BY GABE LICHT
MONTROSE, MN As schools were closed and the United States Postal Service was canceling mail delivery in Minnesota due to temperatures as low as -31, Kevin Johnson, of Montrose, was planning to face the cold head-on.
“Does anyone want to test their cold-weather gear Thursday morning around 1 a.m. by doing a night hike during this historic cold snap?” Johnson asked on social media leading up to Jan. 31.
Replies varied greatly.
A fellow hiker issued a warning about the terrain Johnson would be hiking near the wastewater treatment plant.
“Careful in the cattails around the dam,” he said. “I have been out there in January before with the pups, and they broke though the ice where it dumps into the dam and, of course, I broke through while pulling them out.”
One individual talked about testing his gear, but said he was opting to sleep instead.
Another said she was going to order a facemask for running, but hadn’t yet, and wouldn’t be able to join him.
Yet another said the idea sounded like fun, but he had to work.
“Twenty-five years ago, I’d be right out in front,” one person said. “These days, not so much.”
Many people gravitated toward the “not so much” type of answer.
One joked about having a hair appointment.
“There is no part of me that wants to try this,” another said. “Stay safe and have fun, though.”
“I’d rather stick a fork in my eye,” another quipped. “I’m out . . . You guys are not normal. Challenge not accepted. If you crazies make it through without your eyeballs frozen solid or limbs snapping off like icicles, I’ll be very surprised. Godspeed.”
As it turned out, Johnson did emerge with unfrozen eyeballs and attached limbs.
In fact, he claims he did not get very cold at all during the 1.2-mile hike that took about 45 minutes.
“Everything was warm, except I had breathing problems,” he said. “I had to wear two baklavas. It’s like a ski mask. When you exhaust, it gets wet, so it was really hard to breath after a while. My goggles fogged up, and I was about to throw them away. I ended up taking them off because you can’t see anything when they fog up. If you breath just a little bit harder, it will create warmth.”
He did note that his feet got cold when he attempted to take a photo of an eagle’s nest.
His gear kept him from getting colder.
In addition to the baklavas and goggles, he wore a jacket with a hood, a hat, mittens, two pairs of socks, work boots, gaiters, and hiking pants with long underwear underneath.
As the hiker on social media warned, the terrain was a bit unpredictable.
For that reason, Johnson hiked the area during the day so he could see any potential dangers. He was then able to follow his own tracks, using his headlamp to light the way.
“It’s pretty easy except when you’re going through cattails,” he said.
Crampons on his shoes helped him get a grip on the ground beneath him.
He doesn’t mind hiking on snowy surfaces.
“The snow seems to pad the walk and help my joints,” he said. “It provides a better cushion.”
His timing allowed him to avoid the worst of the wind while hiking in the -25 degree weather.
“If you caught the wind, it was brutal,” he said. “It might have been worse the day before simply because it was super windy.”
He enjoyed the darkness that accompanied him on the hike.
“We do night hikes with the Boy Scouts,” he said. “Night hikes are really fun. I never thought about doing one when it’s -25 out.”
He made the decision to give it a try when he saw the forecast.
“You don’t see the predictions they were making very often,” Johnson said. “Once it got that cold, I thought, ‘What could I do?’”
In addition to inviting people to join him via social media, he also asked fellow Scout parents.
Rhonda Albers had completed the Below Zero Hero challenge with her son, having stayed in a tent overnight in below-zero temperatures, and was planning to take on this challenge, as well.
She was unable to do so due to vertigo, but rode along and was prepared to call for help if the hike went south.
Having Albers there was part of Johnson’s preparations.
“You have to be prepared,” he said. “If I went out there and wasn’t prepared, I would have been miserable. I don’t like to be miserable. It’s complete comfort. People make jokes because they don’t understand how easy it is to stay warm.”
With that said, Johnson would like to learn more tips, including how to keep goggles from fogging up.
He has someone he plans to ask.
“I have a buddy in Alaska who lives off the grid,” he said. “I’ll ask him what he does because -30 is normal there. They go outside and get things done, while we shut down.”
Johnson went as far as to say he enjoys hiking in winter more than in other seasons.
“Cold temperatures seem to be better,” he said. “There are no mosquitoes or deer flies, which are the worst.”
But why hike when the temperatures are flirting with record lows?
“You gotta do something in this weather,” he said with a smile.