Mountain Rescue: Frostbite is real and prevention is vital
When the temperature drops and the wind picks up frostbite becomes a real danger for anyone outdoors. Frostbite occurs when the skin and underlying tissues freeze due to exposure to cold. Easily recognizable symptoms include cold, prickly skin progressing to white or gray skin that then gets hard and waxy in more advanced stages. Like a burn, deeper tissue damage is more serious than a mild frostnip.
However, it doesn’t take extremely cold temperatures in order for frostbite to affect you.
A combination of wind and temperature cause an effect called windchill. Windchill describes the cumulative effect of temperature and wind on exposed skin. You may have heard windchill described as the “feels like” temperature. The accompanying windchill chart, published by the National Weather Service, illustrates the resulting windchill factor associated with various temperatures and wind speeds.
Frostbite can occur in as little as one half hour even when temperatures are above 0 degrees Fahrenheit with wind speeds as low as 15 mph. Colder temperatures and the higher winds lower the windchill, and increase the probability and quickness of onset of frostbite.
Oftentimes, here in the Fraser Valley, when the mercury is well below zero the winds are dead calm. This allows the cold air to settle in the valley bottom. It could even be warmer high on the mountain. Windchill can still be a factor if you are moving at speed – like skiing or snowmobiling. The key to mitigating windchill is to cover up any exposed skin. This is a basic preventative measure that is often overlooked by visitors unaccustomed to our weather. Your nose, ear lobes, cheeks and forehead are all susceptible. I always carry a facemask of some sort in my kit.
Frostbite can still bite you even if you’re all covered up. If you are going to be outdoors in the sub-zero cold insulating clothing is critical. We have had several members of our team suffer from frostbite and related injuries over the years, even though dressed well. Fingers and toes are most vulnerable. Once you have frozen a body part it is more susceptible to frostbite due to damaged microcirculation. It is extremely important to keep an eye on your companions, especially if they are young children, for signs of frostbite.
Mild frostbite, also called frostnip, where the skin is not actually frozen can easily be rewarmed with direct body heat. Warm the affected area with your hand or place the affected area in a warm place. After warming, maybe adding some extra insulation would be prudent?
Any actual freezing of the skin or lower layers will require medical attention. There is a real danger of a much more serious injury due to tissue death and damage to surviving tissue. Transport the patient to a medical clinic as soon as possible. Frostbite of a hand, foot or limb in the backcountry is a medical emergency and would warrant helicopter transport.
If you have a severe frostbite injury in your party in the backcountry it is best not to try and rewarm the affected part until you are in a position where you can keep the entire body warm. Hypothermia, a lowering of the body’s core temperature, needs to be considered as an additional medical issue. Rewarming a frozen part is extremely painful and needs to be done properly in a controlled environment for best results. Procedures for rewarming are beyond the scope of this article, but be aware that allowing a frozen part to refreeze usually leads to gangrene.
Prevention is the lynchpin to coping with frostbite since injuries seldom have a good outcome. Quality winter clothing, having extra dry layers available and watching out for each other are all important. Recognition and early treatment can keep a bad situation from getting ugly.
Greg Foley is a member of Grand County Search and Rescue and has been a mountain rescue volunteer for 38 years. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. The GCSAR website can be found at grandcountySAR.com.
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