In Minnesota, frigid winds and furious snowstorms prompted the state government to warn that no one should leave home without survival gear. North Dakota forecasters predicted a weekend high temperature of 10 below - if the sun comes out. Western Pennsylvania and parts of West Virginia prepared for six inches of snow - on top of three feet already on the ground. In the Texas Panhandle, temperatures fell from 80 to 20 overnight. In Ohio, the weather was a factor in a shooting when a chilled Columbus man pulled out a pistol and plugged a boy who had hit him with a snowball.

The Fog may come on little cat feet, but The Freeze arrives in less delicate fashion, as evidened by the bone-chilling dispatches that blew in yesterday from around an icy nation.

With two weeks to go before winter officially begins, the chill is on. But will it last?

The rash of cold-weather news stories and the rush of frigid air that reached the Washington area this week have stirred scarred memories of the Winter of '77, when the coldest average temperatures since the birth of the Republic brought misery and economic difficulties to the eastern two-thirds of the United States. This weekend in Washington should be reminiscent of those Arctic days last winter, accordint to the National Weather Service. Low temperatures in the area will approach 10 degrees, with highs in the low 30s. The forecast for next week calls for slightly higher temperatures, with a daily range from about 20 to 35.

Those who find that prospect chilling may be warmed somewhat by the weather service's official long-range forecast for the upcoming winter. The agency calls for "milder than normal" temperatures, on the average, for the eastern third of the nation as far north as Pennsylvania.

But that is not the kind of prediction one can bet the rent money (or the heating bill) on, as the government itself is quick to admit.

"There are a lot of people and agencies predicting the weathter," says David Johnson, chief counsel to a Senate subcommittee that held hearings recently on prospects for the winter to come. "But basically all these guys are shooting in the dark."

The sentiment is shared by Barry Yaffee, planner in the federal office - appropriately named "WEEP" - responsible for determining what to do if this year's winter is as harsh as the last one.

Yaffee says his office, which is known in full as the Winter Emergency Energy Plan task force, has concluded that "we'd better plan for the worst because there's really no reliable forecast."

Last year's experience would seem to bear that out. In November of 1976, the weather service's long-range prediction unit forecast that the upcoming winter would be "normal." In the event, temperatures during the November-February period were about 25 per cent lower than normal levels, and snow fell in history-making proportions.

Except for this week and a brief cold snap in November, this fall's weather has been mild. Temperatures last month averaged four degrees higher than a normal November, the weather service said. In November, 1976, the average was five degrees below normal.

Next week WEEP - a subdivision of the new Department of Energy - and the National Science Foundation will announce a new study designed to determine whether anybody does predict accurately what the weather will be.

The agencies plan to solicit 30-day forecasts from the National Weather Service and various private weather watchers over a two-year period and see how many times a forecaster who has called for fair skies turned out to be all wet.

Whatever the prospect for the rest of this winter, yesterday brought bitterly cold weather to much of the country.

The Midwest and Northeast suffered the most, as blustery west winds carried cold air and snow from the Rockies across the Great Plains and into the Northeast. Thousands of schools and businesses were closed, and roads were impassable in parts of Minnesota, Iowa, Indiana, Illinois and Michigan.

The winds stacked snow in 15-foot drifts along lowa highways, and state police brought out their snowmobiles around Davenport to search for trapped motorists. Across the Mississippi in Illinois, more snowmobile patrols traversed interstate highways blocked by snow.

Snow was heavy along the eastern end of the Great Lakes. "It's bad, really bad," said Betty Tyas, a sheriff's dispatcher in Van Wert, Ohio. "It's not as bad as last winter, but it's getting nice and close."

Buffalo, N.Y., which was one of the cities hit hardest by last winter's storms, has so far escaped the brunt of the cold front. But some counties in western New York reportedly nearly a foot of snow.

Snow, freezing rain and high winds battered New England, bringing large new falls to ski resorts in Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine.

Western ski resorts also reported thick blankets of snow, but skiers in the Rockies had to fight gusty winds that brought wind-chill factors down to 80 below at night.

The nation's low was 38 below zero at Glasgow, Mont. Numerous other towns in the Rockies and Plains states reported temperatures of minus 30.