How to Avoid Frostbitten Feet

04 December 2008

How to Avoid Frostbitten Feet

Category: Survival

Note: Many of these articles are very old, and although the technical information is still relevant the equipment mentioned may not be (for example a Stormy cooker was state of that art in 1995, but not in 2021).

Climbing and mountaineering has always been about personal responsibility, and usually when it comes to frostbite the blame lands literally at the feet of the victim. Excluding tales of tragedy and bad luck over ninety percent of frostbite injuries to feet result from a lack of experience or knowledge in combating the extreme cold encountered at high altitude or in winter mountaineering. With more and more British climbers travelling to places like Alaska, the Himalayas and South America it seemed like a good time to review modern practices in frostbite prevention.

BOOTS, A high proportion of frostbite injuries are caused by inadequate or wrongly fitted footwear. Your boots are your main defence against the cold, so don’t blow your dream trip to McKinley by trying to get one more trip out of those 10 year old Koflaks. If you’re skink buy a new or expedition pair of inner boots, its a cheaper option and allows you to fit other manufactures warmer inners to your tired shells. Luckily for all of us the insulation value of the average plastic boot has increased over the last few years, with boots like the extremely popular Scarpa Vega proving itself equal to many of the old Expedition boots, while the new Asolo plastics feature very warm inner boots even in there basic models. If your planning to climb multi day routes at altitude (7000+ metres) or in a hostile environment (Alaska or Alpine/Himalayan winter) go for a dedicated expedition boot. Asolo, Lowa, One sport and Scarpa all make boots suitable for even the most masochistic climber, with the One sport Everest guaranteeing your toes down to -40. Avoid any open cell, or Loden inner boots if your planning to be out for a long time otherwise the insulation of the boot will decrease with saturation. I won’t go into boot fitting now, but if your life depends on the right boots, sound out as many people as you can, ring around the good shops for advice and then buy your boots from the experts. Listen to their advice and try on as many boots as possible. If you’re buying new or want to improve your current boots, try and replace the flimsy insoles with a Sorbethene model, they greatly increase the underfoot insulation, a major problem area with most current plastics. Remember, listen to what the staff. have to say but don’t forget to buy according to your own physiology and foot shape. Personally I suffer greatly from cold feet so always buy the warmest boots I can lay my hands on, taking any feedback or personal recommendations with a pinch of salt.

OVERBOOTS & GAITERS, A true overboot completely covers the boot, including the sole, providing significant insulation, and designed solely for constant crampon use, so its well worth checking crampon compatibility before arriving at your destination. A properly fitted overboot will bump up the warmth of a standard plastic too that of an expedition boot, while a overboot and expedition combination is popular on Antarctic or 8000 metre peaks. Climbers tackling 8000 metre or Alaskan peaks in winter either wear double over boots and expedition boots or the One Sport Everest, which features a built in gaiter. Neoprene is still the materiel of choice, although it does suffer from a distinct lack of robustness, with one pair usually lasting one or two trips, they are well worth the investment. Berghaus and Paine are the only manufactures of Neoprene overboots in this country at the moment, with other models available in the US made by Outdoor Research and Forty Below. Yeti type gaiters available from Berghaus and Black Diamond provide some extra protection, especially the insulated models, but they fail to insulate the sole of the boot, a major week spot only the full over gaiters protect. Any climbers using pile/pertex clothing should consider wearing the gaiter underneath the pile, as this stops moisture migrating down into the boots in wet snow conditions, therefore compromising sock insulation.

SOCKS, If you’re buying one pair of boots to do every thing in then fit them with one thick wool /polypropylene blend and one polypropylene liner sock, and if there for a specific cold trip, go for one liner and two or three socks. This allows for swollen feet, expanding inner boots and provides extra warmth, but don’t forget to take into account vapour barrier socks etc. Buy new quality socks before your trip, Thorlo Mountaineer or Extremities Toasters are by far the best available in this country at the moment.

BARRIER PROTECTION, Vapour barrier socks have been available now for donkeys years, acting as a barrier between your sweaty feet and the precious insulation in your socks and inner boots. They are usually warn over a thin liner sock, and removed at the end of each day to dry out. At the moment the most readily available sock comes from Black Diamond (£15.99) with Mountain Equipment’s 8000 metre range VB sock available as a special (£18.00). Tough plastic bags do the same job if your less well off, although there not as dependable and usually need replacing each day. With the advances in inner boot and sock insulation robustness, the vapour barrier technique seem less important know then it did in the days of absorbent inner boots and pure wool socks. Drawbacks include the likelihood of various fungal infections and trench foot with extended wear, so good foot hygiene is essential, rubbing the feet with snow, drying and using anti fungal talc each night should keep most unpleasantness as bay. Ammonia builds up in the inner socks quickly so carry plenty of spares. Another drawback is a large increase in foot slippage due to the slickness of the sock, a real problem when wearing big boots on technical routes.

ANTI PERSPIRANT, By applying a good deal of anti perspirant to feet before embarking on a climb, sock saturation can be reduced considerably. A good spray usually lasts for two or three days depending on the type of climb, climate and climber. A great system for fast technically climbs were you want to avoid the slippage encountered with vapour barrier socks and it may be hard to sort out your feet each night. It can also be used in conjunction with vapour barrier socks to reduce the associated immersion foot problems.

NEOPRENE SOCKS, Neoprene socks have been widely used by American and Canadian climbers for a number of years now, only recently gaining a small following in this country. They basically act as a kind of insulating vapour barrier, worn in-between your inner and outer socks. Make sure you don’t buy them to tight, try at least one size larger then normal, and take into account swollen feet and some expansion of the air bubbles in neoprene at altitude. Gator (£19.99) and Heat Socks (£18.99) are the two main brands. Personally I find them less reliable then standard VB socks, providing very little insulation for there bulk when static for long periods.

WATERPROOF SOCKS, Gore-tex and Seal socks work well for some activities, but when it comes to keeping the foot warm and the outer socks dry inside a plastic boot I find other less high tech methods do a much better job.

HEAT PADS, Simple and effective, heat pads are now used by many high altitude climbers on their summit bids. I’ve talked to a number of climbers who’ve used them effectively on mountains like Everest, Mount Vinson and McKinley, with all of them praising them highly. Heat pads are simple low profile disposable chemical heat pads (£2 for a pair) that are placed into the toe area of the inner boot at the start of the day, providing warmth for over six hours. Make sure its working before placing it inside your boot, at high altitude it may be slow to start due to the lack of oxygen, so take it out and shake it a while before your due to put on your plastics. HIGH TECH AND LOW TECH OPTIONS, Many high altitude climbers take an Aspirin a day to thin there blood, reducing the chance of a stroke, and also improving circulation which in turn keeps the extremities warmer. Garlic has long been used by mountain people throughout Asia as a remedy to altitude and cold, improving oxygen absorption and circulation. The ski industry has a lot of money behind when it comes to gadgets, with electrically heated footbeds and custom fitted inner boots. Lots of climbers find the custom fitted insulating footbeds found in Ski shops extremely useful. Expect new technology in mountain boots to come from the ski industry..

LOOKING AFTER YOUR FEET Because your feet have no real muscle bulk in them, being mainly made up of bones and tendons, its hard for them to generate heat internally. Its much easier keeping them warm, then trying to warm them up. Body heat is a precious commodity, When it comes to cooling toes the old saying `move em or lose em’ often applies literally. Stay hydrated and try to eat enough food, stay positive and relaxed. On long belays try to stand on rocks not snow, and weight your feet equally, kicking steps or jogging when they start to chill. Try to minimise the body closing down the extremities by dressing according to the route and climate, and don’t scrimp on the leg protection. On bivis never let your inner boots freeze, so you have to start the day with cold inner boots, always sleep with them inside your pit. Unless your on a dire hanging bivi, always try to take your inner boots off at night Massage and warm up cold feet, use your Nalgene as a hot water bottle and try to sleep with warm feet, down boots are well worth every penny. If you think your feet are freezing, STOP and warm them up while they can still be warmed up, countless climbers suffer frostbite because they fail to recognise the onset of frostbite and take appropriate action.. Minimalise any future problems by pampering your feet. Try to keep them clean, cut your toe nails and tape up heels before long climbs involving a lot of walking, and cover any hot spots before they blister. Carry a small container of anti fungal talc and use it before, during and after the trip. Good climbing shops can boots blow out and stretch plastic boots if they restrict your feet anywhere, and once again MAKE SURE THEY FIT, I’ve met a lot of climbers with missing or shaved toes, there’s nothing romantic about it, it disables people and limits your future climbing! So there you go, any feedback would be useful, and if you didn’t get the punch line to the title it’s `Awful!’.


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Andy Kirkpatrick
Andy Kirkpatrick

Andrew Kirkpatrick is a British mountaineer, author, motivational speaker and monologist. He is best known as a big wall climber, having scaled Yosemite's El Capitan 30+ times, including five solo ascents, and two one day ascents, as well as climbing in Patagonia, Africa, Alaska, Antarctica and the Alps.

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