Saturday, December 14, 2013

Jerusalem Snowstorm of 2013, or 15 MITOC Winter School Lessons for Snowstorms and Bad Weather

The largest snowstorm in the last 50  years hit the Jerusalem area this weekend. According to some news articles and hobbyist meteorologist forum threads, the snowfall accumulation was about 50cm from Wednesday night December 11th to Saturday mid-day December 14th. For a place that is used to about 2-3 cm of snow total throughout the winter season on a typical year, this storm was quite a shock (it caused problems in Cairo, the Golan Heights, Syria, and Gaza too). 

Jerusalem is not properly equipped with snowplows and salt like we are used to in the American northeast - most of the snow-clearing vehicles on the streets are of the bulldozer and army tank variety, and I haven't seen salt being used on the main roads inside the city (I assume the small supplies are being used in clearing the two major highways entering Jerusalem). 

My source of (correct) weather throughout the last week has been this amazing Jerusalem weather website

Thanks to some techniques (and practice) gained through MITOC's Winter School (The MIT Outing Club's lecture/trip series in the winter time, filled with tips and techniques for winter hiking and camping), me and my roommates braved the storm and had lots of fun prancing in the storm. 

Before the storm

The 3 or 4 days before the snow had been filled with cold, wind, and rain. It's not unusual for Jerusalem, just mildly unpleasant when you walk to work. 

And when the path from your apartment to the street is covered in an inch of standing water. 

We kept joking back and forth that it's going to snow and not to snow - but by Wednesday afternoon you could smell that frost smell in the air that every New Englander knows. I had stocked up on rice, granola bars, and chocolate (MITOC lesson #1), but not on purpose - I just like to eat those things. Lo and behold, the snow started.

Wednesday / Thursday (Day 1): A Reasonable Storm

By New England standards, the falling flakes of snow were like a light snow not uncommon in Boston or New York. I just never expected to see it in Jerusalem. 

The apartment was slowly getting colder. Remember, buildings in places not used to snow don't have luxuries like central heating. I wore my wool socks (not cotton, in case they got wet, MITOC lesson #2) and slippers, together with a fleece, and was perfectly warm and happy throughout Thursday. To sleep under my three thin blankets, I boiled water before bed and put it in my Nalgene covered with a sock (MITOC lesson #3). In the absence of a person, there is nothing like hugging a radiating bottle of warmth in bed.

That day was clearly not a work day, so I slept, ate, read, and was generally lazy most of the day. But every New Englander knows that they have to clean their porch during the day after a snow so it won't freeze and become black ice the next day. No shovels, but squeegees do just fine. Let's ignore for a second the fact that it rarely gets below freezing and the likelihood of black ice accumulating on our steps was close to zero.

I went to go sit in the nice wifi with a coffee at the Educational Bookshop for an hour before meeting Noemie and Wilem (my roommates, French and Belgian) for a walk. (Of course at the Educational Bookshop I met an international filmmaker who wanted to ask me questions about MEET, but that's a separate story). 

With a city not prepared for snow like this, the roads don't have proper drainage from the melting snow. And the temperature outside was hovering right above freezing, so there was no ice accumulation on the streets. But for those experienced with snow this can only mean one thing: the dreaded slush. To combat this (in the absence of waterproof footwear), we put plastic bags around our feet, socks around them, then put our shoes on. Mountaineers have a fancy name for this - a vapor barrier liner. The idea is to trap the heat around your foot so that even if the thing around your foot is wet, you stay warm (MITOC lesson #4). 

Of course, the rewards of going out in the evening in a snowy city are unbelievable. Hot drinks (MITOC lesson #5) and "it's all about the picture" (MITOC lesson #6). 

 Note the fire coming out of a trash can by the bread seller on the streets of the Old City. 

And the magical palm trees with 2 inches of snow on the ground. Breathtaking. 

It is critical to stay out of the wind to stay warm (MITOC lesson #7), so Noemie, Wilem, Stefano, and I taped the seams of the window frames in the living room with plastic wrap and blankets to block the cold wind from invading the apartment. 

That night was colder than the last - Noemie and Wilem had two space heaters, so we sat all together in the living room with the space heaters until it was time to go to sleep. This time, it was time for the sleeping bag, chocolate and jumping jacks before bed, hot water bottle, and hat / gloves on standby (MITOC lesson #8). 

I kept my cell phone and computer under the covers in case our power went out and I needed to preserve battery. Cold doesn't do good things to electronics (MITOC lesson #9). 

Friday (Day 2): A Bit More...

Waking up on Friday to even more snow on the ground (and an even colder apartment) had the same feeling as waking up during the American northeast Snowpocalypse of January 2010 - WHAT. I seriously considered making a website called As you can see, I didn't. The wifi (and perhaps the power too) had gone out in my apartment, so I decided to try my luck in finding my usual Friday morning brunch place with wifi. 

Damascus Gate was surreal. 

And believe it or not, there was a snowman right next to the Western Wall

And the street musicians on Jaffa street apparently continue to try and sell their wares. 

By far the most creative snowman I saw in the city - on Jaffa street. 

 As it turned out, I didn't have much luck in finding power or wifi until I walked around the entire city to the touristy Jaffa street. I ended up having brunch at Tmol Shilshom, the famous bookshop near Jaffa street. 

After sitting in the cafe for a few hours and the snow again starting outside, I decided to make my way back home.

There was still the one dedicated fruit seller near Salahuddin Street / Damascus Gate. I was tempted, so I bought some tomatoes. It was getting tiring to eat just rice and sausages for all your meals ...

At this point home was getting inevitably colder. I wish I had a camping stove so I could continuously boil water. Putting on a hat inside made it infinitely warmer (MITOC lesson #10). Noemie's approach was the burrito wrap (MITOC lesson #11). 

The wall of heaters in the living room threatened to throw the circuit breaker every time we made a pot of tea. Every time it did, I'd have my headlamp in my pocket so I could find the breaker switch to flip it, and make sure you have spare batteries (MITOC lesson #12). 

And the snowmelt kept dripping into the apartment through the leaks. The landlord basically said this was the worst snow in decades and that he'd fix it when the snow stopped. In temporary consolation he gave us a third space heater. As long as we kept ourselves dry, we'd be warm (MITOC lesson #13). This meant there was a constant changing of socks, pants, and shoes every time anyone went outside.

Saturday (Day 3): A Real "Sheleggedon"

By Saturday, Day 3 when the snow continued (the roads had been closed for two days now, basically no travel in or out of Jerusalem), the Old City was absolutely gorgeous. People were playing in the streets, snowmen and snowangels abound, and all the shops around were closed. 

The trick to staying warm outside: scarf, hat, gloves. And layers! (MITOC lesson #14). 

Now that the storm is over, the temperature is getting warmer, and there is no need to worry about freezing. There never really was (the temperatures barely got below freezing), but all the same I am glad I had my Winter School skills to back me up. 

Our main concern right now is that our water tank on the roof might be to cold to supply enough water. In fact, the  houses in our neighborhood have a water shortage because of burst pipes in the region. Good thing I stocked up on water from my previous hiking adventures to definitely have enough for a few days (MITOC lesson #15). 

The next challenge is to take a shower out of the water bottles heated in front of the space heater, but this is a challenge easily solved.

A Recap: Winter School Lessons for Real Life Snowstorms and Cold Weather

  1. Stock up on carb-filled and fatty foods. They give you energy and alleviate the need to go find a shop to sell you food during a storm. Chocolate is great for a quick burst. 
  2. Wear thick wool socks and slippers to keep your feet warm.
  3. Sleep with a Nalgene filled with warm water wrapped in a sock. In the absence of a Nalgene, rubber hot water bottles are great. 
  4. Make your non-waterproof shoes waterproof with makeshift vapor barrier liners made of plastic grocery bags. 
  5. Drink warm liquids. Tea and hot chocolate are great. 
  6. Whatever your situation, make sure to take epic pictures. 
  7. Wind-seal leaky window frames with plastic wrap, tape, blankets, sheets, whatever.
  8. Do jumping jacks before bed. Eat a bar of chocolate before bed. Keep a hat and gloves near you in case you get cold at night. 
  9. Sleep with your computer and your cell phone (unplugged) under your covers to conserve battery.
  10. Wear a hat inside. "If your toes are cold, put on a hat", said someone famous. 
  11. No hat? Burrito wrap yourself in a blanket!
  12. Keep a headlamp nearby in case the power goes out. Make sure you have spare batteries for said headlamp.
  13. Keep yourself dry. Change wet socks immediately, especially if they are cotton. Better to dry your clothes while they are off of you.
  14. Layer up. It makes you flexible and traps air between your layers of clothing, adding to the insulation.
  15. Stock up on water just in case.

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