Hypothermia and the Outdoors

Hypothermia and the Outdoors
Posted on 02/05/2019

By Tom Sylva, ATC

Mt Baker

Heading to base camp on Mt. Baker


In 1999, I was an assistant teacher with Belleview Community College’s Outdoor Education Glacier Climbing program in Belleview, WA. This particular weekend in June, we were to ascend Washington’s Mt. Baker, a glaciated mountain topping at 10,778 ft. What is unique about the Pacific Northwest peaks is at about 2,500 ft, you are often already on snow, and at 5,000 ft and on up, you could be on glacier (depending on your route). This leaves you constantly exposed to ice, snow, wind, and whatever else Mother Nature decides to throw at you.

We had spent the first day climbing a total of 4,000 ft over 6 miles, up to Cragview Rock at 6,400 ft, where we pitched tents on the glacier. The weather that day was particularly dreary, overcast and with a steady wind. The climb to base camp was hard, especially on Byron, one of our students. An hour after sunset and four hours after the initial group arrived, Byron had reached camp with the final group, completely exhausted and depleted. He was slurring his speech and was so uncoordinated that he could not flex his hands. He was acting disoriented, was no longer shivering, and his skin was a sweaty, ghostly pale color.

As we quickly got Byron out of his sweat-soaked clothing and into dry, warm fleece, I noticed his skin felt like blocks of ice just starting to melt. When we took his temperature we were astonished to find that it was at 91°F!. We made sure his head and hands were covered up with good mitts and a fleece hat, and got new socks for his feet. We were then able to get him moving around and drinking warm chicken noodle soup. After that we all packed into the tent forming a huddle around him, as he was tucked in his sleeping bag. One assistant even fanned the air from his hot cocoa onto Byron’s face. We checked on Byron all through the night to monitor his progress, noticing steady improvements with his core temperature.

Squak Glacier
Camping on the Squak Glacier at Craigview Rocks

When we woke in the morning, he was in much better shape, yet very worn out, so he did not continue with the next day’s trip to the summit. He spent that entire day focusing on warming up and refueling with food and fluids. By the following day, he had gained enough strength to make the descent down the mountain. Though he was still rather weak, he made it back to the trailhead with the help of the team sharing his gear load. Once he got off the mountain we took him straight to the hospital where they did confirm his hypothermic condition, and they found him to be very dehydrated and kept him for the remainder of the day to rehydrate him and stabilize his condition.

Byron was lucky. When he rolled into base camp he was in really bad shape and was far beyond self-help. Fortunately, he had the help of an educated team who could recognize his condition and who were skilled to help him. Had he been hiking solo, he may not have survived. Understanding the methods of heat loss, the signs and symptoms of hypothermia and the care for this condition were all critical pieces to Byron’s survival.

Roman Wall
On the Roman Wall of the Deming Glacier

Signs and Symptoms of Hypothermia:
–Decrease in mental function and efficiency. Confusion and memory loss can set in.
–Often unable to make rational decisions
–Decreased body core temperature to 92-88°F (or lower), although any core temperature below 95°F can be classified as hypothermic
–Decreased metabolism and increased drowsiness sets in
–Loss of coordination and increase in muscular fatigue
–Initial shivering then ceases at 90-85 degrees
–Slow, shallow breathing and decreased pulse (pulse may be absent in severe cases)
–Slurring of speech

Understanding How We Lose Heat:
It is important to understand how and why we lose heat in order to identify causes of heat-related illnesses. This way we can address each issue directly and begin reversing the process to better care for the person.

Here are the methods of heat loss:
–Conduction: Heat loss through touch. This could be sweaty clothes, bare hands on ice or a metal tool, or a cold towel on your skin
–Metabolic: Heat loss through lack of movement. As Byron slowed throughout the day, he was not producing much metabolic heat
–Convection: Heat loss through a cold medium, such as wind or cold water. There was a steady breeze that day stealing heat as it flowed by us
–Radiation: Heat loss through energy waves. It was a gloomy day with no sun, with lots of space between Byron and another warm object
–Evaporation: Loss of heat through vaporization of sweat. Byron was not wearing a hat and this allowed sweat to vaporize, taking heat from his body. He also had most of his jacket and side pants zippers open which also allowed for easy evaporation

Care for Hypothermia:
–Removal from the environment into warmer conditions, out of the elements
–Remove wet clothing and replace with dry clothing. Be sure to cover exposed body areas like fingers, toes, head
–Give them something warm to drink, avoid alcohol and caffeinated drinks
–Get them up and moving to promote blood flow
–Get them near warmer objects – sun, space heater, fire, a huddled group of people
–Replace cold wind with warm wind (like a heater vent, if possible)
–Seek advanced medical care and monitor temperature

Above the Clouds
Enjoying the nice weather above the clouds

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