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Staying warm on the slopes

Elizabeth EberVail CO, Colorado

Most experienced skiers have learned, through trial and error and tips from friends, how to keep warm. But there are those who try everything and still can’t stay comfortable when the temperature really drops or the wind really rises, or, as happens almost every winter, both conspire at once to freeze every skier on the mountain.A few technological advances have made it easier to add warmth to the situation. These include disposable hand and toe warmers you can buy at the ski shops, grocery markets, hardware stores, and Wal-Mart and Costco. They are very effective, for several hours at a time, and cost a few dollars or less per pair. The more expensive, the less likely they are to leak charcoal powder – their heating element — and the more likely they are to last longer.Even more effective, for cold feet, are the battery powered boot warming systems you can buy at most of the shops that sell ski boots. These include rechargeable battery packs with variable heat settings.Although they are expensive — more than a $100 – over time their cost can be made up in what you would have spent on disposable toe warmers. The boot warming systems can be transferred each time you buy a new pair of boots, so they can last for many years.

A systemBut once you solve the problem of keeping your extremities warm, which is more than half the battle, it’s important to review your clothing “system” to make sure you are taking advantage of all that science has discovered about keeping human beings warm.An excellent source for learning all the technicalities of staying warm is the recently published second edition of “Hypothermia, Frostbite and Other Cold Injuries” by Gordon G. Giesbrecht, PhD and James A. Wilkerson, MD (2006: The Mountaineers Books).For example, the book’s chapter on cold weather clothing points out that all the items you wear should work together and be specific to your outdoor sport. Each piece should be maintained and used properly, and the whole combination should minimize moisture accumulation.

Specifically, the clothing system should follow the three-layer rule. The base layer should promote moisture transfer away from your skin. The middle layer, or layers, should provide insulation. And the outer layer should provide water and wind resistance.Most helpful is the authors’ listing of each aspect of clothing, from collars to zippers to base layers, with descriptions of what works best in terms of design and fabric to keep you the warmest.But in case you don’t get it right, the book devotes many chapters to the cold injuries that can result, from minor to severe, and how to treat them.Frostbite is not your friend



The most common cold injury which skiers experience is frostbite in their extremities. The first sign is that the area starts to feel painful. At this point, no damage has been done.However, if you don’t warm up the area from an external heat source, it then starts to feel numb. Many skiers think that at this stage those cold fingers and toes have actually warmed themselves up. This is not true. The numbness is a sign that ice crystals are about to form in the fluid between your cells. If warmed at this stage, you usually still will not sustain any permanent damage.However, if you let it go further, the ice formation damages your capillaries such that the blood can no longer flow all the way to your extremities. You then deprive your frozen tissue of oxygen. Eventually the blood in your larger capillaries starts to sludge, which leads to the formation of blood clots. This causes permanent damage to your tissues. In its severest form, this is what leads to amputation.Most recreational skiers never get even close to this point. But it’s a good idea – particularly in light of the arctic blasts which this season has brought – to pay close attention to how to treat the first signs of cold injury. Better yet, give yourself the best chance to avoid it altogether by learning how to dress to stay the warmest when you ski.Elizabeth Eber is an award-winning freelance writer who lives in Vail.


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