By Val Peckarsky
Regardless of past matrimonial experiences, we have all experienced cold feet at one point or another. As mountaineers, with our penchant for traveling willingly into extreme conditions at high altitudes, we frequently find ourselves on the frontlines of the battle against allowing our extremities to become too cold.
Cold-related injuries vary greatly in severity and in the symptoms they present. What makes these injuries so insidious is the fact that getting even a mild cold injury may make that area of your body more prone to future cold injuries. Remember the old sports saying, “a good defense is the best offense”? This is true in caring for your hands and feet as well. The best way to avoid damage is to be proactive in preventing your extremities from becoming too cold in the first place. Read on to build your own arsenal of weapons to protect yourself from the attacks of cold injuries and their allies.
First, it is important to understand some of the main factors that can cause cold extremities. Prolonged exposure to cold temperatures without adequate protection is the most obvious one, and therefore at the top of the list. However, temperatures do not have to be at or below freezing for damage to be done. Damp conditions can also greatly accelerate the effects of cold on tissues. Other factors that may cause one to be more susceptible to cold injuries include: ill-fitting gear, poor circulation, fatigue, and dehydration.
Before the Trip
Make sure your boots fit properly. Wear them around a bit, lacing them exactly as you would on your trip. Be aware of any areas where your feet feel constricted or uncomfortable, as these effects will only be exacerbated at higher elevations and in colder temperatures. When choosing socks, more is not always better. Layering three pairs of socks may seem like a good idea to keep warm, but insulating your feet into oblivion can have the opposite effect. Constriction reduces circulation, turning an otherwise warm layering system into an icebox. You also don’t want your feet to sweat, as moisture can be detrimental to your warmth and cause painful blisters. For most trips, wearing one good pair of cushioned socks at a time will likely be adequate. Some people prefer to use ski socks. In very cold climates, or on cold summit days, thick over-the-calf mountaineering socks can be used.
On the Mountain
Your guides will constantly preach and model good self-care from the parking lot to the summit and back again, and with good reason! Being intentional about hydrating regularly and keeping your body fueled with enough calories won’t just benefit your day-to-day recovery and improve your chances of a successful summit day. Keeping your body nourished also enhances circulation and maintains energy levels, thus helping to keep your fingers and toes warm throughout a long travel day.
Fingers and toes still going numb? Move them! Some mountaineers incorporate a “toe scrunch” into their walk – literally curl and uncurl your toes after planting each foot to help stimulate blood flow. At breaks, you can try vigorously swinging arms and legs to get that blood flowing as well. Swing it like you mean it! Please do not punch anyone in the face. Be especially careful with that leg swinging if you are wearing crampons (ouch) or are standing on a slope (use your trekking poles or axe for balance). If you are still getting cold, even when moving, adjust your layers. Maybe add an active insulation piece. If your core is not warm enough, your fingers and toes will also suffer.
Once you arrive at your stopping point for the day, as tempting as it may be to toss everything into your tent, dive headfirst into your sleeping bag, and sleep for an eternity, do yourself a favor and take care of your feet before you head off into Dreamland. Wet socks and gloves? Get out of them and into a dry pair as soon as possible. It’s nice to have a pair of Sacred Socks that never leave the safety of your sleeping bag. You will always have a dry pair to look forward to. Keep wet socks, gloves, and boot liners inside your sleeping bag to dry them overnight. This also gives you the advantage of having warm items to put on the next morning.
Feet still cold from your trek into camp? Fill a Nalgene bottle with hot water, wrap it in a Buff, and place it at the foot of your sleeping bag. Delightful! Another option for warming seriously cold extremities is the skin-to-skin method. Also known as the “bond with your tentmate on a whole new level game,” put your cold feet on your tentmate’s stomach (gaining their consent first is a good way to avoid a significant amount of interpersonal conflict) and keep them there until your feet rewarm. The true test of proficiency in this skill is if both tentmates can simultaneously warm each other’s feet using the belly method. Sound easy? Try it out and report back to us. Your feet will thank you.
Considerations for Longer Trips and Courses
If you are going to be in the field for a significant amount of time, you may want to have some kind of booty system to supplement your cozy pair of designated sleep socks. Down socks have a high warmth to weight ratio. Combined with a waterproof bivy booty, you have a durable, water-resistant system for padding around camp and wearing to bed. For a durable option that will insulate your feet even in damp conditions, try out the synthetic-filled camp booty instead.
One last note for those who are shivering over their pots of Ramen in the camp snow kitchen: Spare your feet the punishment of standing directly on the cold snow one second longer than they have to, and stand on your closed-cell foam sleeping pad instead (A small sit-pad or similar piece of foam will work well, too).