A few days ago I found my self halfway up the Northeast face of Mt Andromeda in the Rockies of Alberta Canada on a route called The Andromeda Strain. It was -15°C, spindrift was falling heavily onto me and I was stuck to a belay for nearly two hours while my partner battled with the snow covered mixed crux of the route… oh the joys of winter alpinism.
During this time I was able to work diligently on my techniques for avoiding frost bite. So I thought that I might share.
I’ll start out by stating that frost bite is a very real concern, just as much for weekend warriors climbing on Mt Baker as it is for the for upper echelon pushing the limits in the Himalaya. In 2006 I frost bit one of my pinkies while walking back from an ice climb, I wasn’t even on route! You need to be aware of the feeling in your toes and fingers when the temps get low.
The first line of defense is your clothing system. You need to dress for the conditions. The volcanoes of the Northwest can be very cold places, even during the spring and summer. Having adequate gloves, boots and clothing is essential. It needs to be remembered that when the of the body gets cold it reacts by limiting the blood flow to the extremities, putting them at risk. So while you may have the warmest belay mitts on the planet, they will not be as effective if your core is cold.
Also of utmost importance is to be dry, a wet pair of gloves will freeze and if your not careful your fingers will freeze right along with them. Just the same a soaked base layer will not keep the body as warm.
Unfortunately, you can’t climb with a down suit at all times, just in case. So when you do get cold you need to be able to warm up, even when tied to belay in the middle of a steep face. With the hands, swinging them while moving the fingers will force fresh blood down the arms into them. Pulling the fingers into the middle of the glove can also help, even though this means the finger slots in the gloves will cool off. Having an extra pair of gloves inside your jacket can be a life saver since they will be warmed by your core body heat.
Your feet on the other hand can be swung in a similar manner to push blood flow to them. Having dry socks is very key. Part of achieving this can involve wearing gaiters that ensure that snow does not penetrate the top of your boot. When in a confined space (a belay in a chimney…) kicking your boots against the rock/ice around you can be effective as well.
The main thing to remember is that your body works as a system. A warm core will result in warmer extremities. A good warm hat and a belay jacket can do wonders.
Most of the cases that I have seem of people getting frostbite have taken place during times of heavy fatigue after climbing all day. Do not get lazy when your ‘almost’ back to your bivy, if your toes go numb, get them back, you’ll be stoked about it later.
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