winter adventures

I heard a crack and the pain hit me, one cross country ski caught under the other, my ankle bent in a way it was not designed for. The crack turned out to be my fibula just above the ankle, not a particularly serious injury. It healed up nicely and I was back on my feet in about six weeks. That was March of 2008. I still feel the scar tissue now and then.

I was lucky. The outcome could have been much worse. My fall was on a moderately sunny day in March, not a cold day. I fell on a south-facing slope, out of the wind. On the other side of the hill, I would have been exposed to the northwest wind and even with the sun, I would have been very cold in just a couple of minutes. I usually ski alone, but that day I was with three others. I was half a mile from the nearest road but sometimes I ski more than three miles into the backcountry.

Just how lucky I became painfully obvious in December when I attended a two-day SOLO Wilderness First Aid course in Peacham, taught by Andrea Kane of Train NEK. Andrea is a Sutton native with 20 years of experience as a lead instructor for SOLO wilderness medicine courses. She lives in Peacham and recently started Train NEK as a way to use her expertise to spread knowledge in the Northeast Kingdom.

For a few of the nine participants, including me, the course was an introduction to wilderness medicine and for the rest, it was a refresher for their certification as wilderness first responders. To quote the SOLO Field Guide, the course, “is designed by and for the ‘outdoor enthusiast:’ whether hiker, climber, skier, kayaker, canoeist, or sailor. It is for the adventurous who may find themselves away from immediate help and may have to rely on their own skills to survive and thrive if an emergency should arise.”

The challenges of dealing with an injury or illness in the wilderness, or even in your rural back yard, will consume time, and those challenges are magnified in cold weather. Cold can be a cruel enemy. Frostbite can maim you for life and hypothermia can kill you in an amazingly short time. Take my own injury as an example. At the time, I commonly skied in minimal clothing and did not carry extra layers. So there I was, lying on my back in the snow with my skis tangled up and my right ankle hurting like the dickens when I tried to disentangle it. I had on a t-shirt, a summer-weight long-sleeved shirt, long johns, work pants, and a lightweight shell jacket. I know these things because I have a photo of myself after getting back to our house, and I still have the shirt!

Betsy and I were skiing with two friends who arrived at my side quickly. It was immediately evident that I could not just get up and ski or walk back to the house on my own. We knew exactly where the closest road was (often not the case if you are away from home, or disoriented). It took about 15 minutes after my fall to evaluate the situation and decide Betsy should ski back to the house to get the car while our two friends helped me ski on one leg to the road. Betsy had the car in place in about half an hour, but skiing out took longer. Once again, I was lucky. We only had to cross fields to get to the road with no narrow trails through the woods to navigate. I hopped and hobbled along with a friend on each side supporting me, which would not have worked on a narrow trail. It was about 30 degrees, sunny, with no wind that I remember, so I did not get cold. Even with all these factors in my favor, it took more than an hour from the time of my fall before I was back at the house. Then, of course, we were still 25 minutes from NVRH.

Now let’s think about how things might have gone differently. I had a poor choice of clothes that day. My t-shirt was 50 percent polyester and 50 percent cotton. Winter adventurers are fond of saying “cotton kills.” That is because it gets soaked with sweat and stays that way, transmitting heat away from your body rapidly. When wet it has no insulating value. My next layer was 60 percent cotton. My long johns were polyester which is good. My pants were a heavy cotton material of some kind. If I had been sweating a lot I would have gotten very cold, very quickly. If we had skied the other direction that day, I would have been on a north slope open to the north wind. It could have been cloudy, windy, and 20 degrees instead of sunny, calm, and 30. If I had been in the woods and/or on a steep slope, my friends would not have been able to support me easily to get me out of the woods. I could have been two miles from a road instead of half a mile. It could have been dusk instead of midday. And finally, I could have been skiing alone. I would have been out in the elements for at least several hours, and possibly overnight. I would not have survived that long, even with that relatively minor injury.

That accident was fortunate in a way. It gave me an appreciation for the vulnerability we have when in the backcountry, no matter what we’re doing. Today I wear the right clothes, ski with a hip pack that always has an emergency parka (packed into a fist-sized bundle), a very lightweight “bivy sack” (think space blanket sewn into a sack shape), a basic first aid kit, a plastic whistle to attract attention, a pocket knife, a compass, a headlamp, a little roll of duct tape, a length of strong, lightweight cord, some high energy food, and a new addition – ultra-compact and lightweight fire starter. If I’m going far I wear my backpack so that I can carry extra layers of clothing, water, and more food. I always tell Betsy or leave a note as to where I’m going and when I left. Basic survival gear is readily available. Caplan's has some good stuff. Online, gear is easy to find. I like a small company with lightweight, compact essentials called Go Time Gear (and they have an impressively gruesome logo). Don’t rely on your cell phone to get you out of trouble, but carry it and turn on the location because even if you don’t have service where you fall, the built-in GPS allows your phone to be located by your family and rescuers, minimizing search time.

I believe strongly in the mantra to minimize sweating in the winter. This means layers of clothing and the willingness to stop and shed layers as soon as you start to sweat, and then stopping again to put them back on at the top of the hill before skiing down again. The temptation is to wear something extra warm when you start out on a cold day, but that quickly leads to sweating. Put that warm layer in your pack for when you stop, but start out a little cold and let the exercise warm you up.

Things happen all the time. The Vermont State Police coordinate backcountry rescue calls and they report 31 incidents in the summer of 2019 just on the Long Trail. White Mountain rescues are very common, and we hear about deaths all too often. Hypothermia is an effective killer. Be aware and be prepared. If you are out a lot, particularly if you adventure alone, take a Wilderness First Aid course. I’m glad I did.