• Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Matthew Hannen
  • Torch Magazine
"The Cool School" sure is a catchy moniker for the Arctic Survival School. But after spending a week with the instructors and 12 students (they affectionately called me the 13th student), I respectfully request a more fitting nickname ... "Freezing My Butt Off U."

With temperatures that dipped as low as -10 degrees Fahrenheit, well below freezing, it was weather more suitable for penguins and polar bears, not photojournalists from cozy San Antonio. Even my camera gear didn't like the cold temps. It froze up under the stress of the extreme climate.

And when the warmth of my breath combined with the icy air to cruelly freeze the metal part of my camera to my face, I knew I was in trouble. Luckily I peeled the camera off before it did any real damage (not that it would make much difference to my mug).

While going to the North Pole less than a month away from Christmas might have made my 4-year-old daughter jealous, it didn't take me long to figure out why even Santa Claus doesn't hang around there during the holidays. Heck, if I was that cold all the time, I'd be looking for any excuse to fly my reindeer to such locations as Miami or Honolulu to deliver presents, too. Not to mention my daughter probably wouldn't have been quite so envious if she'd been forced to eat the "Easter Bunny," like I had to do.

Then, don't even get me started on the mini-avalanche that fell from a treetop right on the crown of my noggin while I was shooting a photo. The icy fingers of the snow sent a chill down my spine. As I stood there like a not-so-cheerful Frosty the Snowman, at least for a moment I made the students forget how cold they were as they laughed uncontrollably at my plight.

When I wasn't fending off an avalanche, I was doing my best to keep the frost off of my glasses. It was already tough enough to see, as the sun barely peeks at this northern country in December.

Handling my camera in the elements also made my fingers go numb. And as they thawed, it felt as though they were being repeatedly pierced by a thousand tiny needles.

All I really wanted to do was cling to the fire so I could stay warm.

I'd actually been to Arctic Survival School back in 2004. That experience served me well on this photo shoot. I drank plenty of water to stay hydrated. I layered clothes and monitored my activity so I wouldn't sweat, because sweat freezes and I had no intention of turning into a human Popsicle. I wore a pair of wool gloves to ensure my fingers didn't stick to the metal camera, and took care of all my extremities to prevent frostbite.

As all of my Cool School training started coming back to me and I put it to good use, I had to smile even as I shivered. ...

I'd never been so happy to have been an alumnus of "Freeze My Butt Off U."