Hypothermia, And How Not To Get It

As winter continues to grip the hills the Mountaineering Council of Scotland's Mountain Safety Advisor Heather Morning looks at the risk factors and symptoms of hypothermia, and offers some advice on how to avoid it.

 


Hypothermia – when body temperature is lowered to dangerous levels – can occur all too easily in the mountains and it is essential that climbers and walkers know how to avoid it and recognise it when they see the signs.

It's a bit cold and snowy...  © george mc
It's a bit cold and snowy...
© george mc

We stepped off the 10 o’clock train at Corrour into a white, windswept landscape. Windblown snow streaked across the wide expanse of moor as we headed east towards Loch Ossian and the start of our 18km journey into Ben Alder Cottage. It was Hogmanay 1991; four girls from the south heading to a Scottish bothy to see in the New Year in style.

Slow underfoot conditions due to deep soft snow, and rucksacks laden with food, fuel and liquid refreshment for the festivities, ensured that the short daylight hours soon dwindled to dusk and then dark. Looking back I think we had naively thought we could just follow the obvious stalkers’ track up past the east end of Loch Ossian and through Bealach Cumhann. Clearly, with the glen in its winter garb, any idea of ‘following a track’ was totally unrealistic.

We were lucky. By the time we were within sight of the bothy some of the group had started ‘seeing lights’ that just weren’t there. But once we were ensconced in the relative shelter of the bothy our near miss struck home. Joy was refusing to eat; she was cold, withdrawn and argumentative - classic warning signs of hypothermia.

This tale is a perfect illustration of how hypothermia can creep up on people. No drama, no fierce blizzards, just over-heavy packs, a long trudge through heavy snow and the onset of darkness combining to sap strength and lower both body temperature and morale.

photo
Exhausted
© Sam Walmsley, Jul 2005

Early signs of hypothermia can be feeling cold, shivery and damp, and the ‘can’t be bothered’ syndrome, where, for example, a person perhaps has a dry pair of gloves in their rucksack, but feels it’s just too much effort to get them out.

If left unchecked, these mild symptoms can develop into irritability and irrational behaviour, poor decision making and, ultimately, collapse and even death.

A common misconception amongst hill goers is that modern clothing is so good that hypothermia is not an issue.

This is simply wrong. Within minutes of being stationary on the hill people will feel themselves start to cool down, and there are a number of other factors which people should be aware of and avoid.

Risk factors for hypothermia include:

  • Sweating while ascending a mountain, then cooling and not adding extra layers
  • Remaining stationary on the hill without adequate clothing and protection
  • Not fuelling the body sufficiently with enough calories and fluids
  • Fighting off illness or lack of sleep/fatigue
  • Over-exertion
  • Low morale
  • Wearing layers that don’t ‘wick away the moisture’, such as cotton-based clothing which absorbs body sweat and moisture from the environment, leaving the wearer cold and damp.
  • Insufficient layering and windproof outer clothing to combat the effects of wind chill.

But just by taking some simple measures the risk of hypothermia can be reduced:

  • Always add an extra layer as you get higher up the mountain 
  • Swap your gloves for a dry pair when you have finished your ascent 
  • Always carry an additional large synthetic duvet jacket which will fit on over the top of everything you are wearing and put it on for lunch stops or any other time you’re at risk of cooling, such as in descent
  • Make sure you eat enough. Even the best clothing can only keep heat in, not generate it.

 

For more information about recognising, avoiding and dealing with hypothermia, check out the MCofS website.

 


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18 Feb, 2015
Its not just on snowy days or the big hills either. Just last weekend on doing an 'easy' (over the special tussocky terrain common in the Galloway hills) hill walk and I was down to a t-shirt and lightweight synthetic gillet. The sun was not yet out from the clouds. As I was nearing the summit (the final 150m ascent) the wind picked up and it was blowing very chill. I kept going and on reaching the shelter of the summit carin, my bare arms had turned red and were very cold, feeling a bit weird. That's never happened to my arms before and was a bit alarming. I put on another long sleeved layer and my lightweight down jacket but it did take a while for my arms to return to a normal temperature. They flet like long blocks of cold meat from the fridge. It miht have been frostnip. I really didn't expect that on such a hill (Queensberry) but I suppose they have so many wind turbines there for a reason.
18 Feb, 2015
I like the bit about no drama next to the photo of me collapsed in a tent, there was definitely some drama associated with that hypothermia!
19 Feb, 2015
I'd propose additional preventative measures: Move quickly enough to keep warm Eat enough to fuel your muscles
20 Feb, 2015
Sometimes the weather does not allow you to move quickly and you need the additional gear! Fuel up is good and keep it handy "fuel as you go is good" Great to see that Heather is able to share her experiences it would be great that more of the "Good and Great " could pass on "I learnt about climbing from that" we all have stories that we can learn from how many share them! Food for thought?
20 Feb, 2015
It’s a slow day at work and since I've bailed from going to Scotland for the weekend I thought I’d recount the epic that resulted in the second photo in the article. It wasn’t a huge epic by many's standards and I’ve since graduated to bigger better feats of incompetence but it was my first and as such holds a special place in my memory. It was our first expedition (summer 2005) and we were all suitably incompetent, I remember getting the bus out of La Paz at the end and being genuinely surprised the 4 of us had made it (relatively) unscathed. The photo was taken half way through the trip, we had completed our main objectives (some new routes on some obscure peaks in the Bolivian Apolobamba) so were feeling pretty cocky. We’d gone over to the north side of the range to do some exploring/repeating of existing routes and me and Sam had picked one of the larger peaks – I think it was called Collo, although I’d have to check the guide book. We summited by 11-12ish, up a grade D snowy icy ridge, pretty easily after a long slog in from basecamp early that morning. We’d has to cross through a particularly horrible glacier which required vertical limit style jumping to cross (this is almost certainly bollocks but that’s how I remember it) – an important point for later in the story. We were feeling pretty pleased with ourselves and after finding the ascent route so straightforward and thought let’s go for an aesthetic full traverse of the mountain. This was our first mistake – the guidebook described our new proposed decent route as ‘traversing tottering piles of choss’ but we thought, hey were gnarly mountaineers how bad can it be? After a few hours it turned out it was very bad, we were going very slowly, abseiling down and then climbing up towers of horribly loose rock on the ridge. At this rate we realised we were going to get benighted – a scary prospect since we had, being super hardcore, gone quite lightweight with no stove or shelter, a litre of water each, which we had mostly drunk, and a few horrible Bolivian nut bars. So mistake number two was embarked upon – we decided that the face looked ok and we may be able to down climb/ abseil it. We got a good anchor and got one ab in, just to get nicely committed. We then found the rock was both loose and compact, if you can imagine such a thing, so no more anchors could be found, but the ground wasn’t too hard, so we started simul climbing down – sharp intake of breath and cue dramatic music. Retrospectively small down climbing a loose unknown 500m rock face at nearly 6000m was a pretty stupid thing to do. We managed a few more pitches before the inevitable – a brick sized rock came off and landed square on my head before bouncing onto my leg. This smashed my helmet up, (an old school ecrin rock – no mean feat) concussing me and badly bruised my leg, but somehow I managed to hold and on didn’t come off the face – I remember trying to get some gear in and tie on but I could for the life of me tie any knots. Sam climbed down, sorted me out and we regrouped on a ledge. Down now seemingly like a bad option we started traversing until we eventually hit the shoulder of the mountain, some more truly horrible down climbing past rock with the constancy of cheese (Philadelphia not a mature cheddar) where you could literally dig holds out followed before we made it to the glacier – just in time to see the sun set! Now the real fun began – it was about a 3-4 hour walk to basecamp but in the dark there was no way we could find out way back through the heavily crevassed glacier. We tried for a few hours before giving up. By this time it was pitch black – there was no moon but a very clear sky so it was pretty cold and the batteries in both our head touches had died. We first tried walking across the glacier to the next valley, just to get lower where it would be warmer and sheltered, but that way was blocked by another horrible glacier. On the way back I then managed to fall up to my waste in a crevasse, fortunately I managed to get my axe in the other side and scrambled out in a panic. We then sat down for a bit thinking maybe we could wait till morning, but after 15 minutes or so decided it was too cold – our remaining water had frozen and we were down to one horrible nut bar each – which were too rank to contemplate. Neither of us could feel our feet, we only had thin leather boots on. I had a bit of a paddy at this point and spent some time having a jolly good shout at the surrounding mountains. This didn’t help our predicament however so plan C was formed – we knew the peak that split the two glaciers we had tried to descend ended in a ridge above basecamp which we wasn’t glaciated. So we managed to climb this smaller peak (the rest of the group cruelly never let me record this as a new route as apparently things climbed due to gross incompetence don’t count). Which took us finally down to basecamp the other side though a horrible penitenta field, which is no fun in the dark with an injured leg, our friends in camp said they could hear my winging a long time before the saw us. We got to the tent 24 hours after setting out just as out two very unimpressed friends, who had done a much harder climb that day, and had their own mini epic, were about to set off and try to rescue us. The photo was taken by Sam just after we crawled into the tent.
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