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July 2019 Issue
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With hypothermia, caution is the better part of valour

Hypothermia can sneak up on the unwary – always be alert to the danger. Photo: Shaun Barnett/Black Robin Photography

After reading the article ‘Hypothermia – the silent menace’ in the June issue of Wilderness, Ann Kidd shared her experiences of this deadly condition

The silent menace quickly creeps up on you, but if my experiences are anything to go by hypothermia is poorly understood by many.

When I was in form one, we lost a valued friend and classmate to hypothermia. He died while climbing on Mt Egmont. None of us will forget returning to class on Monday to the empty desk, to say nothing of attending his funeral. Tiny left a lasting impression on all who knew him.

We were given conflicting advice on how best he could have been helped at the time.

In my Teachers College days, tramping with a group of students from accomplished to novice trampers, one of our group showed the early signs of hypothermia while climbing Mt Robert. Graham, our experienced group leader, was quickly on to it and sent Lou back down with one of the group’s seasoned trampers to take appropriate care of her. But not before giving her a warm drink, rations of chocolate and some extra clothing.

At a debriefing later, we surmised cotton undergarments may have in part contributed to Lou’s condition. But the lesson we all took was Graham’s watchful and experienced eye which surely averted a more serious problem.

Years later on a school trip staying in a hut on Mt Egmont (I was a mother helper), I noticed a frail girl missing a few steps as we climbed the slope. She mumbled when I tried to engage her in conversation and keeping close by I noticed the rapid change in the colour of her lips. My suggestion earlier that everyone should be wearing woolly hats had been laughed at by the supervising senior teacher. He scoffed at the suggestion, saying we were not going to be climbing very high. When I pointed out my concerns now we were on the slope, I was again belittled – being prone to exaggeration in the opinion of the senior teacher. Fortunately, the young first-year classroom teacher had observed the girl fumbling when I gave her a chocolate bar to unwrap and took me seriously, approving of me taking the student back to the hut.

At the hut, I stoked the fire and had the shivering girl beside it in her sleeping bag, sipping warm chocolate with my oversized woolly hat on her head and my woolly socks on her feet. Had I overreacted as the senior teacher intimated? I don’t think so – Tiny being ever present with me that day.

Knowing how cold it can get on the top of Takaka Hill, I took an extra hardshell jacket with me on the day my husband and I (then in our early 60s) ventured on to the loop track, he asking if I thought I was going on an expedition. When we reached the highest point, it clouded over, the chill factor coming quite quickly.

Hoping it would clear as fast as it came, we chose to stay waiting for the view and had an early lunch. Within minutes my temperature dropped rapidly, surprising me at just how quickly. Recognising the signs and knowing to nip it in the bud early, out came the added jacket, away went my lunch and I kept on moving to keep the cold stress at bay. Being on the now sheltered side certainly helped.

‘Drama queen’ I heard him yell, for it really was only minutes but I ignored him and quickened my step, eager to reach the van and boil the billy.

Fifty plus years have gone by but it only seems like yesterday when we said goodbye to Tiny. Better to be prone to exaggeration, a drama queen, or whatever name you want to give me but, Graham you were the best example anyone could have had: remain alert and act fast. Hypothermia should never be taken lightly for it is easier to arrest in the early stages. Later may be too late.

Fondly remembered always, Tiny.