I've always been fascinated by the idea of traveling to strange places. This is odd given that the most exotic place I've been in 34 years is…England. Travel is the exclusive province of the rich, unless going to Orlando is one's idea of "travel." But I digress.

Since I read a Time-Life book about Robert Falcon Scott and the race for the South Pole as a child, going to Antarctica (which anyone with a spare $15,000 can do!) has been #1 on my list. Despite the fact that it is summer in the Southern hemisphere, the current temperature is -50 F (-46 C) at Amundsen-Scott right now. This is fascinating to me and I want to experience it even though it is likely horrifying because that is so cold my brain can't even comprehend what it would feel like. I've experienced the other extreme (120 F days in Arizona, or, even worse, 110 F days in places where humidity is a thing) and I did not find it to be that shocking. Yes, it was incredibly hot, but I've always lived in places where 100 F days happen annually and, frankly, 110-120 isn't that much more extreme.

In terms of cold, however, I don't think I've experienced anything colder than about -10 F. People have a tendency to wildly exaggerate how cold it is, especially in the Midwest where wind chills (an unreliable measure of…anything, really) are reported alongside temperatures. The fact that Tom Skilling says it "feels like" -35 F does not imply that the temperature actually got that low. When the South Pole says -50, they mean it.

What does that feel like? Is it painful? Does one end up with ice-filled nostrils? The best account I've ever read of the experience is in Going to Extremes by Nick Middleton, a very solid travel writer who decided to go to the hottest, coldest, wettest, and driest places on Earth. It turns out that the coldest inhabited place is the godforsaken town of Oymyakon, Siberia, which once recorded a temperature of -90 F (-67 C). Vostok Station, Antarctica once recorded a staggering -129 F, but as it is hardly occupied the author discounts it. His narrative about the conditions in the town (and the habits of its 472 residents) is light reading and thoroughly enjoyable. Turns out they drink a lot of vodka to "keep warm."

It's probably ludicrous to want to travel long distances to suffer, but I still want to experience something like this once before I die…which might be very soon in those temperatures.

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51 thoughts on “NPF: FROZEN IN TIME”

  • For those of us who grow up in warm climes, cold is hell. Even 32 degree is 30 degrees too cold. Although modern American life implies very little time in the cold on a regular day, it's still way too much.

  • I probably agree with or am at least willing to entertain 90% of what I've read on here, but the idea that travel is the exclusive province of the rich is not one of them. My lower-middle-class self has been in and out of the US for most of the past couple of years.

    Agreed, though, on the point of inconceivable cold. I've never even spent more than a week or so at a time with snow. Something like -90 is beyond reckoning.

  • A few summers ago, I met an astronomer astronomer who had recently spent the winter (southern hemisphere winter) at Amundsen-Scott doing mm-wave something or other. Now, I can't actually vouch for this, but she was very insistent they had a ritual they called "300 degrees at the pole." When it gets below -100F, the less sane people go sit in a 200F sauna then go run around the pole naked. Allegedly this is possible without severe frost bite due to the insulating layer of steam and doing it very quickly (and you have to do it naked – clothes would freeze to your skin). Sounds possible considering I've seen people exploit something like that to gargle liquid nitrogen.

  • A friend of mine wintered down there and is member of the 150s. 150C diff between the sauna and the outdoor temps.

    On one mission their snowcat broke down and had hike back. In order to prevent frostbite you do these giant swings to force the blood into your fingers or toes. Then you sit on the ice and cry because the pain is excruciating. Didn't matter how "tough" you thought you were, you just cried. He'd have thought he was being a weenie if it weren't for the fact an exSpringbok was sitting crying w him.

  • Not that it's extreme, but I'd **much**rather be in cold weather than warm. More clothes is always an option. Less clothes has a limit.

    Right here right now, it's -8C, which is lovely.

    Travel: check out and then search the charters and budget airlines. There are reasonably inexpensive ways to get to Europe. At the moment, New York – London costs about 800 dollars on Finnair, and you can couch surf for free for your lodgings. Or, if you'd rather pay your way, try airbnb.

  • I like the idea of tourism based around *feeling* something you just can't *feel* locally. (Sorry to hit the emphasis so *hard.*) As opposed to, that is, seeing something you can't see locally. Or tasting something you can't–I could go on, but we're all familiar with the standard array of bodily senses. I think most people travel visually–imagining the sights they'll see when they get to [fill in the blank as you choose, even though you and everyone else always think of Paris]. I suppose some people who follow the Michelin guide or "do" wine country are traveling via taste. And I also suppose, very loosely, that someone who follows a band on tour is traveling aurally (though let's not kid ourselves, that's mostly about the drugs.)

    Traveling to feel is probably the best reason to do so, since unlike the other senses, it really cannot be adequately approximated. (Though I suppose that would also be true for those who travel to smell, but…I've just tried imagining such a person, and ew. No. I'm not going down that path.)

  • I've actually been surprised at how much travel I can do for cheap. I put away $100 a month and throw in any tax returns and bonuses I get, and that's enough for about one good trip a year if you stick to it and you don't mind hostels, street food, and the cheapest transportation available. Maybe not Antarctica, but I bet you could get to Russia or the Atacama Desert pretty cheap.

  • I've been in -40 degrees F on my one and only ice climbing trip. And you can probably guess why it was the only one. Most of the time it was spent thinking various variations of "it's cold" and every swear word I knew. Combined with trying to scale a sheet of ice and a bit of wind, it didn't meet any definition of fun I'll ever accept.

  • I've spent many hours outside in -40c temperatures, and it's perfectly enjoyable if the weather is otherwise nice (sunny and no wind), and you are dressed for it. If you want to experience being uncomfortably cold, fill your bathtub with icewater and then lie in it for five minutes.

  • Ed, I think you should start a kickstarter. You can give your frozen boogers to people who kick in $100 for your trip. $50 contributions get a postcard with penguins on it.

  • I read once of a "30-30-30" rule for antarctic life: at 30 below zero in a 30 mph wind, exposed flesh freezes in 30 seconds. If you ever get there, you can test it out and then blog about it, typing with the remaining stumps of your fingers.

  • c u n d gulag says:

    In 1995, I was an Adjunct Professor and chaperoned my college's once in a decade student trip to Moscow in early January.
    Everyone I knew told me that only an idiot or a lunatic would want to go to Moscow in January.

    We got there, and it wasn't that bad at all!

    It snowed lightly on "Little Christmas," and the temperature for the two weeks we were there was in the 30-40 degree range in the daytime – yes, very unusual for Moscow.
    We were staying at Lamumba University, and they had CNN International via satellite in the cafeteria, and as we ate our meals, I watched three major blizzards hit the East Coast of America, and snow-swamp a foot to 3 feet of snow – *EACH* – on cities north of DC and Baltimore.

    I told a Russian Professor I'd met about everyone telling me about how crazy I was to want to come to Russian in mid-winter, and he suggested that I go to GUM, the largest department store, and get eveyone who said that to me a child's little plastic shovel. I told him that was a great idea, but that I'd probably get questioned at customs when I got back.

    If Napoleon had been in Moscow in weather like that, Russians would all be speaking French.
    And if Hitler had tried to conquer Russia in a winter like that – Ach! Mein GOTT!!!

    So, I got lucky!

    Besides – hot… cold…
    It's all relative.
    Mark Twain once said, "The coldest winter I ever saw was the summer I spent in San Francisco."

  • Russian weather is extremely unpredictable. This last winter, for example, was extremely warm. No significant snow in Moscow until sometime in December, and if I remember correctly it all melted rather quickly. January was a different story- tons of snow though it was not cold. Now in 2011-12 it was very different. The temperature stayed pretty high until the end of January, and then the serious winter cold set in. And this didn't end until something like April that year. When I say serious cold I'm talking -30C, which means that when you breathe the air burns your throat. Exposed skin burns too That's how you can estimate the temperature without a thermometer.

    This unpredictable weather can cause serious problems sometimes, like in my second Russian winter when I went to visit Volgograd(formerly, and perhaps again in the future- Stalingrad). Moscow's winter had been warm enough to wear a very light winter hat, a thin leather jacket, and no gloves. Volgograd's temperature was significantly lower, to say the least. I had to keep my hat's tiny ear flaps down at all times, and my hands had to remain in my pockets as much as possible. If they were out for more than 30 seconds they started burning. To make matters worse, I ventured out to see the sights of Stalingrad without having eaten breakfast, foolishly believing that there would be cafes or restaurants in the areas I was visiting. In short I got a taste of what the Germans must have felt.

  • Oooooh, thank you for the nice, cool thoughts! it's barely 7 am, yet my fragiile flower of a co-worker has the heat in the office cranked up to 80 and is sitting with a heater on at her desk (by the way, I'm the one with the problem, so I am told when I complain). The outside air temperature is 30 degrees, the indoor air temp is up at 80 and by lunch time my clothes are sticking to me and my socks are a sodden swamp in my shoes. Then we go hike the length of two football fields in 30-degree weather to go home. And management wonders why everyone is sick…

  • c u n d gulag says:

    My Mother's family is from Stalingrad, and I heard about how brutally bad the winter can be, and how beautiful the summer and fall were.

    My Mom was 10 when her family left with the Germans as they retreated, because my Grandfather, who left the Red Army plant to take care of his family during the battle because my Grandmother was pregnant, was considered a traitor, and was sentenced to death in-absentia.
    They heard that from a co-worker of his who risked his life finding the family to tell them that.

    The fact that by Grandmother is" halb-Deutsch" allowed the family some marginally better treatment than other displaced Russians trailing the retreating German Army.
    They all left with the Germans because they knew that the Soviet's would execute any Russians they found who hadn't stuck around to fight street-to-street, or had been wounded – or, the Soviets would send them to Siberia, which was, essentially, the same thing as being shot, only it's a slower and colder death. Sure, many people survived trips to GULag's in Siberia – but only if Stalin didn't demand that they die for their "sins" against the Motherland.

    I won't bore everyyone with all of the stories, but after I, as a 1st generation American, heard the story (and countless others, countless times – and STILL DO!) about how, during the raging battle for over the city, my Grandmother had to seive the water that was in the shell-hole outside of Stalingrad that they were hiding in through her "babushka," to strain out body parts from the deceased former occupants of it, so the family could drink some of that rancid, fetid, water. Or the one about how during a break in the battle my Mom's older cousin had his pecker shot off by a German sniper when he left the crater-hole to take a leak (and LIVED!) – I was constanly reminded that, no matter how badly things were going in MY life, nothing could match THEIR horror stories.

    What did it matter that I got cut from the HS Baseball team in the last cut, or that the girl I wanted to take to the HS Prom had already agreed to go with someone else?
    "Eh, what is THAT in comparison?"

    I'm sure that it's the same problem that every 1st generation American faces:
    No matter HOW BAD you think your problems are, they tell you, 'Well, at least you're not drinking water that was seived in a shell-creater, and you're not very likely to have your pecker shot off by a German sniper – so, suck it up!'

    People who aren't 1st generation don't understand how fecked-up it is that no matter what obstacles or disappointments you may have in your life, they're trivialized – because you can alway drink fresh water from the kitchen tap, and your pecker is still attached when you go to pee in the bathroom.

    Or, whatever…
    Every immigrant family has its horror stories.
    The immigrant ALWAYS get in the last word over their children and grandchildren.
    And who's to say they shouldn't?

  • I agree with Stephen, you don't have to be rich to travel. You do have to do more work, more research and put up with more delay and discomfort to travel without money, but it can be done and plenty of people do it. And most places are more interesting when you do them on the cheap. The Marriotts and Hiltons of the world are all the same, the low cost lodgings are endlessly diverse.

  • I've been to Antarctica, and I have to say I don't recall being abysmally cold there – I've been colder in Alaska and Seattle (must be something about the expectation that it is just f**king cold and you're more prepared for it). It is more memorable for its pristine beauty and wonderful, absolute silence. Completely worthwhile trip.

    I also have to dispute the theory that travel is only for the rich. True, our fellow passengers included a member from a well-known rock bank, as well as doctors and attorneys, but my husband and I grew up in poverty (he had some small fortune with a computer consulting business in the 90's, but our current portfolio could hardly compare with most one-percenters – and I use the term "portfolio" loosely here), and we were also among a marijuana farm grower from Cali and a teacher/firefighter couple. I think the ability to travel to extreme locations such as Antarctica has a lot more to do with desire and how you choose to use what money you do have – travel has always been at the top of our savings hierarchy. I say that with the knowledge that there are many who do not have even a penny to spare towards savings (that was us in the 80's) and that such a trip will likely never be within their reach unless their circumstances change. But for those with even a modest income, travel can be a viable savings goal.

  • "People have a tendency to wildly exaggerate how cold it is, especially in the Midwest………"

    Oh come on Ed!!! Midwesterners don't exaggerate they understate! Especially about the weather! Please consider the following:

    All troublemakers, in Siberia, are exiled to Tinley Park.
    Penguins evolved originally in cross beams of the John Hancock Building but retired to Antarctica for the weather.
    A college professor in Central Illinois, in February, is dreaming of vacationing at Ice Station Zero.

    I rest my case. Exaggerating Midwesterners, indeed.

  • Trivia point:

    Tom Skilling, WGN TV Weatherman that Ed mentioned in the blog post is the real life brother of Enron Master Villain Jeffery Skilling.

  • It can get too cold to snow. It requires some warmth to get water vapor in the air, so with Great Lakes not freezing each winter and Arctic ice retreating, big blizzards are more, not less likely. Oh joy!

    Having spent time in Northern Minnesota, cold is cold. As a child, it's just fun until your eyes get too uncomfortable from glare or tears.

    Arizona just requires water and occasional orange juice (or Brawndo) if you're outside. If you get heat exhaustion, you just have to rest a day to recover. I'm no endurance athlete, and I need to remind myself of that even if I'm just outside doing hardly anything.

  • The winter I was in sixth grade, we had three snow days based not on snow accumulation, but on the fact that it was -20F outside. I imagine most of my classmates got to stay in bed on those days; I, being a farm kid, got to go outside anyway. And it's past "frozen boogers" cold – it's "I wish I could just stop breathing" cold.

  • Having worked outside in a wide variety of climates for much of my younger working days I can tell you three things:

    Frost nip your finger tips often enough and later in life it takes very little cold exposure to your finger tips to bring max pain.

    Once your feet get cold, it's over. You're going to be cold until they warm up. Steel toed safety boots and shoes get cold instantly.

    Damp cold is much worse than dry cold. 28 degrees with a wind off the ocean will put a "damper" on you.

  • Check out Vagabonding by Rolf Potts.

    World travel isn't so hard if you really want to do it. Imagining it as a hobby of pampered J. Peterman types is just an excuse.

  • My best friend's mom worked at McMurdo for years. If you have a couple grand to get to NZ, there are ways to get there that don't involve absurd tourist packages OR stowing away in cargo holds. Get attached to a science team and write about your findings. Dig deeper at the local end — something will turn up.

    Cold is not an absolute, but I grew up just outside of Glacier Park and spent hard time in Eastern Montana — all the weather of the Canadian plains, but without the health plan. I love the cold. But it was a *dry* cold. Moving to the Pacific Northwest was hard — wet cold goes to the bone — but it was still stimulating and refreshing and clean-feeling.

    But then I moved to Arizona. Skin-charring sunburn within minutes, at six in the morning, in February. Always dazed from the heat, never wanting to be touched, never getting to wear my hair down, feeling gritty and bescummed the moment you leave the house…it was like living in an ashtray, and showering in the filthy water didn't help.

    In cold climes, you can put on a coat. In the Valley of the Sun, all you can do is pray for the sweet release of death. You will budge up next to a serial killer if he's standing in the only piece of shade. Frost beats fire any day.

  • My wife was born and raised in the frozen tundra of Perm, Russia. I asked the coldest temperature she can remember and she replied -39C. Said it was difficult just to even breathe in such a temperature.

    We were both there for New Year 2011-12 and it was their warmest winter in 30 years or something equally ridiculous. I was disappointed at the lack of snow but we'll be back soon enough.

  • Having grown up in northern Wisconsin, we had a number days that were -20F or -30F. I do remember some rare instances of -40F. I didn't think the temperature was that bad, as long as you're prepared for it. However, I grew up on a dairy farm and when it gets that cold, life is absolute hell. Water pipes freeze and burst, tractors don't start, everything takes three times as long because it requires chipping ice and frozen manure from everything and trying to get equipment to operate. We used to stack straw bales around the outside of our house to keep some of the heat in. If I only had to get myself to my office job and back, I wouldn't think it would be that big a deal.

  • Another lovely feature of Russian winter: If you have facial hair, be prepared to have ice crystals in your beard/mustache.

    @Larry- You should ask her if she meant -39F or C. Most Russians will quote temperatures in Celsius without a second thought, in fact many Western sources often quote temperatures without specifying this, e.g. WWII documentaries saying things like "By the time just before the Moscow counter-offensive temperatures dropped to -60."

  • Sorry should have included this in the above: I can definitely believe -39C in Perm, and it is indeed hard to breathe because your throat gets burned by the cold air and it hurts your teeth as well. This is one reason while you'll see some people here in winter holding their hand over their mouths.

  • I have family in Alaska, living in the tundra. I once asked my young nephew what he disliked most about the winters. He said, "When it's -45 degrees". Why that specific temperature? He said, "At school, we don't have to go out for recess when it's below -50 degrees. So, when it's -45, we still have to go out."

    I was staggered. I tried to imagine what kids would do at recess when it's that cold. I imagined scenes from "The March of the Penguins", where the kids just huddled in the middle of the playground, taking turns on who got rotated to the perimeter.

  • On your way to the South Pole, Ed, I'd only recommend you stop in New Zealand.
    That dreamscape may not test your love for extreme temperatures, but it should provide some highs for the rest of your sensorium.

  • If you want to save about $14,000, you can go to Winnipeg or Edmonton in the winter and have a reasonable expectation of experiencing -40. You can catch a hockey game while you're there.

  • Speaking as a travel industry type, I can tell you that traveling for pleasure, overall, is probably cheaper than it has been in years. The usual costly variable is, of course, airfare. After that, it's amazing how little you need to be on the ground, staying in hostels, tiny independent hotels, etc, and dining on the street or having great meals in small out-of-the-way no-name restaurants (mostly Europe and Asia). So save a few bucks and go.. away!

    I used to work in another industry and had to spend a couple winters in Lake Placid. One winter, there were a number of days that went down to -25F, but since there was no wind, and the sun was directly over my motel deck, I was able to hang out for hours in just jeans and a t-shirt…

  • I find it kind of wild how many people are chastising Ed for saying that travel is for rich people. Okay, so rich is relative, but I think the point that Ed is making is that just getting out of the country is kind of expensive. I paid just over $1000 for a ticket to the NL last Nov. and thought that was a steal. I was able to stay (and eat) for free with friends, but still ended up spending about $600. $1,600 EXTRA money is a stretch for a LOT of people. Not to mention that most of us need to be saving every single penny we get to live on when this country goes in the shitter and everyone but the richest are scrambling for whatever they can get.

  • When comparing low, low temperatures (obligatory aside: -40 in upstate New York on the mid-watch at a training complex), remember that the Celsius and Fahrenheit scales are equal at -40, so it's not necessary to specify which is in use at that one point.

  • I was in Bahrain this winter. It was 60F outside and just a little breezy. The doorman at the hotel was wearing earmuffs and a parka.

  • Andrew Laurence says:

    The 1% are rich. For them, travel is a trivial expense. For those in the top 3-5%, it's pretty affordable if you're careful and don't do it too often. The rest of the population is probably too poor to afford much travel, though, unless they scrimp on most other things.

  • When I was still living in the Chicago area in the mid-80s we hit -20 to -25F in winter a few times. Non wind-chill.
    Living in Wisconsin now and thankfully don't get that low too often, but we do spend usually a few weeks in the single digits.

    The most exotic place I've ever been is Vancouver Island. I don't foresee being able to travel anywhere outside the midwest in our near future. Maybe once the kids are out of the house.

  • I like the kickstarter idea. Hitch it to a travel blog and you'd be packing your bags pretty soon, methinks.

    "Ed's travel blog" would be sort of like Ricky Gervais' An Idiot Abroad, in my imagined universe. Not that Ed is an idiot: Neither is Karl, the star of AIA. Both are grumpy, hilarious bastards though.

    Sure some will give you shit about asking others to pay for your travel, but if you link to it from here & teh facebooks, I reckon you'd do pretty well.

    I'd sling you a few bucks.

  • Fifty years ago I carried a daily paper through two memorably-cold north Iowa winters, and walked my route again each Thursday night "to collect" the 45 cents that sustained a subscription to the Globe. Still air temperatures went a touch lower than -30 F on clear nights, and each February brought a week or more during which the mercury never got up to -15F.

    It's possible to dress properly for that kind of weather, and people do, and go out in it.
    You should see the full moon on a cold white night like that!
    Yes, ice crinkes in your nostrils, and the snow crunches underfoot, and your cheeks hurt.

    There's burning pain just before the tips of one's ears or fingers begin to freeze; then you don't feel them — then when you warm up, the same five or ten minutes of burning as agony plays back in reverse.

  • No idea what world record extemes might be, but drove through the Canadian prairies in December of '90, temp in Moose Jaw, SK was -55C (-67F), an "arctic express". Car heater was useless, had pillows and blankets shoved around the car doors to keep the wind out and had to scrape the frost off the inside of the windshield to see. Seven hours later, got to Calgary, AB (actually a little north of Moose Jaw and usually notoriously cold) temp was 12C (54F), a chinook. Locals were wearing shorts and t-shirts. Have been to four continents and have a cousin who has been to all seven. She assures me the temps at Amundsen-Scott Station were warmer than Everest, but we both agree: worst year-round weather in the world: Vancouver, BC.

  • My first husband was a travel agent, and we went a lot of places. I will always remember barrow Alaska in February. Watching the aurora in the beyond-cold of an Arctic winter night, followed by the white hot pain of the blood returning to my feet – oh, yes. I class it with visiting the catacombs of Paris; glad I did it, will most likely never do it again.

  • You are insane if you find Vancouver's weather to be "the worst".


    Enlist in the Air Force and get assigned to the base at Minot, ND. Plenty of travel and, when not deployed, you get to reside in a barren landscape with terrible weather. Kills two frozen birds with one ice ball.

  • Mothra:
    "Not to mention that most of us need to be saving every single penny we get to live on when this country goes in the shitter and everyone but the richest are scrambling for whatever they can get."

    Not sure. Banks will not give your savings back if everything goes in the shitter; they will need them to pay the richest guys first.

  • > Vostok Station, Antarctica once recorded a staggering -129 F

    That's just… obscene. It actually starts snowing dry ice at that temperature.

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