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Uncomfortably numb: If you like your fingers and toes, keep them warm on wintry adventures

  • Author: Vicky Ho
  • Updated: December 2, 2017
  • Published October 26, 2017

It was a beautiful, though chilly, day for skiing at Tincan Peak on Jan. 19. (Vicky Ho / Alaska Dispatch News)

This is an installment of Cautionary Tales, an ongoing series about lessons learned the hard way in the Alaska outdoors.

When frost started forming on my hair and eyelashes, I knew this was a different kind of cold.

A stoke-filled friend and I had decided to ski at Turnagain Pass in the middle of a Southcentral cold snap in January. The high temperature recorded that day wasn't much higher than 10 degrees Fahrenheit, and while I know Alaskans endure much colder conditions on a regular basis, electing to start my day outside in single-digit temperatures requires leaping over a mental hurdle.

But I was motivated to get those turns, the skies were clear, and I had a buddy to ski the backcountry with. I don't always have those three factors on my side. So that day, I figured I could put up with some cold if it meant getting another ski day under my belt.

My fingers and toes were the first to go numb.

Every time we paused while skinning uphill, I'd feel a chill creeping into my hands and feet. My usual socks and ski gloves were not up to snuff for these conditions — so much so that I started to dread skiing downhill, which required less physical exertion than hiking uphill and, accordingly, meant I'd be colder.

The air was so crisp that each time I took a breath, a sharp blast of frigid air seemed to cut into my lungs. I remember wiping away frozen snot. The lip balm in my pocket froze solid.

I've been cold before, but this felt different. It took longer for the feeling to return to my extremities, and while I didn't have frostbite, this turned out to be a case of frost nip.

My fingers and toes haven't been the same since in cold weather.

Now, instead of "putting up" with the cold, I try to be more aggressive and proactive. And that means I often find myself doing strange things to maintain warmth this time of year.

My penchant for dancing on mountains is well documented. Typically, it's a celebratory gesture. Once temperatures dip below freezing, though, showing off my cringeworthy moves is simply one more way to stay warm. (My apologies if you've seen this eye-searing display firsthand.)

The windmill, learned from the backcountry ski buddy I skied Turnagain with that fateful day, is a tried-and-true method of getting the blood flowing back into your fingertips. Swing your arms around in broad circles nearly parallel to the sides of your body and you'll start warming up. An alternate method I learned during an avalanche course: Straighten your arms by your sides, flex your hands so they're parallel to the ground, and shrug your shoulders up and down in a penguin-esque shimmy.

If you start laughing because you feel silly, good. I've found laughter helps keep me warm, too.

I bring extra gloves or mittens that are a notch warmer than what I think I'll actually need for the conditions. That'll be my break-time handwear. If I'm out with friends climbing ice, they're especially useful for long periods spent sitting around. I'm also a big fan of having spares in case friends forget their own gloves.

Need a quick hand warmup? I'm not above sticking my icy hands into my armpits during breaks. Hey, whatever works, works.

For my feet, keeping them dry is key. Spare socks are never a bad idea. Waterproof shoes are a must. In winter, I usually wear gaiters when hiking to keep snow out of my boots — frolicking in knee-deep snow is fun until the snow melts, my socks get wet, and I have to rub the feeling back into my toes. I'll opt for warmer socks, but not too thick. Otherwise, there's not enough space for air to circulate within my boots, which will leave my poor feet (already battered from the constant grind of hiking) feeling colder, faster.

Hand and toe warmers are a great backup, but I try not to depend on them too heavily. In my experience, I have a 50-50 shot of getting them to heat up when exposed to air. Better to prevent their use altogether by maintaining warmth from the start.

If I develop frost nip, which is a mild version of frostbite, I'll warm up the affected area gradually. Those areas are more susceptible to getting cold now, which requires extra care and management. I've been lucky not to have experienced a serious case of frostbite, where muscle or even bone may freeze, and skin appears white, has lost sensation and feels hard or waxy to the touch.

In those cases, the Alaska Public Lands Information Center recommends rewarming the affected area, with warnings about the loss of limbs, intense pain once the feeling returns, considerations about whether further travel will be possible in the backcountry, and prioritizing the treatment of hypothermia over frostbite in case someone has both.

That sounds sufficiently terrifying. In the meantime, I'll do what I can to stay warm.

So if you see my arms windmilling around or the occasional penguin shimmy once winter hits, chalk it up to another cold day in Alaska — and enjoy the show.

Vicky Ho is the night homepage editor at Alaska Dispatch News. An avid hiker and skier, she's also a mediocre runner, terrible biker and part-time employee at a local outdoor retailer. Contact her at vho@alaskadispatch.com, on Twitter @hovicky or Instagram @hovcky.

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