate variation of the practice, or merely a flourish of cultural embellishment, I am not sure. (It is also remarkable that, while this form of meditation is surely essential in practical terms for living in such a dire climate, in the instance above the neophytes were apparently using this skill purely for enjoyment and sport.)
Either way, it’s an arresting image: the monks sitting outdoors, in the freezing temperatures of the high Himalaya, using meditation to steam dry the wet blankets that have been piled upon them. H. Benson’s remarkable 1982 article in Nature quantifies what had previously been only a qualitative phenomenon. The report states,
“… it is conceivable that measurable body temperature changes accompany advanced meditative states. With the help of H.H. the Dalai Lama, we have investigated such a possibility on three practitioners of the advanced Tibetan Buddhist meditational practice known as g Tum-mo (heat) yoga living in Upper Dharmasala, India. We report here that in a study performed there in February 1981, we found that these subjects exhibited the capacity to increase the temperature of their fingers and toes by as much as 8.3 ºC [15 ºF].’
You already know this: when you’re freezing, your blood vessels constrict in your extremities — nonessential parts of your body — in order to retain extra heat for the vital organs in your core.
But in the final minutes before your death by hypothermia, as your peripheral blood vessels expend the last of their constrictive energy
they relax all at once allowing a sudden cascade of blood to the surface
The warmth of this onrush, in contrast to the frigid and frostbitten state of the tissue in your extremities only moments prior
leads you to perceive something like a wave of fire rippling across your skin…
The phenomenon can cause a behavior called “paradoxical undressing,’ whereby victims of extreme hypothermia, feeling as though they are burning alive, strip off their clothes because they feel desperate to cool down in the moments before their death. It is not uncommon for search parties to find such bodies burrowed into the snow, completely naked, with their garments strewn in heaps around them.
From a rather bleak survey-study of freezing deaths called “Paradoxical Undressing in Fatal Hypothermia,’ published in 1979 in The Journal of Forensic Science:
“It is concluded that paradoxical undressing might be explained by changes in peripheral vasoconstriction in the deeply hypothermic person. It represents the last effort of the victim and is followed almost immediately by unconsciousness and death.’
“The hunter’s response’ apparent in some Norwegian and Inuit subpopulations is a milder version of the same phenomenon; evolution or habituation have made it such that the vessels in these outdoorspeople’s hands open periodically to let warm blood flow through, rather than remaining constricted right up until the moment of a single, cataclysmic vasodilation.
The Tibetan practitioners of g Tum-mo have adapted a step further: whereas for the freezing victim the body’s vasodilation is totally uncontrolled, and for the hunters and fishermen its circulatory periodicity is controlled only subconsciously, these monks have, through a kind of radical mindfulness, hijacked what was once a reflex and turned it into a voluntary action. Nevertheless, on a physical level, the monks’ deliberate vasodilation closely resembles the involuntary one that happens right before the freezing victim’s death.
In transforming a potentially dangerous physical action into a beneficial one, and in doing so through a process of heightened attention, one might argue that the monk’s behavior bears a certain similarity to the mountaineer’s: both use a finely tuned practice of self-awareness not simply to thwart death, but to enrich life; both practitioners are experts who bring themselves to the edge of the known, the edge of the possible. Then, through deeply embodied focus, both make it sustainable — perhaps even safe — to dwell there.
For several days I’ve been sifting through mountaineering and outdoor literature for a seemingly self-contradictory type of document: a first-person account of freezing to death. You might think that an individual, having died, would struggle to find the means of documenting that experience in writing. But because of the preservative effect that deep cooling has on the body’s tissues, it is eerily common that people who are metabolically dead as a result of exposure to cold may be revived, with varying degrees of physical damage, by the gradual and controlled re-warming of their body.
Brian Phillips’ longform essay Out in the Great Alone tracks the unthinkably arduous Iditarod dogsled race, an event that takes place annually in the same Denali Wilderness where our four midcentury protagonists spent their agonizing nights in their ice cave. In Phillips’ case, his bush-plane becomes stuck deep in the Alaskan interior:
“We were stranded out there for three hours. It was the first time I ever understood why freezing to death is sometimes described as peaceful or soothing or just like falling asleep, descriptions that had always seemed to hint at some unfathomable mind-transformation within the freezing person, some power extreme cold had to enchant the brain’s basic mechanisms of homeostasis. It didn’t feel violent, that was the thing. Even with the wind ripping past you. It was like certain parts of your body just accrued this strange hush. Like you were disappearing piece by piece.’
It’s intriguing how Phillips’ account distances himself from himself with that second-person you narration. It reads less like memoir, more like a visualization…
[I can hear it now, in the calm woman’s voice]:
Even with the wind ripping past you,
certain parts of your body accrue this strange hush…
You are disappearing piece by piece…
One New Year’s Day, you are at the top of an unnamed peak in the Sierra Nevada, in the vicinity of Carson Pass. The wind is blowing due west, as it always seems to do on this particular peak, and you feel it obliterating all thoughts within your mind and all sensations within your body…
physically pushing them out of your frame and leaving you feeling like nothing but a conduit,
a hollow turbine….
lifting off you like the snow lifts off the cornice of the mountain…
Every time you breathe in, you feel thousands of miniature wolves running into your throat…
lungs… alveoli… bloodstream… extremities…
And every time you breathe out, the pack of wolves gathers back together in your mouth like a howl
rejoining the ever-westward flow of the air.
It seems that in the realm of the vertical pastoral, danger and calm don’t necessarily represent opposite ends of a spectrum. Instead, it’s when conditions are most difficult and dire that the climbers locate their deepest inner reserves of calm; it’s when the snow is thickest and the nights coldest that the meditators most clearly picture, inside of them, a roaring sun.
The climbers on Denali (then Mount McKinley) remained in their position for four days of unceasing windstorm, camped out in an icy snow-cave. Having lost the fuel for the stove, they had no way to melt water to drink; by the third and fourth days they were delirious… “lost in a private hell’… “in a listless, half-wakened state.’
Other than the sound of gale-force wind ripping across the ridgeline — a sound that I have heard on occasion, and to whose mind-annihilating volume I can personally attest — it is possible that the state of affairs in the ice cave, as the men in their delirium inched toward death by dehydration and exposure, was one of an impenetrable calmness, a world-enveloping peace.
An alternate, physical definition of calm appears in the Stark piece: At absolute zero, minus 459.67 degrees Fahrenheit, molecular motion ceases altogether.
Then the calm woman’s voice says something like: You empty out…
Brian Laidlaw is a poet-songwriter whose previous books include THE STUNTMAN (Milkweed Editions, 2015) and THE MIRRORMAKER (Milkweed Editions, 2018), each of which was released with a companion album of original music; a book-length erasure of John Muir called SUMMER ERR is also forthcoming from Mount Vision Press later this year. A PhD candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Denver, Brian continues to tour nationally as a folksinger, and moonlights – often literally – as a rock climber.