What is it about the cold that obsesses us?
Maybe our long-time fixation with cold and the coldest places on earth is trying to tell us something we don't want to admit
I've ski-mountaineered in the Canadian Rockies just enough to understand three of its pleasures: the unforgettable beauty of its silent snow-draped mountains; the rare companionship of people who rely on one another; and the clarifying satisfaction of undertaking crucial tasks step by small, reliable step. Everything becomes simple. Still, I wouldn't go anywhere near the Poles.
I don't mean the ones at the north and south axes of the Earth. I mean the expedition of 13 Polish climbers who at this very moment are attempting to be the first human beings to successfully climb to the top of K2, the second highest mountain in the world, in the middle of winter.
Winter is the distinguishing detail here. Only 302 climbers have ever made it to the summit of K2, and all of them did it in summertime. Even then another 84 people, or roughly one in five, died trying. To give you some sense of how challenging the climb is, ten times as many people have stood atop Mount Everest.
It's hard even to fantasize being there. The main obstacles to climbing K2 in winter are the wind, which comes screeching down the Karakoram range like a hooligan at hurricane speeds, and the freakish cold, which thanks to the wind can drop to -80 degrees. (Tires freeze square at -34 degrees.) A frozen hurricane is precisely what you don't want to experience when you are clinging by a rope and your crampons in chest-deep snow to the near vertical icewalls of K2. (The mountain looks like a sheet thrown over a couple of pikes.)
In winter, when days are deeply bracketed by darkness, a total of 10 days are clear enough to climb. The Poles are prepared to wait 65 days under K2, which regularly releases avalanches and yak-sized blocks of ice. The air at base camp alone has half the oxygen it does at sea level. (And Krzysztof Wielicki, the expedition's leader, is 67 years old.) Even getting to the mountain is a challenge. The Poles landed in Islamabad on December 29, and took seven days to trek through knee-deep snow to establish their base camp at 5,150 m. Last week they established Camp II, at 6,300 m. They have 2,311 m to go. On second thought I still don't want to be there.
So why do the Poles? That's an interesting question, and central to the mystery of how extreme cold fascinates and obsesses us as much as it makes us dive under the covers. Mountain climbing caught on in Poland during the Cold War, when the country squirmed under the heavy fist of the Soviet Union and alpinism became a metaphor for reaching free of the bear. (The Czechs, by comparison, turned to tennis, a game enclosed by lines.) The collapse of communism meant Polish climbers could travel and spread their cold-weather prowess around the globe: they're responsible for the first winter ascents of nine of the 13 highest peaks on earth. The Poles say they want to claim K2 for the glory of Poland, just as the British, the Norwegians, the Russians, the Americans and the Swedes (among others) pushed for the poles in the past.
Nationalism may be the public motive, but our cultural obsession with extreme cold is also deeper and more private, as unconscious as it is tenacious. What is it about the sub-zero that, however unpleasant, grabs and holds our attention, as it has for centuries and throughout this skintight winter? Extreme cold shrinks and clarifies the effort of human existence to its simplest X-ray form, to survival and our starkest motives. Maybe our long-time obsession with cold and the coldest places on earth is trying to tell us something we don't want to admit.
Heat and cold – other people have said this – are mankind's oldest metaphors for emotion. Hot is Satan's domain, the realm of anger and jealousy, but cold has always denoted absence, deprivation, emptiness, a vacuum: "the coold of deeth" (Chaucer), "the colde of ynwarde high dysdeyn, colde of dyspite" (Lydgate), the cold of infidelity, of fear, of grief, of human desertion. It is the state of "the north syde of the world" (Mandeville's Travels), where most of us never venture. (Slightly more than 0.2 per cent of Canada's population lives in the Arctic – that is, where the average daily summer temperature doesn't rise above 10 degrees, which in turn accounts for 40 per cent of the country's land mass.) Cold kills faster, not with inflammation and excess, as heat does, but with absence. Hypothermia sets in when the body's core temperature falls below 35 degrees. About 80 Canadians die every year of exposure.
Cold snaps are rarer and more compelling than heat waves. Nobody talked about anything else during North America's post-Christmas "bomb cyclone." Going outside into -20-degree-air was like stepping into an alternate universe that was missing an essential element – moisture, for instance. Pants felt like steel pipes. Before the cold snap, I was in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. It was so hot you couldn't jog comfortably once the sun rose above the rooflines of the houses at 9 o'clock in the morning. The heat seemed to loosen everything – time, expectations, modesties. I saw people wearing invisible thongs and bikini bottoms that said "Mike's Bitch" and T-shirts featuring a neon green figure raising its arms over the slogan "I pooped today!" People go outside when it's hot, which brings them together in a steaming voyeuristic mass by the border of the sea. I kept jumping into the pool to cool off, but also to be alone.
But back in Toronto, at -18 degrees, the streets of downtown Toronto were deserted. I could feel the precise outline of my body. Sharp cold feels brand new, every time.
The cold snap hit -38 degrees (with wind chill) in Ottawa over the Christmas stretch, making it colder than Ulan Bator, usually the coldest capital on Earth, where it was only -24 degrees. Even Gainsville, Fla., saw freezing rain. Cups of hot water instantly condensing into ice fog as they were thrown into the air became a meme; so did Calgarian Chris Ratzlaff's video of a soap bubble forming and freezing and shattering (over a million views). The penguins at the Calgary Zoo had to be moved inside, another detail that captured global attention. Still, no place came close to the coldest temperature ever recorded in Canada, -63 degrees in Snag, Yukon, in 1947.
Cold is physical: intellectually, verbally, it's harder to describe than heat, because it's harder to stay outside to pay attention to its details, and harder to write those details down. Batteries die, phones freeze, pens gel. When someone describes cold well, we notice.
As recently as a generation ago, Canadian literature was famous for its cold scenes, from the snowy winter poetry of Montreal's Marco Fraticelli to Wayne Johnson's legendary scene in Colony of Unrequited Dreams, in which a settlement of sealers are found frozen upright, mid-chat. It was the height of fashion in Victorian England to track the hardships of British polar explorers. "North Pole" even became Cockney rhyming slang for "arsehole," as Francis Spufford points out in I May Be Some Time: Ice and the English Imagination. Willfully risking death by extreme cold was something gentlemen did, because they could afford noble Tennysonian ideas about striving and seeking and finding and never yielding. Working class people thought they were nuts. Several polar expressions even became Victorian idioms: too far north described someone either plastered or too clever by half, like a Geordie or a Scotsman.
But our climatological vocabulary for cold has receded under the glare of global warming. Last year was the third hottest on record since record-keeping began in 1880, according to scientists at NASA – after 2016 and 2015 respectively. Meanwhile the historic Polish K2 expedition has fewer than 5,000 Twitter followers. When I asked Katherine Barber, the former editor-in-chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary who now writes the popular Wordlady blog to scour her records and Twitter for the phrase "cold enough to," she discovered only a handful of original-sounding locutions of frozeness, among them "cold enough to freeze the balls off a pool table," and "cold enough to freeze the nuts of the Guy Lombardo Bridge," credited to Kathie Lee Gifford one morning on the Today show, but which Ms. Barber also found recorded as "cold enough to freeze the nuts off the Capilano Bridge," suggesting to Ms. Barber that the expression may have reached North American "catch phrase status." Otherwise, she insisted, the language being used of late to describe the cold is both "literal and boring."
Even the Inuit – who as everyone knows have dozens of words to describe the Arctic's many different grinds of snow and their uses – have only three to describe cold. The difference between them – this is so Inuit! – lies in whether the thing that is cold is a person, an animal or an object. Cold is inexpressibly monolithic even for those who know it intimately – even meteorologists. "It becomes a challenge to keep people informed when the third winter storm in a pattern of three moves in," Josh Erdman, senior meteorologist at weather.com, told me in early January. "It becomes a challenge to be a wordsmith and still be accurate after a stall like that," stalls being an increasingly common feature of climate change. But some thresholds are universal, Mr. Erdman added. "There's just something about saying 'below zero' [Fahrenheit]. And especially days when the daytime temperature doesn't get above zero. That's really uncomfortable."
So what is it about the cold that obsesses us, even if we can't describe it? Winter mountaineers are rarely much help expressing why they try the harrowing things they do. As they fix lines and ladders to and from Camp 2 this week (there will be four camps in all, the last at 8,000 metres, leaving a stagger to the summit), the Poles on wintry K2 have so far restricted their commentary to a few photographs and maps, and a Facebook page where the most common phrase is "Today no going up."
Their enemy, of course, is not just the cold, but the way it paralyzes human capability. David Young, who wrote the play Inexpressible Island about Robert Falcon Scott's fatal failure to be first to the South Pole in 1912, described "cold as an existential threat – cold that's colder than whale shit, cold as Satan's testicles, colder than Uranus, bad marriage cold." He was in Seville, Spain, writing a novel, when I telephoned. Cold, he said, is as complicated as love, at least when it is the kind of cold where you step outside in your pyjamas to get the newspaper or the mail and realize you could die if the door locks behind you. "We all talk about the discomfort of cold," Young said. "But some of us talk about the existential threat of it." He thinks the Poles on K2 are after the same thing Sir John Franklin and Robert Scott and Ernest Shackleton were after, risking their own and other peoples' lives to explore the deadly extremes we are willing to endure to get to the frozen ends of the Earth, if also for the glory of national pride. "We are talking about the limits of human experience," Young said.
"Should those limits even matter," I asked, "given the more pressing problems that face the world?" I was thinking about, say, the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees who have fled since last August, a similar number of Dreamers who may be deported in March, the 500,000 homeless North Americans.
"I think they do. Because they are all demonstrations of the limits of human capacity."
That's the time-honoured romantic view, the struggle between survival and catastrophe that climbers embrace, that cold-lovers welcome, that politicians exploit. Others belittle it as patriarchal, colonialist and old-fashioned. But maybe we all misunderstand a deeper reason we are obsessed with the cold, why we're thrilled to endure something we claim to fear and dislike so much.
David Young counts five essential "cold-lit classics" in the revised Canadian edition of The Book Of Lists, published last fall. (It's a terrific book, perfect for the boudoir or the bathroom.) He leads with The Worst Journey in the World, Apsley Cherry-Garrard's famous memoir of Scott's failed 1910-1913 expedition to claim the South Pole (where the air was so cold it shattered their teeth). He ends with Francis Spufford's brilliant and beautiful I May Be Some Time.
"I am just going outside and may be some time" is what Captain Lawrence Oates said one evening in 1912 (at least by the account of Scott, whom Oates disliked) as he snuck away from their windtorn shelter to lie down and die in an Antarctic snow drift. Oates, suffering from frostbite and gangrene, was convinced he was impeding Scott's return from the Pole. He was wrong: Scott and his remaining two companions died 12 or 13 days later – Scott wasn't sure, because cold freezes time as well – just 11 miles short of their objective.
I am just going outside and may be some time. The sentence perfectly exemplifies the English and Western ideal of polar exploration: that men will behave like gentlemen, according to the rules, even in the coldest and most inhuman circumstances. For all the frigidity of Edwardian society – a culture that sent its children away to boarding school at the age of four and cheered and shamed a generation of men into the massacres of the First World War – Scott discovered a place that was colder still. For all the lives frozen in Soviet-dominated Poland, the K2 expedition today finds itself in an environment that makes even that homeland look cozy by comparison.
If we can survive this, we somehow understand as we step outside into the brain-bracing air, we can survive anything, even the chilly inhumanity of our own behaviour.