Valentine’s Day for most means love, a celebration of a relationship, and an appreciation of one’s partner. For Chicago mafia history buffs, the day is important due to the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, where seven Chicago Northside gang members were shot down and killed not too far from where I live. For me, it will forever be reminiscent of another massacre, when a trip to Wisconsin turned into a skiing frostbite horror story.
How could a skiing frostbite debacle happen to an experienced skier and outdoorsman
You may ask how something so stupid could happen to someone who has been cross-country skiing and enjoying the outdoors for forty-years. I will explain in detail the events leading up to the massacre. There really is no excuse as I should have either stayed home or at least worn decent gloves. After you read this though, I think you will get a better idea how something like this could occur. I hope it leads to better awareness of the dangers of frostbite and of making poor decisions when in the outdoors.
Related: Five best non-Birkie ski trails in Wisconsin
Carpe skiem and love for the cross-country skiing
There is a term coined I think by the American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation called Carpe skiem. Carpe diem means seize the day and Carpe skiem is a pun that basically means seize the opportunity to ski. Life is short and winters are even shorter, so any opportunity to cross-country ski is golden. This is especially true in the Chicago area and southern Wisconsin area where there has been a paucity of snow for the last five years.
Related: Birkie Fever 2020
Whenever there is snow on the ground, I am going to make an effort to ski as much as possible before it melts or before it rains. Prior to Valentine’s Day, Chicago and the whole Midwest experienced a bonanza of snowfall. Several times after school, I skied along the Chicago River. When the weekend hit, I planned to go to my favorite skiing areas – Kettle Moraine. The Monday after Valentine’s Day was President’s Day, so a three day weekend was coming up, and I planned to ski as much as possible.
Heater in my car died Friday night
On the Friday before, the blower in my Chevy Trax died. I turned the ignition and there was no heat circulating through my car. I called the dealer since I am under warranty, and they could not get me in until Monday. The appointment was made for Monday.
Extreme cold weather enveloped the Midwest and the country
The weather forecast for the weekend was kind of grim. Sub zero temperatures with even worse windchills were in the forecast for the weekend. Since I was looking forward to skiing, I decided not to wait until Monday for my vehicle to get fixed and picked Sunday to go skiing. I picked my favorite skiing trail in the Kettle Moraine Southern Unit.
Related: Gatineau Loppet frostbite adventure
The drive would be relatively short. I figured if I bundled up on the way there and back, I would be fine. I layered up, and wore two hats. The temperature hovered around zero, and got even worse as I drove north. In a cold car, I was obviously already cold, but I did not feel it was too bad due to the several layers of winter cloths.
The worst decision I made was to wear 7-eleven gloves that had some of the tips missing. I should have brought my better gloves. I skied the same trails the week before and temperatures were in the single digits, and I wore the same gloves. My fingers were cold the previous week, but they warmed up quickly and were fine. Nordic skiing generates a lot of internal heat, so most times that I ski, I have no problems with cold hands.
Nearly empty parking lot
Usually the Nordic Trails parking lot on a Saturday morning is packed when there is snow on the ground. Today it was not even quarter full. This should have been another warning. They did not even have anyone at the gate checking for passes.
I jumped out of the car and got in my skiing wardrobe as quickly as possible and waxed my skis. I could hardly feel my hands already.
My hands never warmed up
Halfway through the nine mile Blue Loop my hands were still cold and getting a little stiff. I began to be concerned. Although I skied in similar temperatures the week before, the windchill today was significantly worse. I checked my hands again and they were stiff and starting to turn blue. I usually do two loops on the Blue Loop, but today I realized this would not be possible.
When the parking lot came into view, I threw my skis in the car and immediately started to drive home. As I started to cool off from the skiing, my whole body began to get really cold. I was thinking I might have to stop by a gas station or a grocery store to warm up.
Miraculously, my heat magically turned on
All of a sudden, the heat in my car kicked in as my blowers just turned on. I ratcheted up the heat to the highest level and put my hands into the hot air. Throbbing pain developed as my fingers started to come back to life. They remained rather stiff, so I began to worry that I may have caused some lasting damage.
Warning – stop scrolling if you are squeamish and do not want to see frostbite damaged fingers
Trip to the Emergency Room
When I got home, my fingers on my right hand were somewhat discolored and were beginning to blister. I googled when to go to the Emergency Room with frostbite and it basically said when fingers are discolored and blistered. I headed over to nearby Swedish Covenant and got my fingers bandaged and given some pain killers.
The Doctor said the damage has been done and recommended seeing a hand specialist. They said I needed to keep my fingers free from infection, apply ointment twice a day, and stressed I could not expose them to cold again for at least six months.
Skiing frostbite disaster leads to blisters and raw skin
I wish I would have taken a picture of my hands every day to see the progression of healing. It was pretty grotesque at first. The first week after the incident, my ring and pinkie fingers blistered so severely that they ballooned to twice their size.
Once the blisters broke, they revealed raw skin from the knuckle to the tip on four of my fingers on my right hand. Both thumbs were completely untouched as well as my pointer finger on my left hand. My left hand suffered very minor damage to all fingers except the middle one.
Two weeks after the skiing frostbite incident
Instead of seeing a hand specialist, I went to see my primary care physician two weeks later to see what he had to say. I diligently applied the ointment and kept my bandages on. Fortunately, my primary care physician did not see any permanent damage, so he did not recommend seeing a hand specialist. He said they would heal naturally and the four fingernails I subsequently lost would grow back.
Three factors led to the skiing frostbite disaster
Cold from the start
Three things led to my skiing frostbite disaster. First of all, not having a heated car on the way there was a factor. When you are cold, your blood moves to the center of your body to protect from hypothermia leaving your extremities vulnerable. This is why your hands and feet get cold first. It was not a good idea to start my skiing adventure already cold.
I definitely should have worn better gloves. Even the thin fabric over some of my fingers protected them. It was only my fingers exposed to the cold that were damaged. This was definitely the stupidest of my decisions.
Windchill matters and directly lead to the skiing frostbite massacre
Valentine’s Day 2021 was probably the coldest day in two years. Not since the crippling Polar Vortex two years ago have we seen temperatures and windchills so cold. If I would have skied on Saturday or Monday, it was slightly warmer, and I would have probably been fine. I think next time I am going to pass on skiing when temperatures are sub zero with a significant windchill.
One month of misery due to cross-country skiing frostbite debacle
As much as I love skiing, one month of misery was not worth a day of adventure at Kettle Moraine. It could have been worse too. I feel lucky considering the multiple bad decisions I made. I have since bought a warm pair of cross-country skiing gloves. This is a mistake I will not make again. I hope readers will never make a similar mistake. You only have one set of ten fingers. Take care of them.
Wow Ted, so glad that your hands are healing. Cold weather (or extreme heat) is nothing to take lightly. Keep taking care of yourself
Thank you Ms. V. I appreciate the sympathy. I will definitely not make the same mistake twice. I have a new pair of gloves that will definitely protect me in this type of cold. I also might skip the extreme cold days just to be sure.
I had to come and read your entire article again. You endured a lot. You really did well with your typing except on the “Two weeks after… you mentioned your “primary Car physician”. That was too funny Take care and heal completely
Thank you Ms. V. I was visiting a friend recently in Missouri, and he chastised me for several grammatical errors in recent blog posts. I need an editor. My hands are bandage free and practically 100%. They still are a little sensitive and tingle from time to time and if it gets below 40 degrees, they start to throb. I do; however, expect a full recovery in a month or two.
Don’t be so hard on yourself, Ted. I blame the car and the gloves. You could have been fine in a different scenario.
My brother Joe and I developed frostbite on our hand and toes when my dad made us shovel snow for one of his clients, Phillips Men Wear in Barrington. I subsequently developed Raynaud’s Phenomenon in my digits, meaning that the small arterioles spasm in the cold. It’s very painful, and one of the reasons I am in Florida.
Stay warm, Brother.
The decision was mine to drive the car with no heat and the crappy gloves. As Led Zeppelin once sang “it was nobody’s fault but mine.” I have forgiven myself though. You live and learn. Sorry to hear you went through a similar experience. Thank you for the sympathy.