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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Sports >  Outdoors

Jennings: When it’s (almost) too cold to ski

Bill Jennings is a columnist for The Spokesman-Review writing about living off the grid. (SR)
Bill Jennings is a columnist for The Spokesman-Review writing about living off the grid. (SR)

Winter weather can be cruel. An Arctic storm delivered nearly a foot of snow to Mount Spokane last weekend. It arrived riding a wave of bitter cold, high winds and a chill factor of about 30 below on the slopes. But here’s the cruel part:

I live to ski powder, but there is only so much suffering I’m willing to endure for it. Most of the lifts in the region were closed Saturday anyway, putting a lot of that fresh snow out of reach, save for the hardiest of poachers.

Sunday dawned clear with light winds. It was still very cold. I estimated the chill factor would only be about 8 to 10 degrees below zero – harsh conditions, to be sure, but worth suffering for. After all, skiing is an outdoor winter sport. As long as the lifts are running and your gear is good to go, you should be able to enjoy skiing in below zero temps.

Dress for the weather. Minimize exposed skin and use a layering system with materials like Capilene, polyester, fleece or wool – absolutely no cotton. Next to the skin, cotton retains moisture from sweat and stays wet and cold. My layering system included extra poly layers top and bottom, extra poly liners for my hands and feet, neck gaiter and a balaclava. I brought a neoprene mask along just in case.

It’s important to start warm and try to stay warm. I put my boots under the dash for the drive, right under the heat vents so they would be supple and warm. Before putting them on, I stuck disposable heat packs over my toes. I also stuck one on the back of my phone to keep the battery from dying in the cold.

Finally, we paused to enjoy a hot drink before riding to the top. My buddy brought along a thermos of scalding tea to help us stay hydrated and warm. When the lifts opened, the temperature had climbed all the way to 4 above. Wind was light. The immediate impact of the cold was negligible.

In the aftermath of the storm, the conditions ranged from very good to very bad – often on the same run. Near the summit, we skittered across a surface that high winds had scoured to the consistency of granite. Debris from battered trees was strewn across the piste. Farther down, deep wind-packed drifts would stop you in your tracks without warning. I enjoyed watching my buddy execute a classic head-over-heels double ejection. It’s fortunate he has a good sense of humor.

Running this gantlet paid off with deep untracked lines in the trees. Even the cut-up junk on piste was so light and dry we plowed through it like goose down. Meanwhile, the cold stealthily and steadily drained our extremities of heat. Riding the chair, I had to pull my fingers in from my gloves and make fists to preserve any life left my digits. I could no longer feel my toes.

In extreme cold, blood vessels close to the skin constrict to help preserve core body temperature. This reflex can reduce blood flow to dangerously low levels in body parts farthest from the heart. Freezing fingers and toes become vulnerable to frost nip or frostbite. Frostnip is the early stage of frostbite, when the cold freezes the first layer of skin. Frostbite freezes deeper and kills tissue.

The longer we were out there, the greater our risk for either frostnip or frostbite. After four hours of really good skiing, we had to stop. Foggy Bottom was packed with fellow refugees and blessedly warm. On the ride home, my toes began to thaw. The sensation was akin to dipping them in scalding water. I probably had a bit of the frostnip.

Back to work a day later, feeling was still returning to my toes. I expect they will be shedding some skin soon. I was paying the price for floating through all that goose down. A little steep, but better than missing out.

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