| Writings |

Braving the Bitter Cold

This is a submission for the Lainchan Web Festival, March 2024.

When winter approaches and the temperature drops far below freezing, the forest takes on a new grim expression. It is only a question of time before the snow piles up between the pines to the waist, and the cold makes the air as thin and harsh as on a mountain peak. Many authors and artists prefer to depict blizzards, storms, and calamitous weather, because it is dramatic and more readily engages the imagination, but I have always had a fascination for the deep unrelenting cold. The kind of cold which brings clear skies, bright crystalline snow, and a hair-raising silence. From indoors she seems deceptively peaceful and almost other-worldly. The snow covers the world and puts shimmering fragile ornaments on every branch. The ground is smoothed out; every jagged edge and ordinary feature of the world is hidden under a sinister monochrome blanket.

I like to cover myself in my heaviest winter coat, padded boots, and the thickest pair of gloves I can find and head outside. When you first step out of the door with all those clothes on you are already so winded and overheated from the process of getting dressed that you can't feel the cold, only a distinct stinging in any part of your skin exposed to the elements. Invariably, a few steps from the door, you will be trudging through snow up to your knees or sometimes even deeper. Every step feels like walking uphill, and constitutes its own herculean feat of resilience and willpower.

As you head further in between the towering white conifers, you are met with a dead world. The snow dampens all sound, such that the only thing you hear is your own breath and the blood pumping in your ears. Your other senses become heightened — not unlike being in complete darkness, except the snow reflects light and absorbs all sound instead, hence the queer effect. If you suppress your heavy breathing for a moment, you have a chance to experience the deepest silence that exists on this earth. You may on occasion see tracks in the snow, perhaps of a hare or even a moose, but no sound would ever betray their existence. It is as if they are hiding from the cold herself, even though their winter coats are more than sufficient for the temperature. Songbirds, squirrels, insects, the wind, even God himself seems absent. Only the sun dares disturb this frozen grave on its shallow arc across the sky, and within a few short hours it will have yielded to her as well.

Photo captured by me in early January.

Emerging from the woods, the sky opens up and alien vistas stretch for miles and miles around. The sky feels thinner somehow, as if you are no more than a protrusion on the surface of the earth, fully exposed to the violence of the cosmos. Because the air can hold no moisture, it rarely snows at temperatures below -30°C. Any amount of vapor will instantly begin to sublimate, covering everything within reach of your breath in a thin layer of frost. Your collar, your beard, the hairs inside your nostrils, and the hood of your jacket. You may be tempted to wipe it away at first, but not only would that be futile but also wasteful, because after a while you will notice that these layers of snow act as an excellent insulator.

The most insidious part is that while each little movement requires an extraordinary amount of effort, you cannot stop moving. Stand still listening to the silence for a while, and you will feel your extremities becoming stiff and sluggish. If you for any reason decide to remove your gloves, to double-check a map or get yourself something to eat, you are in a race against time. Not necessarily because of frostbite; you'll be smart enough to want to put your glove back on well before that happens on account of the burning pain, but if you keep your gloves off a few minutes past due you will simply be unable to put them back on at all. Your fingers will be permanently splayed open and so paralyzed that you will have to resort to jamming your open hand against your thigh in a desperate attempt to form it into a fist. Your only real option at that point is to warm your hand in your armpit and give up on your glove, which will eventually freeze and turn stiff like a board.

You really can only enjoy your time in her world as a tourist. The whole experience is predicated on the promise of a warm space to retreat to at the end of your expedition, like an ice bath with the promise of a heated sauna. When you finally step foot inside, you will slowly begin to notice your drenched back, cracked lips, and glowing face, and suddenly you will realize how exhausted and dehydrated you really are. I have seen a strong youthful man sitting beneath a naked birch; staring with empty eyes and occasionally shuddering, unresponsive to the world. He told me the lethargy creeps up on you silently, until the obvious course of action seems to be to sit down and take a nap. She whispers quietly in your ear, convincing you that the cold is emanating from deep inside your core.

The sun is setting, so you better keep moving. There is still a long way to go.