Why Peter Stark's 'Frozen Alive' Story Still Resonates More Than 20 Years Later
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
The cold snap in the Midwest is shattering records. In some cities, school is canceled, mail delivery suspended. At least eight people have died from the cold. While you are hopefully huddled someplace warm, we're going to talk now with the man behind one of the most famous pieces ever written about extreme cold. OK, that's a subjective statement, but here is something we can say definitively. Peter Stark wrote the piece "Frozen Alive" more than 20 years ago, and today it is still one of the most popular stories on the website for Outside Magazine. Peter Stark, welcome.
PETER STARK: Thank you. It's great to be here, Ari.
SHAPIRO: Will you just start by reading the first paragraph of this story?
STARK: Sure. (Reading) When your Jeep spins lazily off the mountain road and slams backward into a snowbank, you don't worry immediately about the cold. Your first thought is that you've just dented your bumper. Your second is that you failed to bring a shovel. Your third is that you'll be late for dinner. Friends are expecting you at their cabin around 8 for a moonlight ski, a late dinner, a sauna. Nothing can keep you from that.
SHAPIRO: The story goes on to describe a near-death experience as the man tries to ski to his friend's house and ends up falling in the snow. Of all the things you've written in your career - and you have written a lot - why do you think this story keeps resonating after 20 years?
STARK: In my mind, it's the zombie story, the story that's about being dead or near dead, and it comes back to life every winter when it gets really cold.
STARK: And I think one reason is that we're all humans. We all have a body. We all have the same physiology. And every one of us has been cold in some way or another at one point or another. And this is what happens when your body is taken to an extreme in that cold situation.
SHAPIRO: Tell us about the inspiration for this piece. I understand it was not your original idea to write it this way.
STARK: No. I was really interested in the physiology of cold, and so I came up with this idea of camping out on the coldest spot in the United States in the lower 48 states, Rogers Pass, Mont., on the coldest night of the winter and then writing about that experience and weaving in again the physiology of cold.
Well, when that coldest night of the year rolled around, it was going to be 50 below zero with a 50-mile-an-hour wind, and I decided this might be a really bad idea. So I stayed home, and I called my editor and said, you know, how about if I just camp in the backyard?
STARK: And he said, no, no, no, (laughter) we don't want you to camp in the backyard. Why don't you invent a guy who goes out in cold like this and he gets in trouble and then use his experiences to tell the physiology of the human body responding to cold?
SHAPIRO: Did you do a lot of research with doctors and outdoors experts and actually dig into the science behind this?
STARK: Yes, I did. I did a tremendous amount of research into the physiology of cold. I interviewed actually an old acquaintance from Wisconsin who nearly died of hypothermia by skiing off the wrong side of a mountain in Montana on a 20-degree-below-zero day and getting caught in the woods to really get his sense of what went through his mind in those situations. And I interviewed emergency room doctors who had warmed up hypothermia victims and got a sense of what they were like when they came in.
SHAPIRO: The story concludes on a poetic and sobering note. Will you read this paragraph that's close to the end?
STARK: So this is at the - near the end when the victim who's had a near-death experience in the cold - but he's been rescued and brought to an emergency room, and so he slowly starts to come to consciousness. (Reading) You've traveled to a place where there is no sun. You've seen that in the infinite reaches of the universe, heat is as glorious and ephemeral as the light of the stars. Heat exists only where matter exists, where particles can vibrate and jump. In the infinite winter of space, heat is tiny. It is the cold that is huge.
SHAPIRO: Writer and journalist Peter Stark, thank you so much.
STARK: Thank you, Ari.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.