Minus 10 isn't cold

22:51, Jul 26 2013
Snow on crab apple blossoms in Calgary after a February snowstorm
Snow on crab apple blossoms in Calgary after a February snowstorm

A profound cold came to Calgary, Canada, in February 1994. Night-time temperatures dropped to almost minus 26 degrees Celsius and for six days running the warmest temperature recorded was minus 19.7C.

Canadians are good at cold: Schools generally don't close, businesses operate and life carries on because extreme cold is common. But six days of minus 20C gets tedious and transportation is what falters first.

Car batteries fail, bus drivers abandon their schedules and drive their routes as best they can. Waiting for a taxi takes hours. There's usually a collective effort to get people about. Managers and parents arrange car pools, people cram into taxis when they turn up.

I don't remember getting to work on Thursday, February 24, 1994. I was a young lawyer working in a big downtown corporate law firm. A friend was a young oil and gas geologist working at a start-up nearby. Our cars were dead and somehow we had to get home that evening. The usual collective effort failed us, probably because we'd worked late.

We decided to walk. My funky bachelor pad was about 15 blocks away, his a few blocks further on. We were young Canadian men and could do it.

Calgary's downtown buildings are linked by weathertight, heated bridges and we walked the first five blocks indoors. Then we ventured outside. We were dressed for this cold - mitts, toques, scarfs, heavy boots. But no matter the gear, the sticky- out bits of the human body - earlobes, the tip of the nose, fingers and toes - quickly turn painful. Exposed skin, like under the eyes, hardens and numbs. Lips crack. Metal teeth fillings smart. Breathing isn't painful, but you can feel the cold up your nose and into your lungs. There's a presence of chill inside, where it shouldn't be.


We managed about three blocks before making for a bar. A few others were also inside, breaking up a cold walk with a warm drink, although I suspect we drank beer and more than one. Then it was back into winter.

Understand, this was no blizzard. There was no falling snow and little wind. In daytime, the sky had been a beautiful china blue. The sun shone brightly, but seemed to provide as much heat as the Moon. It was a weather pattern called an Arctic High and almost as common and welcome in Canada as a southerly in New Zealand.

In any event, it was dark by the time we set out and we trudged to thin light from street lamps. Every step was loud as the snow and ice underfoot cracked from our weight. Websites show the temperature that evening dwindled to minus 25.9C.

There were no businesses open on this stretch but many small apartment buildings and when the cold became too much we entered their foyers. I recall one, perhaps 6 square metres, was crowded with about 12 people, all pedestrians seeking warmth and to share curses and shaking heads. It was the sort of place to meet a future spouse, but we never saw them again.

More expeditions in the cold dark brought us to a pub, our local. We rushed inside for drinks with friends behind the bar and acquaintances at the tables. I suspect we played many rounds of darts. My apartment was nearby and I got safely home about 11pm, outside temperature slightly warmer at about minus 24C.

The weather broke two days later - hitting minus 8C - and normal living began again. We jump-started our cars and could again rely on buses and taxis turning up as expected.

That six-day stretch didn't include the coldest day of 1994. On February 7, it was minus 33.7C at 8am. The windchill at that hour was recorded to be minus 41C. Windchill is an estimate of "how cold the weather feels to the average person" and although derived with a mathematical formula, it's a suspect measure. "Estimate", "feels", "average" don't amount to data.

In any event, real winter isn't about the lowest temperature recorded. Real winter is about sustained cold. It's six days of minus 20C. It's getting about when transportation fails. It's taking more than two hours to walk 10 blocks.

Some years after our walk, my friend struck oil and got rich. Fate brought me a different career and then to New Zealand. I admire how Kiwis handle winter. It gets cold here. I'm cold writing this essay on an early June morning.

But I've reasons for making Christchurch home. We get the odd blizzard here, but when I really want snow and cold, I drive to the mountains and visit them. And then I return to the seaside. That's almost perfect.

Fairfax Media