My Four Most Miserable Cold Weather Experiences


Being from Minnesota, I like to think I am pretty tough when it comes to cold, wintery weather. I can only recall school being cancelled for snow three times from kindergarten through high school and once for cold weather. I also remember days when I walked to school in the dead of winter wearing flats and no socks. As an adult living in Chicago, I regularly have to brave the cold to walk to the el or walk to the bus stop or just walk down the street to Walgreens. I probably have to deal with the cold weather even more than I did growing up in Minnesota because I have to go outside to get anywhere – I don’t have a car parked in a heated garage and we don’t have skyways connecting our buildings downtown.

This winter has been especially brutal thanks to not one, but two “polar vortexes” swinging through (why have we never heard of that term before now??). And this got me to thinking that, while I can be pretty tough about the cold, I also have my limits. And there are a few times in recent years that have definitely pushed me to the edge. Here are four that really stand out  for all the wrong reasons.

Hiking in Siberia

Stolby Nature Reserve

For some unknown reason, I thought it would be a fabulous idea to go hiking in the Stolby Nature Reserve outside of Krasnoyarsk, Russia in the middle of November. The forecast was for a high of -12F and I began to seriously question my sanity as I arrived in Krasnoyarsk and confirmed my pick up time with my guide. She would later tell me that she and the hiking guide had a bet that I would back out altogether. But I bundled myself up in leggings and fleece-lined hiking pants, a long-sleeve shirt, short-sleeve shirt, fleece and winter jacket, plus a fleece hat, scarf and new gloves bought the night before because I realized the ones I had would never make it. The hike itself didn’t seem too bad – possibly because my hiking guide insisted on doing shots of cognac beforehand. No, when it really got bad was on the way home, as we had to wait more than twenty minutes for the bus back to Krasnoyarsk, endure a freezing cold bus ride and then switch buses in town to another one that went to my hostel. With sweat-soaked clothes against my skin and -12F temperatures outside, I pretty much felt like an icicle by the time I returned to my hostel.

A deep freeze in Ukraine

Kiev, Ukraine

The six weeks I spent in Ukraine in January –February 2012 happened to coincide with a major cold spell in the country – some of the coldest temperatures they experienced in decades. I didn’t hit the worst of the deep freeze until I made an unplanned stop in Ivano-Frankivsk in western Ukraine. It was something like -12F when I arrived and walked about twenty minutes to find my hostel. After dropping my things, I forced myself out to do some sightseeing since I was leaving again first thing in the morning. I knew it was too cold when my camera actually froze while I was taking a picture! The worst, though, was spending the night in the hostel. There was one small radiator in the dorm room, located right below a huge glass window with no insulation. They basically cancelled each other out. I crawled into bed after putting on two pairs of socks, three layers of tops, two layers of bottoms and a pair of gloves. I also grabbed an extra blanket from another bed and a giant wool thing from the top of a cabinet that may have actually been a rug.

The next morning, I took a hot shower and bundled up before heading back to the bus station as temperatures dipped to -18F. There, I boarded a cold bus taking me to Kolomyya – several hours away. With no heat on the bus, my toes and fingers were pretty much numb by the time I reached my destination, but luckily a cozy, warm guesthouse was waiting for me.

A cold night in Nepal

Himalayan valley

It is funny to think now of how cold the nights seemed while I was trekking in Nepal back in October. Thirty-two degrees seems downright balmy compared to the string of negative temperatures we have had here in Chicago in January. But I digress. The teahouses we stayed in each night while trekking in the Himalayas did not include heat in the rooms. I brought only a sleeping bag liner as I was told that each place we stayed would provide thick blankets. That was definitely the case; indeed, I often got two blankets. While it was always chilly getting out of bed in the morning, I never felt cold at night – until we stayed in Dole on our way back down. I only got one blanket there, but it was a thick one and I wasn’t too concerned until I woke up around midnight with my toes feeling numb. Turning on my headlamp, I realized that my blanket had slid off the bed, leaving my feet pretty much exposed, with only the sleeping bag liner covering them. I quickly pulled the blanket back on and started rubbing my feet to warm them. It didn’t help. I crawled out of bed and grabbed a second pair of socks and tried to go back to sleep, but that didn’t help either.  Then, I bundled myself up and walked up to the dining hall, hoping to find the fire still going or someone who could offer me a second thick blanket. Instead, there was only darkness.

It would be a good five hours before anyone else would be up and I had visions of myself falling asleep and waking up again with completely frostbitten toes. So I crawled back in bed again, this time with my hiking boots on and with a sheet from the other bed in my room wrapped around my calves and feet. I eventually fell back asleep for a few more hours, but I was never so happy to wake up at 5:30 a.m. so I could warm myself up by the fire in the dining hall.

Running a  January half marathon in Chicago

F3 Half Marathon

I signed up for the F3 Sports Half Marathon back in early December, before the words “polar vortex” entered my vocabulary.  As this weekend’s race approached, I was cautiously optimistic about the forecast – temperatures were supposed to be in the mid-20s, which was completely do-able in my mind. I have run in much colder this winter. And once I got going, I didn’t feel too cold – at least not for the first six and a half miles as we ran south on the lakefront path. Bundled up in three layers on top, two layers on the bottom and both a neck warmer and a scarf, I actually started to feel warm. That feeling soon disappeared, though, as I made the turn to head back north. Wind gusts were sometimes so strong that I felt like I couldn’t breathe – it was like the cold air was sucking my breath right out of me! What made the race even more difficult, though, were the conditions of the running path. While it was regularly plowed earlier this winter, it was not clear at all on Saturday. Running over packed snow, slick ice and wet, slushy puddles took far more effort than normal. While I managed to maintain a decent pace going south with the wind to my back, going north took everything I had.  By the time I staggered o the finish line, my face was chapped, my feet were soaked and a blister had developed under my right toe.  I was exhausted and all I could think about was that it had to be one of the most miserable cold weather experiences I have ever had.

What has been your worst cold weather experience?


9 thoughts on “My Four Most Miserable Cold Weather Experiences”

  1. I grew up in Alberta, Canada which is more or less winter hell half the year. Luckily we have chinooks come through and they warm things up periodically. Lots of memories of walking to the bus stop in the morning in -30 or worse with windchill and the skin on my legs going numb, with wind that takes your breath away (like you talk about in your race!). Sometimes the bus didn’t show up and we all waited for more than half an hour in that weather. Bleh…

  2. Ooh they all sound nasty! My coldest experience was as a kid, when I was living in a small town in Minnesota for a year. It was 1991, the year of the massive snowstorm on Halloween – the only trick or treating experience of my live had me with me with a snowsuit under my witch constume! Apparently Minnesotans still talk about it today 🙂

    1. Oooh, I remember the great Halloween Blizzard of ’91! and yes, we do still talk about it today (I grew up there even though I’ve lived in Chicago since 2001). I was 15 and a friend and I got bundled up and went trick or treating and got a huge stash of candy because no one was letting their kids out in the snow. School was cancelled the next day and I remember watching a snowplow come to plow our cul-de-sac and get stuck at the end of the driveway. So another plow came to get it out and that got stuck too!

  3. Well, up until now it was just visiting Berlin in -10°.
    Not SO bad in comparison to your experiences. But I’m planning a trip to Québec at the moment and I must say that does scare me a bit!
    I’m not into cold AT ALL and I’m definitely not tough about it:)

    1. You will love Quebec (I’m from there), but please bring pack warm clothing, especially if you plan to spend any time outside. The Quebec Winter Carnival is on at this time of year. Is that why you’re headed there? Just so you know, -35 C is not unusual, and cold spells tend to settle in and last along the St. Lawrence River basin. That’s about -31 F. Yes, it’s so cold the C and F rating systems meet!

      1. I’m going March 19-28 and am hoping that it’ll be a little bit warmer by then. Will it?:D
        What I’m most worried about is what kind of shoes to wears. Clothes you can layer, but once you get cold feet… it’s over.
        In my case at least.

  4. -12F…yikes.

    Western Ukraine was cold and rainy nearly the entire month of September, which sucked as I hadn’t packed accordingly… but it was probably 45 degrees — laughable compared to these examples!

  5. We just returned from Michigan which was the coldest, snowiest place we have ever been – and we loved it! However, I don’t think I would enjoy some of the places you mention. And having been to Chicago in the winter and felt that wind off the lake, I would NOT want to run a marathon there!!

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