STRANDED: 40 hours at -40 - KMSP-TV

STRANDED: 40 hours at -40

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LITTLE FALLS, Minn. (KMSP) -

Few things feel lonelier and scarier than being trapped on the side of the road, especially in the dead of winter. That's why you're told so many times to be prepared. The Fox 9 Investigators show you exactly why you shouldn't ignore those warnings.

It began with a snowstorm and a question in the newsroom: How long could you last if you got stuck out in bone-chilling cold?

It ended with two crazy ladies sitting in a cold car -- one to prove a point, the other because she's already proven it. That would be Karen Nelson.

"I just knew that I was going to die," Nelson recalled.

You might not recognize her right away but you'll likely recognize her story.

Trish Van Pilsum wore jeans, a turtleneck and a light jacket to emulate a typical workday outfit – one that isn't conducive to spending 40 hours in 40 below weather like Nelson did.

Van Pilsum decided to re-create the freezing moments Nelson spent in her car along the road at Camp Ripley, the 52,000-acre Army National Guard post near Little Falls, Minn.

However, near Camp Ripley, there's a security guy who's also a medic. John Stone is supposed to keep Van Pilsum safe, a luxury Nelson did not have when she was stranded.

Van Pilsum had her vitals taken: Temperature, blood pressure and pulse, all of which will change over the next few hours in the cold.

At first with mild hypothermia your blood pressure goes up, respirations rise and as you get colder your temperature drops, pressure will drip, you pulse drops and oxygen to your brain drops.

Karen Nelson puts it more simply.

"You're not going to stay warm. You're going to get cold," she said.

With this experiment, chilling thoughts come back to Nelson like a blizzard from the back of her brain.

" I have shivers up and down my spine. It makes me kind of uncomfortable," she said. "We're out here in the boonies and I'm just kind of scared. It makes me a little nervous."

Nelson has agreed to come to here and sit with Van Pilsum for a while though, because she is an old pro at this survival stuff.

For a few days back in January of 1997, a few snowy and polar day, the whole country knew Nelson's face. You might remember her as the South Dakota woman with the cell phone and the sleeping bag who survived 40 hours in her car at 40 below.

"Just kind of sat there. I talked to myself. I sang. I prayed. I just kept looking out to see if I could see anybody," she said.

And she did that for a day and a night, and another day and into the next night.

John Nelson will check Van Pilsum's temperature, pulse and blood pressure, every hour at first. She's been instructed to keep moving her fingers and hands. Nelson checks in periodically, this time, safe with the medic.

Hypothermia sets in when your temperature drops to 95 degrees. You'll see Van Pilsum's will drop lower than that in a minute. Your body's instinct is draw all of its warmth its core. Where the vital organs are feet, hands, arms and legs get cold first as they constrict and send blood to your body core. That causes your blood pressure to go up. Your pulse, too. You begin to shiver.

As you get colder below about 93 degrees, your body gets tired. Blood pressure and pulse, once elevated, plummet.

Eventually, your brain doesn't get enough oxygen. That's when people get disoriented and start feeling warm, maybe take off their jacket or clothes and get out of the car to walk where they freeze to death.

Body temperature below 90 degrees is very dangerous. The heart beats irregularly. That could mean heart attack or stroke.

By midnight, a little more than two hours into the test, the air temperature in the car is 36.5. Van Pilsum is starting to get a little uncomfortable but she's not in trouble yet.

Her body temperature drops to 96.5 and holds there. Her blood pressure creeps up from 146 over 106 to 161 over 107. Her pulse holds at 88 or 89 beats a minute.

At 12:40, three hours in, her body temp drops only half a degree to 96 but she's working much harder to stay there. Blood pressure is up to 158 over 120. My pulse is up from 88 to 110.

John Nelson will start checking on her every 20 minutes, now.

"She'd be in real trouble in maybe another hour where she would really be getting impaired," he said.

It doesn't take that long. Three and a half hours into the test, at 1 a.m. her temp drops to 96 degrees.

"Your body says it's getting tired of this," Nelson said, four hours in at 2 a.m.

Van Pilsum's core body temperature drops two degrees in twenty minutes. She's at 94 degrees. Her blood pressure shoots up to 190 over 193. If she was not healthy, she'd be at risk of a stroke. But what most alarming is her pulse, once rising, it now drops and she's moving toward severe hypothermia. Her body is about to succumb to the cold. Not what she expected this soon.

Time to quit. Without any winter survival gear, she lasts just four hours.

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