Frozen Stiff: A True Story of Winter Survival | Almanac.com

Frozen Stiff: A True Story of Winter Survival


Jean Hilliard

Photo Credit
Photo by Vicki Kettlewell via Star Tribune

Plus: 5 Tips to Survive Frostbite

Print Friendly and PDF

Here’s a chilling true story to welcome winter, as well as five tips to keep yourself safe from frostbite in freezing temperatures. 

A Cold, Cold Night

On December 20, 1980, 19-year-old Jean Hilliard’s car slid off a remote country road just south of Lengby, Minnesota, in the middle of the night. This was familiar territory for her, and she decided to walk to the house of a friend, cattle rancher and butcher Wally Nelson, 2 miles away.

There were, however, two major problems: One was that the temperature that night was down to 22°F below zero. Second, she was not adequately dressed for such extreme cold. She was wearing cowboy boots, a coat, and mittens.

About 15 feet from Nelson’s house, Hilliard tripped and crawled on her hands and knees to his doorstep, where she collapsed. There she remained for the rest of the night—some 6 hours—with her eyes frozen wide open.

At about 7:00 A.M., Nelson looked out and saw her.

In a January 2018 interview with Minnesota Public Radio (MPR), Nelson recalled the moment: “I was so damn surprised when I saw that little hunk out in the yard. I grabbed her by the collar and skidded her into the porch. I thought she was dead. Froze stiffer than a board, but I saw a few bubbles coming out of her nose.”

With the help of his companion, Nelson immediately attempted to lift Hilliard into a car to take her to the hospital. She was frozen too stiff to bend, so he had to fit her into the back seat diagonally.

Nelson brought Hilliard to nearby Fosston hospital. Her pulse measured barely 12 beats per minute (“normal” is 65 to 80 bpm). Her skin was too stiff to be punctured by a hypodermic needle. Her body temperature was too low to be registered on a thermometer. Her face was ashen, and her eyes were solid and unresponsive to light.

After 2 to 3 hours of gradual warming, Hilliard began to thaw out. By around noon, she was conversing with nurses and others. The miracle was that she suffered only the numbing of several of her toes and seemed to have no permanent effects. She has never had any recall of the event. “It was like I fell asleep and woke up in the hospital,” she told MPR.

Five Ways to Keep From Getting Frostbite

  1. Dress in layers of loose, warm clothing.
  2. Wear a hat that alos covers your ears.
  3. Wear mittens, instead of gloves, and socks, ideally with liners. Carry hand and foot warmers.
  4. Do not drink alcohol before going outside.
  5. Do exercises to keep your blood flowing, such as jumping jacks.

Want more winter advice? See what to keep in a Winter Car Emergency Kit and How to Know When Lake Ice is Safe!

About The Author

Carol Connare

As the 14th editor of The Old Farmer’s Almanac, Carol Connare works with writers and other editors to develop “new, useful, and entertaining matter” for the annual Almanac as well as books, calendars, and other publications. Read More from Carol Connare