Last night, on January 2, authorities in Washington found the body of the suspect who allegedly shot a ranger in Mount Rainier National Park. The suspect was found partially unclothed in a snow-filled creek, which points to a fairly common cause of death for backcountry travelers: hypothermia.
The details are always similar. In 2003, the dead and hypothermic body of a thirty-five-year-old Alaskan hiker was “not clothed from the waist up and was missing a shoe.” In 2004, when a hypothermia victim’s body was recovered in northwestern New Mexico, “his jacket and neck chain were recovered a short distance away.” In 2005, a man in Wyoming was found partially dressed in a pullover, T-shirt, pants, and one sock.”
Every year, an average of 689 people die from hypothermia in the United States. It happens in all fifty states and during every month. The annual incidence rate for hypothermia fluctuates between 2 and 4 deaths per million citizens, and it seems perfectly intuitive that Alaska is the nation’s hypothermia capital. The state has over 4 annual deaths per 100,000 citizens. That’s over ten times the national average and twice the rate of the state’s nearest two competitors, Montana and Wyoming, which average 1.58 and 1.57 per 100,000 people, respectively.
The really spooky thing about hypothermia is the phenomenon called “paradoxical undressing.” People suffering from hypothermia often shed their clothes. The reasons for this are somewhat murky, but it probably has to do with the behavior of blood vessels. When your body gets really cold, the blood vessels near the skin contract to prevent the flow of blood to the body’s surface. This keeps more blood near the body’s core, where it can stay warm. But the blood vessels don’t want to be contracted, and it takes a lot of energy to keep them that way. Eventually they tire out and dilate. The warm blood rushes back to the surface, and you get the sensation of intense heat. Then you take off clothes. Then you die.
(Much of the above was quoted from my book American Buffalo: In Search of a Lost Icon.)