As you toil against the steepness of the hill, the backpack hipbelt secured to your sled digs into your harness. All the sweat accumulated and dried in your hair during your sunny journey across the lower glacier begins to itch as a fresh new layer accumulates under your sunscreen-rimmed hat. After setting up camp, you arrive at dinner so thoroughly itchy and gross that you hope your fellow climbers cannot smell you. If you are only at Camp 2, how will you possibly survive another two weeks?
The answer lies in some time-tested guide strategies for keeping tolerably fresh and clean on extended camping trips in the snow or the dusty slopes of Aconcagua. With a few items packed in your personal kit and some daily self care rituals, you will be back to focusing on the important parts of expedition life in no time – like creating the perfect snow arch in your wind walls or striking the perfect balance of stoked and calm in your Spotify playlist!
The Sun and Your Skin
When I’m working on the snow, I live my life awash in buckets of sunscreen. It’s easy to remember to apply sunscreen when it’s bright and warm, but there is so much reflected solar radiation on glaciers and snowfields that climbers must re-apply religiously even in lower light conditions. I’ve seen and experienced the worst burns on overcast days, especially when focused on building camp or teaching skills. I use an SPF of 30 or more and re-apply at every other water break – sometimes every break if I am sweating a lot. More SPF does not equal that much more protection – you are 97% protected at SPF 30 and about 98% protected with SPF 45. It’s more important to choose a broad spectrum sunscreen. This is one that protects against both UVA and UVB radiation, which are the two wavelengths that come from the sun through the ozone layer and hit our skin.
Anyone who has spent time on the snow or water knows that reflected sun has a sneaky way of burning you in places you never thought possible. If you have ever been burned up your nostrils or on the roof of your mouth, you know what I am talking about. Make sure you are applying sunscreen under your chin, behind your neck, on the back of your hands – all these areas outside your lower face can get just as burned and will cause you just as much grief if left unprotected.
Before you buy, beware – all sunscreens do not work the same way. Some are chemical sunscreens, which absorb the heat of the sun then reflect them away from your skin. Chemical sunscreens, because they work by being absorbed into the skin and use chemicals to repel UV radiation, tend to include more ingredients that can trigger reactions in people with sensitive skin. Some common ingredients in chemical sunscreen, such as oxybenzone, and octinoxate, do not break down and damage coral reefs when washed into the ocean. Mineral sunscreens create a physical barrier to keep UVA and UVB rays from reaching and being absorbed by your skin. Because they are not absorbed by your skin, zinc sunscreens tend to cause fewer allergic reactions. Mineral sunscreens are most often the top choice of guides and mountaineers. The active ingredients in mineral sunscreen are zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide.
Sunscreen is necessary. Sunscreen, for the longtime mountaineer, is life – melanoma is a very real risk after years of sun exposure. Twenty-one days of accumulated sunscreen, however, is a bit much. I clean the sunscreen off my face each night with a wet wipe or moistened bandanna (if I run out of wet wipes). I use a travel size moisturizer to give my face a nice break from the elements before I crawl into my down bag for the night.
You can train your muscles and your mind, but few climbers prepare for the reality of enclosing your sweaty feet in double boots for days or weeks at a time. Before your trip, choose the most comfortable boots you can find. There are several brands of double boots and 8000 meter boots available. Take the time to find a brand that fits your foot. Once you have chosen your boots, visit a professional bootfitter. Heat-mold the liner of your double boot if that is an option. Use whatever orthotic footbed you would use in your other shoes and ski boots. If you are going to take time to obsess over getting one piece of gear dialed in, do this with your boots. Porter or no, heavy sled or light backpack, you are going to walk every step up and every step down every single mountain you climb.
Each night, even when the storms shake my tent and I am bone-weary from hauling my heavy pack to high camp on Denali, I peel off my nasty sweaty socks, put them into my sleeping bag with my boot liners to dry, and give my feet a wet wipe bath. I then dry my feet out with foot powder. Gold Bond comes in a travel size that I like to carry on expeditions. I also remove my orthotic footbeds from my boot liners and put them in my sleeping bag so they will dry completely. I reserve one pair of socks just for sleeping. These will touch the inside of my boots only on summit day. My cleanish, drier feet then go into my down booties. I use my boot shells or overboots to walk around camp and give my feet a break from my climbing boots. Cleaner feet are drier feet, and drier feet are less susceptible to cold damage from frostbite or trenchfoot.
Spend enough time around climbers and you will be sure to hear a story about that minimalist guide who cut the handle off his toothbrush or eschewed her sleeping pad and used only the rope. While bringing excess toiletries will only bog you down with extra weight, there are a few items that can improve your hygiene without adding those dreaded ounces.
Nail clippers. Bring them. There is no worse feeling than having a hangnail on Day 2 of a 21 day expedition. When you want them, you want them. Your guides and fellow expedition members may or may not share.
If you have not already heard me extol the virtues of wet wipes, I will do so again. The travel packs don’t weigh much, and are great for cleaning faces, feet, and every other part of you. Make sure to bring a Ziploc to store the used ones.
Small comb/hairbrush. It is hard to describe the lovely feeling of scratching a brush along my scalp after my hair has been confined in a beanie under my helmet for days. A hairbrush can also mean the difference between coming back with dirty but washable hair and having to cut off one or more unplanned dreadlocks at the end of the trip.
A travel size deodorant or a few drops of essential oils can make you feel clean and reduce your self-consciousness. Cleaning your armpits with wet wipes or a damp bandanna will also go a long way in getting rid of the bacteria which causes BO.
Floss. It weighs nothing. Bring it.
Extra underwear/layers. A few extra changes of underwear, a second sports bra, maybe even a second sun hoody or thermal shirt to swap out in the middle of the trip can improve your morale, smell….and pretty much your whole outlook.
Read on, Ladies!
I’m a woman coming up on 26 years of winter camping and climbing. I use the Diva cup when I’m having my period in the mountains. I empty the blood into toilet paper, which I then store in a plastic grocery bag inside a Ziplock. I clean off my hands and self with a wet wipe after emptying the cup. If I know I am going to be menstruating during my trip, I bring some extra toilet paper and another travel container of wet wipes. Tampons also work well, but I like the versatility of the cup because I don’t have to calculate how many tampons or pads to bring.
Sweaty sports bras make me cold. I bring another one to wear when I get to camp. While the exigencies of building a camp don’t always let me change it right away, it certainly helps regulate my temperature when I can.
Self Care Cliff Notes
- Wet Wipes
- Foot Powder
- Nail Clippers
- Travel Deodorant
- Diva Cup
- More Wet Wipes
If you take two things away from this article, have them be this: take care of your feet and don’t let yourself get a blistering sunburn. You can deal with many other problems on an expedition – take care of the preventable problems before they happen!