How Cold Is -50?

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I have seen "cold" before.

I have been to Yellowstone in deep winter several times (Yellowstone 1, Yellowstone 2). The windchill reached -26F one early morning when I was waiting for a wolf. I felt that my nose was almost falling off. But it's still manageable.

Bison in snow, Yellowstone National Park.

There was also the long hours of wait at predawn for the morning snow geese blast off at Bosque Del Apache in New Mexico, where the freeway was closed due to snow storm one year. I was there.

Bosque Del Apache can be really really cold!

I have seen it all. I have more than enough winter clothes for my upcoming polar bear trip. Or so I thought.

I was wrong.​

Being overly confident is the most dangerous thing. ​The consequence could be "unBearable".

Hong Kong, my home town, had unprecedented cold weather​ back in Jan 2016. The government issued a cold weather warning. At 38F. And it made the news.

Here is my table about coldness:

20 to 40 F

Comfortably cold

0 to 20 F

Seriously cold

-20 to 0 F

Truly cold

-45 to -20 F

Super cold

-45F or below

Crazy freaking cold

During my polar bear trip few days ago, I experienced -52F windchill. The wind was blowing at 40 miles per hour. I was very much under-dressed for such an occasion, and was lucky I came back in one piece.

Polar bearscape. 7D Mark II, 100-400mm, f/8, 1/1600s, ISO 800, handheld.

Here are 15 things you may not know about what -50F is like:

  1. You cannot expose your fingers or any part of your skin for more than 30 seconds without extreme pain, like being stabbed by hundreds of little daggers. It ​makes changing camera settings, batteries, or lens difficult.
  2. Not to mention taking a "bathroom break" outside. I wore 6 layers of pants. Each had my layer of clothes tucked in so each layer was intertwined... It's a lot of work.
  3. My friend Steve got a frost bite on his finger. I got a frost bite on my nose. We were lucky it wasn't serious. One of our new friends got serious frost bite on both sides of his cheek and they turned deep red. Another photographer's face turned dark red.
  4. A friend told us that few years ago, one photographer only wore one layer of glove. After a day of shooting, he found his thumb turned black. He had to air-lifted to the nearest hospital by helicopter and get the thumb amputated.
  5. My eye glasses was immediately frozen once outside. I photographed without my eye glasses the whole trip and could hardly see.
  6. With two layers of marino wool liners, my fingers still felt so painful I had to stop photographing every few seconds, held a fist with hand warmer inside, bent my body and covered my eyes in agony.
  7. My camera viewfinder was fogged up and got frozen every few seconds.
  8. The lens focusing ring was stuck so I couldn't turn and zoom.
  9. Teleconverter was stuck and I couldn't take it out.
  10. Tripod legs were stuck at the joints. 
  11. The camera LCD was covered with frost.
  12. The dial became very slow to respond.
  13. The f-stop and shutter speed took a few seconds to update after I dialed.
  14. The camera joystick wasn't working so I couldn't switch focusing points. After a while, the focusing point wasn't even visible anymore.
  15. Batteries died every few minutes. I counted. One time it died within a minute.

I always had to struggle between whether to take one more shot and risk frost bite. And my battery always died at the critical moment when there was great action.

It's a whole new ball game.

It's no longer about finding the best composition or wait for the perfect moment. It's about whether you could still see without your eye glasses and thru the frozen viewfinder, or if the shutter button still worked. Or if you could survive one more minute before giving up. 

Chow So Cold.

So why? You asked. Why do I still go to such place?

Because you are witnessing one of the most magnificent, mysterious, powerful and beautiful animals​ in the world. There are only a few hundred people in the whole world who have witnessed such nature spectacle-- new born polar bear cubs. And with global warming and the disappearing habitat, who knows how much longer they will still be there?

For the longest time I dreamed of photographing a polar bear cub on mother's back. It finally came true.

To experience -50 is liberating. You start to learn about your limit and see things in a different perspective. I felt the struggle to survive. Every minute my body felt like shutting down like my camera batteries. But I felt truly alive. It's awesome.

It also made me truly admire the Antarctica explorers who endured months on foot to attempt to get to the South Pole. 

We got back to the city of Churchill after the trip. It was -20F there. My friend Steve said to me ,"Oh man, this is so warm!" We laughed. We didn't even wear beanie or gloves in -20.

So how cold is -50?

Crazy freaking cold.​

My camera battery died right after this shot. Canon 1DX, 600mm f/4, 1.4x, f/11, 1/1250s, ISO 1600, RRS tripod.

Are you fired up and want to read more? Then you will surely like my upcoming ebooks on the adventure on Falkland Islands, where it totally transformed me. Enter your email below and I will send you updates, and a free ebook “10 Reasons why Everyone Should Do Wildlife Photography”. The full ebook of "Five Critical Elements" will be included as a bonus if you order my Falkland ebooks.

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