Walking up and down the snowy bank of the river angling to get the best shot of the mountain was just not getting it… I had to get in the middle of that stream to get the shot. “What the heck,” I thought; I had waterproof boots and the stream was shallow. As I set up in the middle of the stream and started to shoot, a surge of cold water appeared on my right foot. “Oh that’s just the cold water I can feel through the boot,” I thought and as soon as I dismissed it, the same cold surge came to my left foot. “Might as well get the shot,” was my next thought; and then deal with wet feet later. Usually this is not a big deal, but at minus 34 degrees, wet feet was not good! Preparing for a winter photography trip is one thing… dealing with the elements and the consequences of cold exposure was another!
My boots were frozen blocks of ice as I walked up the hill back to the car. My feet were painful with each step and then couldn’t feel them! Fortunately, the car was close and a friend helped to remove wet boots and socks replacing them with dry socks and re-warming with hands while the car heater started. Soon the feeling returned to my feet and all was well.
Another friend was not as fortunate. As we removed our multiple layers coming in from outside, I looked over at my friend and noticed that he had blisters on his fingertips! “Oh my gosh! You have frostbite!” I exclaimed and he noted that he could not feel anything in his fingers as he moved them around.
Usually the first symptoms of frostbite occur in the fingers, toes or the nose. The sensation is usually painful digits that progress to numbness. Once sensation is gone this is a sign that frostbite may have developed.
Ways to prevent frostbite include starting with appropriate layers; Arctic-rated boots, thick, warm socks, and using hand or toe warmers. I just bought a thermal jacket and heated insoles, socks and gloves were wonderful Christmas gifts! I’m looking forward to trying them all! Moving around to keep your blood circulating also helps prevent frostbite especially if standing while waiting for sunrise. Jumping jacks and squats are personal favorites. It is important to look at your digits if they become numb to check for whitened, pale skin, blisters, or blackened skin. If one notes any of these signs or symptoms get out of the cold environment immediately.
Re-warming techniques include removing the cold, or wet clothing, and gently rewarming in warm but NOT hot water. Do not vigorously rub the cold skin. If blisters are present try to leave them intact and go to your nearest Emergency Department. If a Burn Center is available this would be ideal. Expect to have your tetanus updated, and bandages placed. Antibiotics may be started to prevent infection. And certainly DO NOT go back into the cold! Fortunately, my friend’s fingers healed after about 3 weeks of intense wound care and physical therapy.
The healing process can take 10-14 days and at this time one can determine if the frostbit tissue will return to normal or whether it will become ischemic and die (finger-tip amputation). One of the most crucial aspects of healing is to prevent infection.
Frostbite is preventable as long as you pay attention to your extremities and check them occasionally. If you are having difficulty staying warm despite multiple layers, and rewarming techniques get out of the cold and get warm. No photograph is worth losing fingers or toes!
Do you have any winter travel tips or winter photography spots?