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Dr. Freeze

Evolution
posted: 01/15/2001

Call him the Connoisseur of Cold. The Feruk of Fahrenheit. The Sultan of Snow. If you have a question about how cold temperatures affect the body or how to dress for the cold, call the expert-Dr. Murray Hamlet.

For 31 years, Hamlet has reigned as the cold-weather authority for the Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine in Natick, Mass. As the director of the research-support division, he studies the treatment, prevention and management of cold weather exposure and is called by officials from around the world for his advice.

He recently trained FBI SWAT agents on how to live and work in bitter conditions in preparation for the 2002 Winter Olympics. He's taught thousands of emergency-room nurses and physicians how to treat cold-weather drowning and hypothermia victims. He's lectured to students and foreign military and medical personnel on the deadly effects Mother Nature can wreak on the unprepared. After the sinking of the Estonia in Sweden, officials there asked him to write the country's cold-weather manual. "I guess I'm what you would call the cold-weather guru," says Hamlet.

His laboratory is a maze of 13 environmental chambers in which he simulates winds of up to 40 mph and temperatures of minus 70 to test the effects of cold weather on humans. It is there that the "best" parkas, hats and liners on the market are snugged onto mannequins and deemed worthy or unworthy of treks to places like the North Pole, Siberia or the NATO frontlines.

If cold weather is Hamlet's business, then the stupid choices people make about what to wear and how long to stay outdoors are his motivation. "People think the information I have is only for soldiers in Siberia or climbers on Mt. McKinley. But the people who get into trouble the fastest are the ones who think it can't happen to them," Hamlet says. Like a mad scientist, Hamlet chuckles maniacally as he talks of serving up photos of gangrene flesh to a group of Colorado snowmakers, wanting to drive home the importance of changing socks and keeping boot liners dry. "I think they got the point," he says, recalling numerous cases of hypothermia and victims he has known-some that lived, others that didn't-to emphasize his point to those who think "it won't happen to them."

"Hypothermia can happen to anyone, from the cross-country skier who goes out on a two-hour tour and gets trapped by foul weather to the skier who bought a half-day ticket and didn't expect to spend the night in the woods due to an injury," Hamlet says. He should know. He's seen both of those situations, and many others.

Skiers are among those who are often falsely confident. But he is quick to note that it's not necessarily the equipment that gets skiers into trouble-it's the choices they make. Skiers, he says, are among the most likely to ignore critical body cues that could help them avoid hypothermia. They use hand and foot warmers to ward off the cold instead of opting for a better-fitting boot or a more water-repellent, better-insulated glove. They select a sleek, eye-catching suit instead of one that allows moisture management. They clamp down their boots despite cramping and pain in hopes that foot and ski will "become one." They disregard snow stuck to cheeks and pants for "one last run." "If you see someone standing in the liftline covered in snow, you know it's time for them to quit," Hamlet says. "They're clearly not taking care of themselves. I mean, who wants to stand there looking like they just bought the farm? That means their senses are dull. Why do you think so many accidents happen at the end of the day, when skiers are more fatigued, dehydrated and cold?"

He acknowledges that dressing smart for skiing can seem a Herculean feat. One minute skiers are warm and dry as they go up the chairlift, the next dripping with sweat after an epic bump run. When they take a break in the lodge, their clothing often doesn't dry, resulting in a chill for the afternoon. But Hamlet insists that dresssing for the cold is a matter of simple logic. "Look, it's definitely not rocket science. The ski industry knows what to do. They've created some great materials and designs that work in the cold. The consumer just needs to pay attention to fit and materials, and use multiple layers that are functional without hobbling movement. People need to know the problem of staying warm is not solved by the $600 coat, but by the intellect of how to use that and other garments together."

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