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Outside magazine, November 1999
By Hampton Sides

Why does hypothermia make people confused, even delirious?

Will Bettendorf, Seoul, South Korea

Of all the organs of the body, the brain is by far the most sensitive to changes in temperature. A drop of only three degrees Fahrenheit in the brain's tissues (brought on by exposure to frigid air or water) can manifest itself in some downright screwy behavior. "The millions of chemical reactions that routinely go on in our brain get sluggish in the cold," explains Murray Hamlet, director of operations at the Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine. "This causes the cells of our central nervous system to stop talking to each other." As the chill deepens, your motor skills gradually deteriorate (you drop a mitten in the snow and can't pick it up). Later you start making bizarre judgment calls (even if you could retrieve the mitten, you decide you'd rather not). And then you begin to hallucinate. "A hypothermic person might look at that mitten," says Hamlet, "and think it's a bar of soap." As desperate as this may sound, all is not necessarily lost: Bundled in blankets and dry clothes, force-fed hot liquids, and wrapped in a sleeping bag, even the frostiest of victims can prevail—albeit with disturbingly lucid memories of their descent into frozen delirium.

Why do llamas spit?

Liam Powers, Arlington, Virginia

Llama sputum comes in two flavors: mild and vile. The mild stuff is simply whitish saliva, and these sociable herd animals use it as a medium of communication—to enforce herd hierarchy, reprimand their young, and shoo off overeager suitors. But when a llama becomes irritated or threatened—by a predator or an aggressive tourist—the defender hocks a hot green slime that scientists call visceral spit. "It's a stinky, sour mash of bacteria, digestive juices, and fermented grass," explains Virginia veterinarian Donna Matthews. "It can really ruin your day." Thankfully, llamas are slow to anger, and they'll usually alert you to an imminent outburst by throwing back their ears, craning their necks, and pointing their noses to the sky. "Some of them are Olympic-caliber spitters that can hurl a pint of the stuff up to 15 feet away," notes Ohio State University veterinary professor David Anderson. "But then they hold their mouth open in shock, as though embarrassed to have done something so disgusting."

How do mogul fields form?

Kathleen Rend, New York, New York

There's no magic formula or ruthless conspiracy behind those knee-jarring ski bumps. Any moderately pitched slope can morph from groomed corduroy into giant snow pimples over the course of a day or two, given plenty of soft powder and the presence of skilled skiers or snowboarders. Here's how: As downhillers link hundreds of S-turns down the fall line, they push and sculpt the snow into tiny slag piles. Because experienced mogul-hounds tend to tackle the terrain in a predictable pattern, turning on the crest of the rise and sliding into the trough, every slalom-like move deepens the grooves and raises the ridges, until finally the whole hill is a menacing minefield of neatly spaced bumps.Unless, of course, it's overrun by fishtailing snowboarders or tentative skiers who make disruptive sidecuts into the mountain and otherwise muck up the slope's clean lines. (A Sno-Cat has a similarly ruinous effect.) The exacting mogul fields used in World Cup freestyle competitions are made the same way as all others, only with a little more precision: Officials plant bamboo poles every 11 feet down a virgin hill and then let test skiers go to work, run after run, laying down a perfectionist's gauntlet of powdery bubble-wrap.

What is that "gamy" taste in some wild meats?

Eli Haber, Somerville, Massachusetts

A variety of factors can increase the funkiness of a feral entrée such as venison, duck, and wild turkey—the age of the animal, its muscularity, and what time of year it was killed (a boar shot during mating season will be one big, unscrumptious mass of hormones)—but by far the most influential is its diet. Simply put, our palates generally prefer animals that eat things we like to eat. A domestic goose that has enjoyed a steady diet of corn or rice will taste less distinctly wild than a wild Canada cousin that has foraged among pungent grubs, insects, and sour nuts. Same goes for an apple-and-oat-fed deer over one that has nibbled on bitter sage. So can "gamy" be pegged to a specific chemical compound? There's no conclusive evidence, but scientists have isolated a few fatty acids (4-methyloctanoic, 4-ethyloctanoic, and 4-methylnonanoic, to be exact) deep in the tissues of venison and other meats that may contribute to their muskiness. "We can smell and detect ethyloctanoic at a mere 0.006 parts per million," explains Charlotte Brennand, a professor of food science and nutrition at Utah State University. "A little goes a long, long way." That said, here's to a tasty, wild Thanksgiving turkey—and a stout marinade.

Illustrations: Brian Rea

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