Ski mountaineering racing is all about feats of endurance in extreme mountain environments but sometimes we get a bit spoiled with beautiful weather. We can’t all be freezing our butts off in Calgary all winter (nor do we want to) so travelling to a race in the Rockies during cold weather can be a bit of a shock to the system.
Don’t Get Frostbite:
Frostbite is the biggest risk during a cold race. It can be difficult to recognize when you are moving fast and can have serious consequences. Sure, we see pictures from early Himalayan expeditions with climbers coming back short a foot or a bunch of fingers and think that could never happen during a race right? Well of course it is pretty unlikely to lose an appendage during an hour and a half long skimo race but it is still possible to do serious, long-lasting damage. Anyone who has dealt with it will be quick to tell you how much it sucks.
- Wind highly increases the odds and severity of frostbite. Pay attention to the forecast to see if wind will be a factor. In the Rockies, you can pretty much count on wind.
- Exposed skin is most at risk. Cover it up – Buffs are awesome. Use it as a neck gator or pull it up over the back of your head like a balaclava.
- Creams and emollients do not work. In fact, creams can actually increase the likelihood of frostbite (see the Finnish study at the bottom) and water based creams are especially bad. Use fabric or moleskin to cover your face. Moleskin patches can be cut into squares and applied on your upper cheeks or across your nose.
- A wind vest can be incredibly useful. I love my ski suit as much as the next guy but a good fitting vest will help keep your core temperature without restricting movement or causing overheating like a full jacket might.
- Pack extra gloves. Gloves can quickly get wet from sweat or a fall in the snow during a race. Once wet, wind can cut right though them and lots of warmth is lost through your hands. One pair of heavy duty gloves could be a finger-saver if things get really nasty on course. Mitts are also more effective than gloves.
- Gloves with wind covers are really great for long descents. I have been using the CAMP G Comp Wind Glove even in warmer weather.
- Use a ski suit with a hood. Hoods under your helmet are extremely warm. I rarely use mine but when I do it makes a huge difference. A high collar is also very helpful.
- Double up on long underwear and use long underwear with wind protection panels (wind briefs). Wind protection tops are also available and really awesome.
- Carry hand warmers. More useful on a long ski tour but not a terrible thing to have just in case. Toe warmer packets can be useful if you have already damaged your toes or have poor circulation. It only works if you have room in your boot but I use a liner sock with a toe warmer stuck to the bottom then covered with a thin smartwool sock. With this setup I’ve never had to worry during a race.
- Make sure your in-race water system is prepared for the cold. A bladder and hose will freeze at -20 no matter how insulated it is or how good you are at keeping the hose clear. A water bottle with hot liquid kept inside the ski suit, close to your body, seems to work best.
Be prepared to recognize the signs and symptoms of frostbite! It is not worth permanently damaging a toe, finger, or nose for a race. Depending on the severity, even minor frostbite can follow you for life. One bad toe can make ski touring difficult anytime it is cold.
- If you are shivering during a race, frostbite is likely happening or already happened. Add layers, race harder, or drop out. You should be sweating not shivering.
- White patchy skin is a sure sign of frostbite. Take a look around at the start line and during the warm up to make sure your friends cheeks are doing ok.
- If your toes are cold on a climb but then on a descent, miraculously “warm up” and don’t hurt, frostbite is very possibly setting in. Following painful cold, frostbite causes extremities to lose feeling making it seem like you are warming back up. This is time to add clothing and check carefully for lost feeling.
- Painful cold in your hands and fingers can be normal but if you lose dexterity (easy to notice at a transition) you may be in trouble. Change to thicker gloves!
- Any time you have lost feeling, it is time to call it quits. Head for the nearest chalet to warm up. Keep assessing your toes, fingers, and face for feeling.
Ski Racing in the Cold – Other Factors:
Stay hydrated and well fuelled: In severe cold, extra calories are required just to function let alone race. Make sure your system is topped up on energy and not starting at a disadvantage. As race delays are common in severe cold, bring enough food to continue eating during delay periods. This could involve eating a pre-race breakfast as normal but also packing a pre-race lunch in the case of a long delay (also smart to do if avalanche control delays are possible). Cold temperatures are definitely a good time to use a carbohydrate replacement like Hammer HEED. Any extra calories you can take in will be useful and warm HEED will do the trick.
Exercise-induced bronchoconstriction (EIB) is also common in ski mountaineers. High breathing frequency and frigid temperatures at altitude cause airway obstruction in 50% of racers elite racers, the majority of whom are unaware. EIB can significantly impact performance and should be discussed with a physician if an athlete has any history of asthma or difficulty breathing following a race. Cold, dry air exacerbates the severity of EIB.
This weekend at Lake Louise is shaping up to be very cold, with highs of -16 deg celsius. Unlike Nordic skiing, the ISMF does not require races to be cancelled at a minimum temperature, however the mountain may shut down operations in the case of extreme cold (for example, the race at COP earlier this season). If temperatures are below -20 celsius, the ISMF does mandate a 4th item of insulating clothing to be carried in the pack. A race delay is possible to allow temps to warm up later in the day but here’s hoping for some slightly warmer temps and no postponements!
- F. Durand, P. Kippelen, F. Ceugniet, V. R. Gomez, P. Desnot, M. Poulain, C. Préfaut. Undiagnosed Exercise-Induced Bronchoconstriction in Ski-Mountaineers. Int J Sports Med 2005; 26(3): 233-237
- Lehmuskallio E. Emollients in the prevention of frostbite. Int J Circumpolar Health. 2000 Apr;59(2):122-30.