Proper backcountry dress, post-outing warming can prevent crisis
November 16, 2007
BOULDER, Colo. ” The headlamp batteries died as Gary Neptune climbed alone on the dark north face of Makalu in May 1987.
Despite the subzero temperature and wind howling around the 27,826-foot Himalayan mountain in Nepal ” the world’s fifth-tallest peak ” he knew he needed to remove both gloves to replace the batteries.
Neptune also knew he risked frostbite during the two-minute procedure. The unavoidable exposure blistered his skin and left the tips of two fingers on each hand blackened with dead tissue. His fingernails fell off, and it took a year for normal sensation to return.
His experience illustrates the short- and longer-term damage caused by cold overexposure, said Dr. Skeet Glatterer, co-director of the Golden-based Colorado Mountain Club’s Mountain Oriented Medicine School.
It begins with reddening skin. As cold crystallizes cellular fluids and blood vessels near the skin constrict, the skin turns white and hard. Warming the affected tissue causes blisters, and dead tissue turns black, Glatterer said.
If nerve and blood vessel damage is severe enough, amputation is required.
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At Neptune’s namesake shop, Neptune Mountaineering in Boulder, a glass jar of formaldehyde preserves the frostbitten big toe of one climber. A photograph shows another, Maurice Herzog, with stumps for fingers.
“He can barely hold a wine glass,” said Neptune, 62.
Though no national registry tracks frostbite, it represents one symptom of hypothermia, the No. 1 killer in the backcountry, Glatterer said.
Hypothermia occurs when the body’s core temperature drops from the normal 98.6 degrees to 95 degrees or lower.
Danger signs include shivering, the body’s attempt to warm up, and the “umbles” ” stumbling, mumbling, fumbling and grumbling. Cold, pale skin, abnormally slow breathing and delirium also warn of hypothermia.
About 700 people nationwide die of hypothermia annually, according to the Mayo Clinic Web site.
“The key is not to tolerate any numbness or tingling,” Glatterer said. “I know a polar explorer. He’s a very driven person, but when that happens, he will stop and make camp.”
Besides using good judgment, dress in layers and avoid anything made of cotton, which dries slowly.
“For the average person, if they just didn’t wear blue jeans (in the backcountry) … they would be a heck of a lot better off,” said Ray Shem, a CMC high-altitude mountaineering instructor.
Because dry skin stays warmer than wet skin, he suggested packing a rain jacket and layers of nylon, polyester or high-tech fabric clothing, which wicks moisture from the skin.
Some keep a space blanket handy to keep warm in emergencies.
Though thin enough to fold into a fist-sized package, the reflective blanket effectively insulates.
To treat hypothermia, move the victim to a warm place as soon as possible, remove wet clothes and provide warm, nonalcoholic beverages, as alcohol lowers the body’s ability to retain heat, according to the Mayo Clinic website.
However, avoid applying direct heat with hot water, heating lamps and heating pads, or massaging a hypothermic person.
The Mayo Clinic says to apply warm compresses to the neck, chest and groin.
Warming the arms and legs first can be fatal because it directs cold blood toward the body’s vital organs and causes core body temperature to drop.
Neptune also cautioned against pressing one’s luck when the weather changes.
“The Colorado Rockies can be as cold and windy as Mount Everest,” he said.