Every winter, we get the TV weather folks making a big deal about the wind chill and extreme cold.

Dave Irons, Ski Columnist

Considering that we live in Maine, this should come as no surprise. It’s winter in Maine. Of course it’s cold.

It’s not enough for the forecasters to tell us temperatures are going to be in the single numbers. They have to throw in the wind chill, tell us it will feel like it’s below zero, and when they really get carried away, talk about danger.

Naturally, we’re never told that the wind chill chart is a measure of wind and cold on raw flesh. On today’s skier, we don’t see much raw flesh. Combine modern ski wear with neck gaiters, face masks and helmets and almost no flesh is visible.

It brings me back to all those years ago (I won’t say how many years ago) when I would wake up at 5 a.m. to deliver about 50 copies of the Lewiston Daily Sun in South Paris. We didn’t have anywhere near the clothing available today but somehow we survived just fine not learning the actual temperature until we arrived back home to dress for school. And there were no TV forecasts, as the first station in Maine was channel 6 in 1954. Radio stations did air weather forecasts but the wind chill chart was new and never mentioned.

This brings us to the origins of that chart. It was developed by the military after our experience with cold in World War II and Korea. I had one friend, a Shawnee Peak skier, who still had trouble with his feet 60 years after the damage suffered from the cold in Korea. The boots they wore were totally inadequate, certainly not to compare with today’s heated ski boots. It was right that our military studied this issue, but the chart when used by today’s weather forecasters is taken out of context.

Advertisement

You’re probably not aware that the wind chill chart received a major makeover just before the winter of 2001-2002. While I never heard it mentioned by the weather forecasters, it was covered by articles in some major newspapers. The methodology used in creating the original chart was explained and the changes made. In 1945, Antarctic explorers suspended jugs of water 30 feet in the air and measured how long it took them to freeze at various winds and temperatures. Considering the average face is about five feet high, this was an obvious needed change.

Using actual volunteers in a climate chamber, the new chart was developed. The new chart shows how long it takes for frostbite to occur as the temperature drops and the wind increases. It takes only a quick reading to see that there are no severe wind chills until the actual temperature drops to zero or below. A 20 mph wind at zero creates a chill of minus-7, but that has to drop to minus-20 to reach the zone where frostbite will occur in less than 30 minutes.

Here in Maine, there are few places at any ski area where it will take a skier more than 10-15 minutes to get inside. The exception would be a total beginner who is unlikely to be at a point high on the mountain. Are there dangerous wind chills? Yes. You can see them on the chart at temperatures of minus-20 to minus-45. At those temperatures, you’re more likely to be unable to get your car started to get to the mountain than be worried about the wind chill if you get there.

Years ago, I called the weather service to find out why they issued wind chill alerts. The answer was simple: “To let towns and cities know they should get the homeless into shelters.” That makes perfect sense. The homeless are likely to be undernourished and poorly clad, completely vulnerable.

In 20 years on ski patrol, I never saw a case of frostbite. The worst instance of skiers in extreme cold came in the early 70s when I was at Sugarloaf covering a Nor-Am Women’s downhill. The Spill Way Chair stopped in high winds with the temperatures around zero. I was in the top shack when those girls got off that lift and came in to get warm. They were really cold and needed to warm up.

I know Gail Blackburn remembers that day and I believe she won that race. I remember taking pictures and having to be careful to slowly advance the film, lest it would break. Motor drives could not be used. It was no time to be sitting in a chair without warmups, but most skiers in today’s ski wear can be comfortable. If the wind is blowing that hard, the lifts are unlikely to operate anyway.

See you on the slopes.

Dave Irons is a freelance writer and columnist who hails from Westbrook. He has been contributing to the Sun Journal for many years and is among the most respected ski writers in the Northeast. He also is a member of the Maine Ski Hall of Fame. Write to him at [email protected]   


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: