When it comes to traveling in avalanche terrain when the weather is extremely cold, things get a little more complicated and we need to weigh certain steps of our daily process more heavily. Here’s some advice to keep it safe in extreme cold from Avalanche Canada.
Editor’s Note: This piece comes to WildSnow from Avalanche Canada and James Minifie: lead tech and forecaster for the Yukon. At 5:45 AM today, it’s -32 degrees Fahrenheit in Bozeman and -40 in Lander, WY. Parts of Canada’s Interior are under an extreme cold warning. It’s cold. The story is republished with permission. It offers practical advice for taking extra precautions in extreme cold. If you are staying indoors today and want an online avalanche education refresh, check out Avalanche Canada’s Avy savvy avalanche tutorial.
I was just a kid when I first saw the iconic Stanley Kubrick movie, The Shining, but the final shot of Jack Nicholson frozen in the snow after being lost in the hedge maze stayed with me for years. Kubrick nailed it.
Years later, watching the movie as an adult who spends his days working in remote regions of the Yukon Territory, I can’t help but ask myself, “what could Jack have done to prevent his demise?”. “What are some steps he could have taken to better prepare himself for the environment?”
Every time we make the decision to head into avalanche terrain, it comes with the usual endeavors of planning and preparation. Or, at least it should. The Avalanche Canada Daily Process is something we should all adhere to as we undertake a day of backcountry travel.
However, when it comes to travelling in avalanche terrain when the weather is extremely cold, things get a little more complicated and we need to weight certain steps of our Daily Process more heavily. In particular steps 2 and 3.
PLAN YOUR TRIP
So, we’ve checked the avalanche forecast and verified through weather station data that it’s really cold out there. When we go through this process and see these conditions, we should immediately start thinking about consequences. It is a good practice to treat extremely cold temperatures much the same as we would a terrain trap when moving across a slope. The presence of a terrain trap means the consequences of being involved in an avalanche are much greater. The same goes for extremely cold weather. In an avalanche incident resulting in injuries, a race against time ensues. Even with the most ideal winter weather conditions, victims and rescuers often suffer from cold injuries, such as hypothermia and frostbite. In extremely cold conditions, these injuries can occur in minutes—making even minor incidents very difficult and dangerous when the temperature drops.
Another practice that can also be helpful when adjusting for extreme cold weather days is taking the avalanche danger rating and increasing the danger rating by one level, or adding a +2 to your terrain characteristics when using your Avaluator V2.0 accident prevention card. Either of these approaches help ensure you’re thinking with an appropriately conservative mindset when trying to decide where to ride when the weather is brutally cold. For example, when the avalanche danger is low and it’s very cold outside, we might choose to ride similar terrain to the choices we might make if the danger rating was moderate or even considerable.
Other adjustments we might make when venturing out on very cold days are:
— Plan objectives that are less remote and keep us closer to the trailhead or staging area
— Plan for shorter objectives and keeping our exposure time low
— Stick to simple terrain or non-avalanche terrain (if we are sledding)
— Ride in larger groups so that there are more people to help out if someone gets into trouble or suffers a cold injury. (Remember group size has its own risks and rewards though.)
— Slow down and build in an extra margin of safety for every decision, even those decisions that seem minor
Avoid avalanche terrain all together
CHECK YOUR GEAR
So we’ve checked the avalanche forecast and weather and have decided to head out even though it’s going to be very cold. We’ve adjusted our mindset to include the potential consequences of the cold and we’re ready to start loading our backpacks and tunnel bags. It’s time to take a closer look at our equipment and the additional items we might include on a cold day. We also need to consider how we might manage certain pieces of equipment differently than we would on warmer days. Some of the things we might consider are:
—Ready-HeatTM Vests and Blankets. These are commercially available products that, once opened, heat up due to a chemical reaction. The vest can be worn under a jacket to keep a rescuer or an injured partner warm
—Outerwear rated for extreme cold. This includes larger down jackets and down pants, mittens instead of gloves, and face coverings
—Extra parts in our repair kits as things break much more easily in the cold, particularly plastic things
—Hockey stick tape to help skins stick when they fail in the cold…because they will. You can also consider putting your skins under your jacket during the descents. This will help them stick better in the cold
—Foot and hand warmers
—Fuel line antifreeze
—Extra fire starting materials
—Remember items with batteries can be less reliable in the cold. Make sure you bring an extra battery pack and cables to keep electronics charged. If you’re carrying these items close to you to keep them warm, don’t forget they should be 20 cm from your avalanche transceiver in transmit mode and 50 cm when you’re searching.
—Avoid the use of heated jackets and gloves as these can interfere with the performance of your avalanche transceiver
PLAN FOR A RESCUE
Finally, consider the implications of having to execute an effective companion rescue and potential patient extraction in extremely cold temperatures. This video from the Yukon Region discusses what those might be.
Cold weather considerations in avalanche rescue from Avalanche Canada on Vimeo.
There are a number of potentially life-saving pieces of equipment we can add to our kit on extremely cold days. An expedition weight down jacket and pants might be at the top of the list.
Ultimately, extremely cold weather adds a layer of complexity to a day in the backcountry. It also increases the level of risk we expose ourselves to. The fact of the matter is, we live in Canada and every winter we experience prolonged periods of very cold weather so understanding the implications of the cold and knowing how to adjust our trip plan and equipment needs accordingly will help ensure a safer outing when the mercury drops way, way down.
Avalanche Canada is a non-government, not-for-profit organization dedicated to public avalanche safety. We issue daily avalanche forecasts throughout the winter for much of the mountainous regions of western Canada, providing this free information via our website and our app, Avalanche Canada Mobile. We also coordinate and deliver avalanche awareness and education programs, provide curriculum and support to instructors of Avalanche Canada training programs, act as a central point-of-contact for avalanche information, and work closely with many different avalanche research projects, both at home and abroad.
We published a booklet describing our work. Please click here to take a look.
According to the GNFAC we are dealing with a windchill approaching -75F in the Bridgers this morning. I do have some ignorance about the subject of extreme cold and wind chill; wondering how much the “wind chill effect” affects physiology, or even machinery? Does my car engine care about wind chill when it’s trying to turn over? Or is it more of a “feels like” human perception issue? Regardless, accounting for wind chill it looks like it might be almost 100 degrees warmer by Christmas.
Here’s a great chart for exposure time and windchill and how long it would take to get frostbite. https://www.weather.gov/safety/cold-wind-chill-chart
Wind-chill is a measure of how quickly your skin temperature will drop in relation to the wind speed and actual air temperature. A -75?F wind-chill with -20?F air temperature just means that you will lose heat from your body (or car engine) as though the thermal gradient were your skin temperature (~80?F) and a -75?F air temperature. In this instance, the coldest you could get is the equilibrium temperature of -20?F. So for your car, it will cool off more quickly, and take longer to heat up but won’t reach a temperature below -20?F (which would probably wreak havoc on your car battery if nothing else).
Those (?) were degree symbols when I typed this response, lol
Just out of the Esplanades (Golden BC) and that cold snap. Everything in here we did… skied above cabins for sunlight and easier evacuation if needed. Pulled pin on some runs because the ‘what if’ factor was compounded by cold. Moved slower (no sweating), more discussions.
Couple of extra things, switched snacks to high glycemic, freezing resistant (fruit bars for instance), tucked hot water Nalgene and thermoses into extra layers in pack. And I tried out wearing empty bread bags over my socks in my boots (not perfect, but kept the screaming barfies at bay). We also mounted our skins warm to not frozen skis for good measure.
-40 in Lander, WY, and before windchill is calculated? -30 in the picture? Are we talking about being out in those temps?
Who in God’s name is out in the backcountry in extreme cold recreating? Fools. Suffering doesn’t make you a badass. It just points to a deficiency in intelligence or mental health if you purposely head out in extreme cold. -10°F is about my limit for fun even if I am sweating bullets from a bootpack up the Tetons. If you’re out in -40 weather, you deserve a Darwin award for evolutionary decline.
Dave, it’s good that you and man others have a line they won’t cross in recreating at extreme temperatures. There’s no disrespect for anyone who can put their foot down and say “not for me”. But, let’s not disparage those whose sense of adventure has a different paradigm and thresholds.
Not wanting to get into any real back and forth on this. I have been an outdoor worker, and in the adventure tourism field for decades. Clients who are paying hard earned money to be somewhere are going to go out in all sorts of “suffering” weather. I’ve been out doing maintenance and emergency work to -40º c with wind chills, not because I want to, but because people are depending on me to get. that work done.
The entire message of the article is education. it’s about keeping it dialled back when the non-snow conditions exacerbate risk. Avalanche Canada saying to up the risk factor with the cold is a huge step forward in public safety. The number of lift operations that stopped or were shortened because of the cold is a step towards giving the operations staff a chance to be safer. And yes, there will still be the few, the hardy, the brave that embrace the challenge and adventure. Foolishness isn’t just conditions, it’s being unprepared by ignorance or will.
The better part of this article is the people who consider -18ºc ‘freezing”, and they may learn some of the essentials to pack for aiding an injured companion. Maybe someone who is in emergency (non-recreational) work will see this and prepare themselves. How any line-men are out at -40ºc fixing lines without cold weather recovery in their truck, or basket?
Take extra base layers to change into when the first gets wet from sweat. Even in frigid temperatures I still sweat, and even the best materials (polypropylene, wool, etc) feels cold when slightly damp. It’s surprising how much warmer one feels putting on a dry base layer. Yes, that means briefly removing all layers, so act quickly, but it has really helped me stay warm.
There’s a strong argument that one shouldn’t work hard enough to sweat, but that is unrealistic for those of us that are big sweaters. BC skiing is aerobic, sweat happens.
Simple and great advice. Something I always think about and rarely execute- bringing a light and dry underlayer.
Good topic. I’ve spent many seasons trying to fine tune my approach to extreme cold. Obviously there are so many variables but there is a lot of wisdom in this article and the comments. One thing worth mentioning is cutting your day a bit short in extreme cold. This makes sense as most of us cannot handle full days in extreme cold. For example, in -40 F/C I usually go out for only an hour or so, and don’t venture too far. If you are prepared, you can go out longer/farther, but remember that even a minor injury or small equipment failure could be fatal in those temps.
The biggest reason to keep your days short is to allow a time buffer at the end of the day to manage emergencies. Plan on returning well before dark. Of course this varies depending on where you are and the resources available. This concept was driven home one cold January day, when a young man in our party suffered severe injuries several miles from the highway. The first helicopter did not see us and left the area (we were all wearing grey and black). Fortunately, the second helicopter evacuated our wounded comrade right before dark. Had we been benighted the combination of extreme cold and otherwise survivable injuries could have proved fatal.
Also, since that experience I have made several changes to my equipment: carrying a Garmin InReach Mini, a wind/waterproof tarp, hi-viz clothing and tarp, firestarting supplies as mentioned, and a wood saw instead of a snow saw.
Great teaching article here. I have never had the pleasure (sarc)of skiing in temps much below zero. We just don’t typically see temps colder than this very often where I’m doing most of my skiing. That said, I always carry an extra base layer for my upper body. I find that I sweat a lot on my initial ascent. After I change layers, it seems my body acclimates and I sweat less. Not sure why this is, but it seems that’s how my body works. It is an amazing feeling to get that shirt changed out after the initial climb.