The Heli-Ski Blog

Staying Warm and Skiing: Wisdom from a Himalayan Veteran

Posted by Topher Donahue on Jan 27, 2010 12:41:00 PM

Cold.  It’s part of the game we play.  Few sports happen in as frigid environments as skiing and mountaineering.  Sure, you can always go to your nearest outdoor store and buy a warmer jacket – until you’re out there.  Dr. John E. Sohl wrote, "Both physics and physiology determine how our body temperature varies. But, when the going gets tough, physiology loses and physics wins."

Skiers are good, but mountaineers are masters, at staying warm, so for a bit of advice on the subject I tracked down Phil Powers, Executive Director of the American Alpine Club, owner of Jackson Hole Mountain Guides, and a cold weather veteran who’s stood on frosty summits from K2 to Denali. 

Twenty years ago, while climbing in Colorado, Phil and I had a conversation about epics in the high Himalaya, like unplanned bivouacs above 7000 meters in the so-called “death-zone”.  His observation was that the older climbers often return from these epics in better condition than the youngsters because of the little things they do to stay warm.  So I finally got around to asking him what he meant.  Here’s what he had to say: 

"Most important: stay warm in the first place. It is much harder to get warm again, than it is to prevent the cold from getting to you.
To that end, I am ultra-reactive to changes in body temperature or energy output. If I stop moving, I put a coat or a hat or hood on immediately. In fact, it's kind of funny, I am often the one sitting around here at work with a coat on because I just can't stand even the smallest chill. People talk to me all the time about getting cold outside on trips. I hardly ever remember being cold because I always did something about it before the cold set in.

"Adjusting to energy output goes the other way too, you simply have to take clothing off, or at least unzip and vent, before you begin to sweat so that you don't have a bunch of damp clothing that chills you when you stop.  This is essential.

"Something that I don't think people realize is how much heat you lose through conduction into the snow or rock. I always pay a lot of attention to the parts of my body that touch cold surfaces. Your coat and hat keep heat from radiating away, but the snow or rock you are standing, sitting, laying or leaning on can suck the heat right out of you. I always put little pads of foam between my crampons and boots for this reason.  Whenever possible, I put a pack or rope between me and the rock or snow when I’m sitting down.

"Little things make a lot of difference. Moving slow at altitude on mountains like Denalit or K2, I remember that while I rested between steps, I made sure to take my weight completely off my uphill foot so that the blood could get in there easily. Then I'd wiggle those toes until it was time to move again. On the standing leg I often curl my toes, pulling the arch of my foot off the bottom of my boot to reduce that contact with a cold footbed on the snow. (The same advice applies to standing on skis.)

"Looser clothing, especially on the feet and hands, allows for better circulation and warmth. Don't stuff extra socks into tight boots, it just constricts and keeps the blood flow out of your foot.

"Then there is the obvious stuff: hats and neck warmers go a long way because of the amount of blood circulating to your face and brain. I am a huge fan of hoods." 

Phil concludes, "I still have all ten fingers and toes so it seemed to work for me."

CMH heli-skiers have the powerful tool of the helicopter to take them to warm food and a comfortable lodge when it gets too gnarly, but the heart of Canadian winter is nothing to take lightly, even with a Bell 212 at your service.  

Topics: First Timers, Gear, winter mountaineering