I had to psych myself up for the 75-foot walk from my hotel to my ride Monday morning near Green Bay, Wis., where Packers football fans have proudly laid claim to the phrase "frozen tundra" as an expression of their toughness and their team's toughness. The hotel employees backed away from the opening doors in fear for their own safety. I sucked in one last warm breath myself before stepping out, and 20 seconds later was safely inside the car ... alive. My jeans, however, testified to the cold, refusing to conform again to my thighs. Like some kind of exoskeleton, they had frozen stiff.
I have only myself to blame. When the 49ers travel to Green Bay, the first thing you check is the weather report. The forecast a week before Sunday's wild card game called for a high of 27 degrees on game day. I whined to co-workers in mock disappointment that a trip to Lambeau Field should be epic, an Ice Bowl II. My wish came back to bite me in the butt, or rather the fingertips.
When I asked the gentle people of Wisconsin why anyone would choose to live there, even the oldest explained I was sharing the worst cold of their lifetimes. The temperature Sunday was a biting -14, with wind chill factored in. On Monday, I raced to the car in 45 degrees below zero weather, more than 100 degrees cooler than the temperature in Sonoma County that day. The game would have been canceled in that weather, simply for the safety of Packers fans willing to brave the elements with only cheese wedge hats for warmth. Cheeseheads save their loudest cheers and praise for the shirtless fans regularly appearing on the stadium's huge video screen.
My battle with the polar vortex that froze so much of the country affected even my travel to and from the game. It was 18 hours each way, with canceled flights, lost luggage, snow drifts whipping across the highway at midnight on long, unexpected drives. I shared that experience with thousands (maybe millions?) across the Northeast. Only a few dozen know what it was like on the field. The sports writers who covered the big win in Green Bay described the cold from the warmth of the press box. They're soft. Yeah, I'm talking to you, Lowell Cohn. The tough guys were on the field.
I faced the frozen tundra with four layers of clothing on my lower half and five for my upper body, lined boots, two pairs of socks, the entire stock of hand and foot warmers from REI, a neoprene face mask and a wool beanie on top.
My body would stay warm enough, but the key to shooting a camera was keeping feeling in my fingers. I needed the tip of my right finger to release the shutter and a thumb for activating the focus. Giant ski gloves and mittens filled with warmers weren't going to work.
A few hours before the game, 49ers players came out to warm up, an ironic term given the circumstances. The tough ones, like Colin Kaepernick and Patrick Willis, wore sleeveless T-shirts. I was not sleeveless, and my one pair of weatherproof gloves left my fingertips numb and stinging in 10 minutes.
I imagined blackened frostbit tips, so I wiggled a second pair of gloves over my hands. My fingers would be warm enough, but I could not feel if I was touching the camera buttons.
Before each play, I would start randomly pressing near the trigger button. When I heard the sound of the shutter, my hand and finger would lock into position until I finished shooting the end of the play.
For the first quarter, I tried keeping my hand on the buttons even between plays, but my fingertips became too numb. In the second quarter, I learned to stuff them, when I could, into my coat pockets, each containing five warmers keeping extra batteries alive.