Writers can get people into and out of trouble with a handful of eloquent words and some convenient coincidences. It’s no wonder then that we are the first people you turn to for advice on how not to die and stuff. With this in mind, I have decided to take on the heavy burden of writing some guides for that very purpose – to save lives!
Disclaimer: Following these guidelines may result in death.
Next up on the list of things you, the Hero, may get into trouble with is the unforgiving frozen wasteland.
Problem: Ice and cold
Goal: To not die
Description: Snow. Ice. Commies!
Difficulty: Harder than a hard pebble
It’s inevitable. You’re wandering about 1930s Russia when you happen across a vicious beat-down. You intervene heroically but find the aggressor is NKVD and he denounces you as a spy. Typical. The next thing you know, you are in a convoy en route to a Siberian Gulag. The plus side is that 1930s Gulag labour camps aren’t things to be made light of, so you won’t get that far. You find out why the gang leader sharing your prison truck has a smirk on his face the entire journey when the convoy is attacked by his comrades and, during the ensuing gun battle, you heroically beat a distracted guard over the head, take his stuff, and run the hell away into the frozen wastes of Siberia. Not particularly clever, but the beginning of a proper Hero’s journey.
So, now you are wandering through one of the most sparsely populated places on Earth. Sure, the temperature can reach about 20°C (68°F) in the Summer, but no Hero is going to have a pleasant stroll through a temperate outdoors. If you’re lucky, it won’t be the -69.8°C (-93.6°F) temperatures that are possible out here, but it will likely be around -25°C (-13°F). So what now?
Note 1: The first thing to not do is stop. And the first thing to do is not stop. It is stupidly cold – you may be a Capeetoleist pig-dog, so the Reds won’t chase you, but not far into the Siberian wilderness. They don’t want to freeze to death as you surely will. As you. Surely. Will. So keep running. You’ll get a decent enough head-start as far as hypothermia goes, as the exertion will keep your body temperature up. If you are lucky, the convoy won’t have any dogs along for the ride, and if they do, they’ll be preoccupied with the attackers.
Note 2: Hypothermia is bad. And there isn’t that big a temperature change required: The average core body temperature is 37°C (98.6°F), and the threshold for hypothermia is only 35°C (95°F). Rough milestones on the way to death are 32.7°C (91°F), where you will start to forget things, have trouble speaking, feel fatigued and confused, and start getting dizzy; 27.7°C (82°F), whereupon you will become clumsy, lose self-awareness, perhaps even try to take off clothing, and then fall unconscious; and finally 21.1°C (70°F), where you dead.
Note 3: Perhaps the Commie you looted had goggles, but if not, do as the Inuit do: make some goggles of your own. Use the knife that you definitely took from the guard to cut a piece of bark off a tree, obviously, and then cut narrow slits for your eyes. These natural snow goggles will help stop the driving snow slicing your eyes up, prevent snow blindness from the sun bouncing off the snow, and will make you look like some kind of Druid warlock.
Note 4: You won’t have much choice in the matter of clothing, but you should have been outfitted in wool for the conditions at the Siberian Gulag. This is good, as it is wicking – it draws the moisture away from the body rather than holding on to it. If you wear clothing that holds on to moisture from the snow and from sweating, you will freeze and die much quicker.
Note 5: Water supplies won’t be much of a problem – there’s snow everywhere which, with the druidic powers granted to you by the bark goggles, you can turn to water. Food, on the other hand, may be a problem. Wait at least a couple of days before starting to eat your own arms. You can’t afford to stop long enough to trap animals, and that guard probably didn’t have so much as a bar of chocolate on him, so you’ll have to survive on bugs. Grubs make a good meal – you know this from The Lion King. If you come across berries or mushrooms, your best bet is probably to not risk it.
Should you come across fresh kills, you will likely have to fight off the predator first, but then you’ll have meat. Cook it. You can use your knife to sharpen sticks into spears and javelins to scare off the predator from a distance. Unless it’s a pack, in which case you’ll be the next fresh kill.
Note 6: To cook your meat, and to warm up at night, you will have to make a fire, just as you did that time in the distant future when a bear stalked you through the wilderness. Do this before nightfall, when the temperature will decrease further and you will die quickly. If you are indeed in a snowy part of Siberia – and of course you are – you may find it difficult to locate dry wood. Wet logs will still burn, but they will give off less heat, more smoke, and you don’t really want to breathe too deeply around them. You’ll be unable to start a fire using wet logs, however.
To find dry wood, look for dead branches on leafy trees – these will be most sheltered from rain and snow, and drier because they are dead. Better still are entire dead trees that are still standing. Resin burns well, so you may need to betray your new Druid ancestry by wounding a tree. You will need kindling and logs. Again, wet logs will work if necessary. Make your own tinder by shaving off pieces of dry wood from dead branches, or breaking open a log to get at drier wood inside. Use the spinny stick in wood method, or locate flint in or on the ground, which will create a spark against your old, high-carbon knife.
To get the most out of your fire, if you have the energy and time, you can create a fire pit. Build up snow walls four or five feet from your fire – snow is insulating and will reflect the heat.
Note 7: You will need shelter at night. This is difficult in this environment, with few tools. There will probably not be nice grass, leaves, and moss to help keep you warm and block the wind. Again, snow is insulating – hence why igloos work so well. The inside of an igloo can reach around 40°C above the outside temperature. Sadly, you haven’t the tools nor the time nor the energy to put that much work into a shelter. However, you can build up some walls with compacted snow, just wide enough for you to fit in – you could even connect these walls to those you built up around the fire, helping the heat reach you where you sleep. Over the top of your little snow grave, you can lay branches and compact more snow over the top of these to create a shield against drafts – eliminate the wind chill. Try to make this sloped so that any snow melted by your body heat will not drip on you.
Note 8: Hygiene is important. Even a Hero can smell. But that isn’t the point. Rather, you need to ensure you keep clean to hold more serious health issues at bay, keep your feet dry to avoid trench foot, and rub against pine trees to smell nice when you are rescued by a pretty/handsome rescuer person.
Note 9: Now some bad news. The cold is dangerous, but you have got a handle on it. Now something more imminently dangerous needs to be added to your story. A predator. This could be a chipmunk, a flying squirrel, a musk deer (rub yourself against it to smell even nicer, probably), wolves, a brown bear, or an Amur leopard. This will depend on where you are and what the hell you did to be hunted by a squirrel, of all things.
Worse news. You are a Hero. The predator won’t be any of these things. It will be a Siberian tiger. The world’s largest cat, 11 feet and 320kg (700lb) of muscle, claws and teeth, is prowling somewhere behind you. It’s too good a hunter to let you see it, but you Hero senses are tingling. More bad news: within the next 10 years, hunting will have driven these tigers to the brink of extinction, so you can’t hurt it.
You should still be carrying your spears and javelins. You’ll need them – but don’t throw anything at it before it makes a move, as it will answer aggression with aggression. Like a goose. Do not run from the tiger. If you can locate its approximate position, back away from it. It will attack more readily when your back is turned. If you have some time, you can cut more bark from a tree, and fashion it into a kind of mask. If this can be fitted to the back of your head, you will look ridiculous. But you may also fool the tiger into thinking you are looking at it, causing it to be more cautious about attacking.
If the tiger does attack, try to befriend it, perhaps with a song. You have a couple of seconds to do so. Loud noises unfamiliar to it may frighten it. As a last resort, you will have to try to wound it. You’ll be hard pressed to still be a likeable Hero if you kill or seriously hurt an endangered tiger, but if you wound it enough it will retreat. Alternatively, find a bear and goad them both into fighting each other.
Note 10: The home stretch. But not really, because you’re still in Siberia and you probably don’t live in Siberia. But with the harsh wasteland all but tamed, and the man-eating tiger frightened off, your story is winding down. You’re not safe yet, though. You have to pass around villages now, full of people who will happily kill you for the bounty placed on the heads of escaped Gulag prisoners. You may be tempted to sneak into a village to steal food and clothing, but this is unwise. Doing so may turn your story into an epic trilogy. Just leave.
Congratulations: Siberia has been conquered. Now you could be anywhere. Except places that aren’t Mongolia, China, Russia, and the Arctic Ocean. The most Hero-worthy outcome will be that you pass into Mongolia and then have to cross the Gobi desert, in which case it’s lucky you already know how to survive the desert. That will probably be the sequel, unless you are crossing the desert to infiltrate a Siberian Gulag, in which case reverse everything. Now you are stalking a tiger and demolishing shelters. Are you the villain now?
Next time on A Writer’s Guide…a thing that isn’t this thing!