LOGAN CANYON Most Utahns don't know what it means to be really cold.
Heck, temperatures were in the 70s Wednesday. But you say you've experienced below-zero temperatures in the past? How far below? Ten? Twenty? Thirty?
No, we're talking real cold, the kind of bone-cracking, marrow-chilling, pipe-bursting cold that glibly penetrates your pathetic attempts at bundling up and turns the environment into a white, alien wasteland, void of any sign of life. The kind of cold in which, if you're crazy enough to go outside, you freeze to death quickly. It's the top-of-Everest, Antarctica, Jack London "To Build a Fire"-type cold where all you want to do is lie down and take a nap from which you will never wake.
This is the kind of cold Zane Stephens lives for.
Most people welcome spring. Not Stephens. Spring means the yearly postponement of his quest to find the lowest temperature ever recorded in the continental United States.
Thanks to Stephens, northern Utah holds the record for the lowest temperature in the state: 69 degrees below zero (Fahrenheit) set on Feb. 1, 1985, in Peter Sinks, a place 30 miles up Logan Canyon that's cold even on a nice spring day. The record comes a bare 0.7 degrees from the cold record for the whole lower 48, currently held by Rogers Pass, Mont.
Stephens has been trying to break the record ever since.
"It's a little disappointing when you only go 50 below," he said of this winter, when Peter Sinks' lowest temperature was 52 degrees in the red. "But there's no question in my mind that we can break the record."
In 1983, Stephens, then an undergraduate in Utah State University's biometeorology program, found Peter Sinks on a topographical map. He began making nocturnal trips to Peter Sinks on particularly cold nights to measure the temperature there.
"Zane is really after this," said Neal Israelsen of Campbell Scientific, which has put high-tech thermometers in Logan Canyon sinkholes some years. "The risks of hiking in to do this, all alone, are pretty high. If he broke an ankle or something he'd freeze to death."
The upper reaches of Logan Canyon feature several sinkholes, a few blocks to a mile long, that collect cold air flowing down from the mountains. When snow is on the ground it reflects sunlight during the day, helping maintain the cold, and during clear nights the snow radiates infrared waves, further cooling the air next to it. The cold air slides down the mountain like water and collects in the sinkhole, where it becomes progressively colder.
"It's like a lake of cool air," said Gaylen Ashcroft, professor emeritus of biometeorology. "Walking into a sink is like walking into a freezer. The temperature can drop 10 degrees in two or three steps."
After living in Spokane and Hawaii during much of the 1990s ("It took me three years in Hawaii to warm up"), Stephens returned to Logan in 1999 to pursue a doctorate and immediately picked up where he left off, entraining biometeorology student Tim Wright in his quest for cold. Through computer modeling, Wright figures the temperature in Peter Sinks a mile long, half mile wide and 210 feet deep can reach 82 degrees below zero.
"The Cache Chamber of Commerce has a contract out on those two," said USU's Utah Climate Center director Donald Jensen with a laugh.
Stephens and Wright are working with Campbell Scientific to put remote thermometers in Peter Sinks and other sinkholes that send data to a base station without the need to hike up and check the temperature manually.
But hiking in does have its rewards. One early morning in the wee hours, Stephens was snowshoeing out of Middle Sink back to his car when a huge, silent light suddenly annihilated the blackness around him. He turned around and saw a meteor plunging to Earth, a huge ball of fire glowing red and blue and throwing sparks as it fell. It was a beautiful sight.