Protecting yourself from frostbite

Montana Living frostbite prevention

Frostbite: How to avoid it

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A worker at Big Mountain in Whitefish makes snow. (David Reese photo/Montana Living)


MONTANA LIVING — For tales of the iciest, bone-chilling, skin-freezing winters, listen to members of Montana's Big Mountain Ski Patrol.

They all have frostbite stories, and surprisingly, the victims are sometimes themselves. Maybe that shouldn't come as a surprise.

Ski patrollers, more than any others, endure deep freezes that would leave most Lazy Boy lizards in their TV-dinner feeding postures. "When we get the northern (weather) spill overs, they can really catch you off guard," said patrol leader John Gray, referring to the low-altitude weather systems that spill over the top of the mountain from the north. Gray, a long-time patroller who also leads backcountry winter tours, has been frostbitten several times before on the tip of his nose.

The burns have caused permanent capillary damage, which hinders proper circulation and makes the tip of his nose susceptible to repeat cases of frostbite. Dennis Rea, another long-time patroller, was severely frostbitten one winter when the wind chill found its way through a gap between his face mask and goggles. "I had just a pinhole exposed here on my cheek, and it just froze solid to the bone," Rea said.

Frostbite develops in stages, starting with numbness to the affected area, which then turns red, then white and then solid - the tissue actually freezes. Crystals that develop within the tissue of the exposed area cause permanent damage if proper attention isn't provided. "One of the things you have remember is it's a thermal burn, it's just like burning it with a flame," Rea said. In severe cases, the skin can develop an open wound that scabs and is comparable to a third-degree burn. That was the case when Rea's cheek was frostbitten.

"The worst thing you can do is rub an area that's frostbitten," said patroller Jack McGrath. "The old wives' tale that you should rub snow on it is the worst thing you could do," patroller Rob Heinecke said. McGrath said skiers need to slowly warm an area that could develop frostbite and once it's warm, it shouldn't be exposed to that type of cold again.

Heinecke said two young skiers tried to thaw out their faces with a hot-air hand drier in one of the Summit Lodge's rest rooms, and found it to be a painful experience. Sub-zero temperatures are common on wind-blown areas of The Big Mountain, and the patrol has seen many skiers develop early signs of frostbite already this year. Some have suffered the advanced stages of frostbite.

The patrollers have developed some tricks over the years to help prevent frostbite. Gray enhanced a pair of goggles with a nose cover, and he doesn't shave in the morning because doing so takes away a natural, insulating layer of oil on the face. All patrollers wear neck gaiters, face masks are common, and layered clothing is essential. Patrollers have found fleece underwear to be warm and comfortable.

Polypropylene underwear "wicks" moisture from the skin, keeping a skier dry and less susceptible to frostbite. "One of the things I've found is that parents sometimes don't check their kids' feet enough," Rea said. "Kids won't complain if they are having fun and if they can't feel their feet, they won't complain."

"One of the crazy things you see up here is skiers without hats in cold weather," Gray said. "They may say that their heads aren't cold, but their hands or their feet are freezing. They are losing most of their body heat by not covering their heads. If they put a hat on, their hands and feet will warm up." 

— David Reese is editor of Montana Living

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