Training key to prevent cold weather injuries threaten climbers


A participant in this year's Mountain Cold Weather Company Ice Trek shows proper attire for the below zero conditions encountered in 2015. (Photo by Timothy Smeddal)

A participant in this year’s Mountain Cold Weather Company Ice Trek shows proper attire for the below zero conditions encountered in 2015. (Photo by Timothy Smeddal)

It is crucial to beat the frigid temperatures of New England’s outdoors to save both lives and extremities. Norwich students in the Mountain Cold Weather Company (MCW) train to become cold climate experts and learn how to take the necessary precautions to minimize the risk of injury.
All of those different skills and safeguards were needed in order to stay safe during Ice Trek at Mt. Washington in N.H. from Jan. 5-10.
“The best way to prevent a cold weather injury is to be prepared,” said Thomas Hinkle. He also pointed out that, using the essential foundations of survival skills, it is simply best to avoid obtaining a cold weather injury in the first place.
Hinkle, a 19-year-old sophomore in MCW who participated in the Ice Trek, experienced harsh weather with subzero temperatures at -50 degrees (not including wind chill), fogged goggles, and visibility reduced to only a few feet due to thick clouds and snow.
With temperatures that seemed to chill to the bone and risk freezing any exposed skin, MCW students were required to never expose any parts of their body to the harsh winter conditions. According to Hinkle, “we were told to not expose our skin for more than five minutes or else our chances of frostbite would dramatically increase.”
“The mountain and weather were so abusive that I accidentally lost my footing and twisted my knee on a rock,” Hinkle recounted, “It could’ve been much worse, but after I was evaluated it was determined that I could keep climbing.”
Christopher Clifton from Bridgeville, Del., who is also a member of MCW, explained the rigors of his training. “This qualification entails different hauling systems, the basics to setting up a rope bridge, and then basic knots with basic cold weather prevention knowledge.”
At the Ethan Allen Military Base in Vt., Clifton said, “I remember using my qualifications during an FTX (Field Training Exercise) on the second day we were practicing movement techniques, which had below freezing temperatures. I was only wearing one pair of gloves which is where the problem arose” the 20 year old Spanish and political science major explained, “my hands started sweating so I removed the gloves; but then when we stopped our activity I noticed my fingers started turning blue and my hand became red.”
When parts of the body start to change color or become numb it is an early sign of frostbite. “Frostbite occurs when parts of the body are exposed to drastically low temperatures for too long, and the skin starts to freeze,” Clifton said.
“When the skin turns blue, the blood vessels begin to freeze and don’t let any oxygen in, which is when necrosis sets in,” Clifton continued. “When frostbite is left unchecked, the part of the body affected characterizes as being black and heavy.”
Clifton remembered feeling a burning tingling in his fingers, so he took steps in order to safely rewarm his hands. Rewarming his hands too fast could result in nerve damage.
“I gradually rewarmed my hands by wrapping them in dry clothing and putting them in my sleeping bag,” Clifton said. “This rewarming of part of your body will be quite painful because as blood rushes back into the cells, pain receptors are triggered.”
Hinkle contributed his own account after witnessing a person at Ice Trek develop the early signs of a cold weather injury. That person was dealing with pain and numbness surrounding his toes which ultimately meant one thing: he was showing some early signs of frostbite.
The MCW team found shelter and removed his boots and rewarmed the feet with dry clothing and heat warmers. Using their skills and proper precautions learned from training they were able to successfully prevent any injury.
Ben Drapeaux, a 19-year-old criminal justice and accounting major from Cumberland, R.I., is a member of MCW as well. He explained that high elevation climbing such as mountaineers do above 8,000 feet also carries risks. “While climbing such heights, it is important to not climb too fast because the fluid in the brain could leak out and cause serious damage or suffocation if it leaks into the lungs.”
When climbing mountaineers will often reach a certain height and then backtrack to a lower level again so that the body can adapt to the higher elevation where there is less oxygen.
For basic hikers or mountaineers, being stranded in a frozen ice-land can mean life and death. “If a person should find himself stuck there are a number of ways to make a shelter if one is not present,” Clifton said. “The first that comes to mind is an igloo.”
Clifton explained that igloos take time to make so it is best to start early; they will take several hours to finish. To make an igloo, a person must first pile snow into a huge mound.
“This process will take time, because you must let the snow settle and refreeze to conform into a wall structure,” Clifton said, adding that “after two or three hours after the snow has conjoined it will be time to dig into it to make the shelter accessible.”
Clifton continued to explain that after the shelter has been established you will need to dig down in a U shape, so that brutal wind and other elements cannot reach you.
“After a hole, a sleeping area, is made, it will be important to lay down any gear or waterproof things since the snow will melt,” Clifton continued. Once everything is set you are ready to take shelter and survive the night, but remember this task will take hours for the snow to compact, so it is best to start before 1700.”
The next skill that will be vital for survival is fire.
“The best way to start a fire is not rubbing two sticks together,” Drapeaux said. “Dig a hole in the snow to shield the fire from wind and wetness.” Then find sticks that are dry enough to catch fire and to find white birch bark to ignite the blaze. Light the birch and slowly lay the dry sticks upon it; while starting the fire it is also best to have extra sticks to hold over the fire so that they will dry out, according to Drapeaux.
Regardless of the situation, “It is best to travel with others and be prepared for the worst,” Clifton said. “If you should find yourself lost, backtrack the way you came and hopefully you won’t have to use the proficiencies I have used.”
Fellow company member Hinkle concurred. “It is important to understand the dangers of the harsh winters in the outdoors,” Hinkle said, “the best way to prevent cold weather injuries is to prepare for them and take the necessary steps in order to maintain good health.”

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