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Story and Photos by Vicki Hoefling Andersen
 (Other Photos as credited)
High on Adventure, January 2018


Snow-clad mountains and the recreational opportunities they offer draw many enthusiasts into a winter world that stimulates and delights. But to the unwary it can be a harbinger of misery leaving you vulnerable to a potentially hostile environment. With some basic knowledge of what to look for and how to handle unforeseen situations, you can reduce your stress and enhance your enjoyment of the outdoors.

  Cat skiing at Irwin Lodge, CO   Fat tire snow biking McCall, ID  
Snow enthusiasts utilize a variety of transports to access their favorite play areas. Snowcats at Irwin Lodge, Colorado, take you far beyond the popular slopes of Crested Butte.
A fat biker enjoys the trails outside McCall, Idaho
(photo courtesy McCall CVB)

Start Prepared

Be sure you've packed the appropriate equipment. Take extra clothing including gloves and socks, sunglasses or goggles, and food and water. Let someone know where you will park, your planned route and destination, and the estimated time of return. And let this person know when you have returned!

Create a survival kit (see footnote), know how to use its contents, and take it with you faithfully on every trip. Better to have equipment you might not use than be caught in a bad situation and lack some small necessity that might have made the difference. Stuff your pockets to the max, carry it in a fanny pack or back pack, stuff the trunk or saddle/tank bag of your snowmobile. Just be sure to have it.

  Snowshoeing, McCall, ID   Playing broomball at Sun Peaks, BC  
Snowshoers head into the forest near McCall, Idaho (photo courtesy McCall CVB). Author participates in a pickup game of broomball in Sun Peaks, British Columbia, with ski buddies (left to right) Dino Vournas, Christopher Nicolson (President & CEO of Canada West Ski Areas Association), and Curtis Fong.

Dress for Success

With a 3.5 degree drop in temperature for every thousand feet you ascend in elevation, you need to dress warmly and layer to create an insulating effect and allow removal of an item or two if you get too warm. Keep clothing loose so you don’t restrict movement or circulation.

Opt for moisture-absorbing material next to the skin to whisk away perspiration, but avoid cotton which absorbs and retains moisture. Silk and wool wick dampness towards the outer layer where it can evaporate. The middle layer should retain body heat but allow moisture to pass through to the outer layer. Wool is a good choice since its hollow fibers maintain its insulating ability even if wet. Fleece is another good option, lighter than wool, and it dries rapidly.

  Ski-joring at Mt. Bachelor   Snow biking at Grand Targhee, WY  
Never passing up a chance for some ski-joring, the author snags a few pulls across Dutchman’s Flat, at the base of Mt. Bachelor, Oregon (photo by Ron Andersen). She and her father, John Hoefling, spent an afternoon in Grand Targhee, Wyoming, riding the slopes and slaloming through the trees on snow bikes. The options to play outdoors in the winter are limited only by your imagination.

Your outer layer should shield from the elements yet allow body moisture to evaporate. A waterproof-breathable fabric is the best choice, but at least choose fabrics that are wind resistant and water repellent. Look for collars and cuffs that close tightly to keep out cold air and snow, zippers with large nylon teeth that work more easily in the cold, and storm flaps over zippers to block wind and water. Many jackets include ventilation systems allowing airflow if you work up too much steam, and a hood with drawstring that tightens around your face is a practical option.

Nearly half your body heat is lost out of the top of your head, so depending on your choice of outdoor activity, wear a hat or helmet (preferably the latter if your head is imporant to you). The neck is the next biggest loser (of heat, that is), so a scarf, neck gaiter or high collar will help contain body heat. A cold face triggers your body to direct blood from the extremities to the internal organs, further cooling hands and feet, so a face mask or balaclava is a good addition to the gear bag.

Glove liners can help but only if the extra bulk doesn’t restrict circulation, which will make hands colder. If you are willing to sacrifice dexterity, mittens are a warmer choice. Some gloves are now designed with “pockets” to insert packets of chemical hand warmer, the ultimate in tackling cold digits.

  Nancy Greene Raine skiing   Snowmobiling Chugach Mountains  
Canadian Olympic Gold & Silver medalist Nancy Greene Raine lays tracks in Crystal Bowl at Sun Peaks, British Columbia. Busting through a cornice in the Chugach Mountains north of Valdez, Alaska.

There are all sorts of remedies for cold feet, but it might take a bit of experimentation to dial in on the best for you. Wash feet in the morning to remove perspiration and body oil, then follow up with a dusting of talcum powder to absorb perspiration which develops during the day. An analgesic cream on the toes (not the whole foot) helps open the capillaries and help blood circulate more freely. An antiperspirant on the feet will also help stop moisture (If you use an analgesic cream and antiperspirant, apply the cream first.) Changing damp socks during the day will help. Check for pressure points in your boots that may be restricting circulation. Insoles also help insulate. Depending on your footwear, boot heaters can make a big difference, and today’s models are lighter weight with longer battery life than early versions.

When it comes to socks, layering isn't better. A single pair of medium weight tootsie-covers is preferable to two pair which can cause slippage resulting in blisters, or one heavy pair which can restrict circulation. Under normal conditions each foot produces about one-half pint of perspiration a day, which can easily double during outdoor activities, so choose a moisture-absorbing material. If you suffer from extremely cold feet, you might give heated socks a try.

Wind chill chart
Image courtesy NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

Use common sense in dressing for the outdoors and be aware of the wind’s impact on exposure. This Wind Chill Chart from NOAA illustrates the effect of wind and temperature on a dry, properly clothed person, but adding moisture can cause up to a 25-times greater loss of heat.


Protect Those Peepers

Eye protection is critical at all times. It is important to shield these sensitive organs from the effects of high altitude which cannot filter the harmful portions of the light spectrum, from potential injury (ever had a tree branch slap you in the face or pelting snow drive you to tears?), and goggles in particular provide an amazing amount of warmth on a blustery day.

Up to 80% of sensory perception occurs through the eyes and proper protection reduces eye fatigue and enhances definition of terrain and objects. Long term, unprotected exposure to UV rays can cause snow blindness, cataracts, retina damage and macular degeneration. Best way to avoid this damage is by using a lens that blocks 99% of UVA and UVB rays.

Symptoms of snow blindness, basically a sunburn of the white portion of the eye, can develop 6-12 hours after exposure and may include dizziness, severe headache, and/or sensitivity to light. The eyes feel grainy, movement is painful, and there might be excessive tearing and swelling around the eye socket. If this occurs, cover the eyes, remove the person to a dark area, apply cool compresses, and use non-prescription pain relievers as needed.

  Skier with hat and goggles  
Keep the head warm and the eyes protected (image courtesy Larry Turner)
  Alta, CO   Flathead National Forest  
The abandoned mining town of Alta, Colorado (left), accessible only by snowmobile in the winter, features in-your-face views of Wilson Peak, the iconic Coors mountain. Located at 11,800 feet in the San Juan Mountains outside Telluride, from 1876 to 1945 miners extracted gold, silver, copper, iron, zinc and lead. The town boasted the first electrical grid in the world. Right, Chris Mundel and the author take a pause while riding the Flathead National Forest in Montana to enjoy views of Waterton and Glacier National Parks.

An Attitude About Altitude

Every 1,000 feet of altitude increases the sun’s intensity by 4%, and even on a cloudy day 80% of UV rays penetrate through. And snow reflects almost all of it – 89% compared to 9% for water in its liquid state. UVA rays damage skin collagen and contribute to its aging, while UVB rays are thought to be the primary cause of skin cancer.

A sunburn continues to develop for up to a day after exposure, and one blistering sunburn doubles the chance for skin cancer. Applying a waterproof sunscreen with zinc oxide to all uncovered skin at least 30 minutes before exposure is a must, and using a product that includes moisturizer will help prevent windburn. Don’t forget a lip balm with SPF 15, also containing zinc oxide, for the pucker portion of your face. Lips have very little melanin to protect from sun damage, and the thin outer layer doesn’t retain moisture.

  Snowmobiling Chugach Mountains   Harmony Express, Whistler  
Whether by sled, skin or lift, it is amazingly easy to gain thousands of feet in altitude exploring mountainous terrain. Left, snowmobiling glaciers and vast snowfields in the Chugach Mountains outside Valdez, Alaska. Right, Harmony Express soars to the top of Little Whistler Peak at Whistler, British Columbia (Paul Morrison photo courtesy Whistler-Blackcomb)

At higher elevations, the lungs must expand in an effort to absorb more oxygen in the thinner air, and Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) can afflict the unwary. Initial symptoms may include headache, insomnia, nausea, fatigue, shortness of breath with exertion, and poor appetite. The next stage might have headache not relieved by aspirin, vomiting, raspy cough, weakness, and balance/coordination problems. Once a wet cough, disorientation, inability to eat, blue lips or fingernails, or shortness of breath at rest appear, the victim is in serious trouble. Symptoms may not occur until 6-48 hours afterward and may take up to a week to subside. Treat by descending to a lower altitude and using supplemental oxygen.

AMS can be avoided by slowly ascending to higher altitudes which allows the body to acclimate. To absorb more oxygen, the body requires additional fluids and becomes dehydrated. But avoid alcohol and caffeine which constrict blood vessels and reduce circulation of warm blood to the extremities. It helps to load up on carbohydrates, a good source of energy and endurance, in smaller but more frequent meals.

The body loses two to four quarts of fluid per day when active so the need to hydrate is crucial. High altitude can suppress thirst so don’t wait until you want a drink – try for at least twelve cups of water a day.

  Snowghosts at Schweitzer, ID   Eiamond Lake, OR  
Arctic storms can dump massive amounts of snow on the Pacific Northwest, transforming trees into snowghosts like these at Schweitzer Mountain, Idaho (Ken Barcelou photo courtesy Schweitzer). At Diamond Lake, Oregon, we returned from a three hour snowmobile ride to find the bare trailer we left parked in a cleared lot totally transformed.

Baby It’s Cold Outside

In the delight of enjoying a wintery landscape, stay attuned to the mental and physical signs of frostbite and hypothermia. Exposure of skin to the cold can result in crystals forming either superficially or in the fluids and underlying soft tissues and lead to frostbite. It most commonly occurs to the extremities: nose, cheeks, ears, fingers, and toes. Often the victim is unaware of the problem until an observer notices the slightly flushed skin prior to frostbite setting in, then turning white or grayish yellow. There may be mild tingling or pain followed by numbness.

By this stage immediate action is needed. Protect the area from further trauma and quickly rewarm by immersing in warm water (no hotter than 105 degrees Fahrenheit) or applying warm towels. If the area has thawed and refrozen, warm at room temperature without use of heat sources. Do not massage the injured area or you may damage frozen tissue. Swelling will occur after thawing, and discontinue warming when the part becomes flushed. If feet are affected and the victim must walk to obtain assistance, do not attempt to thaw beforehand. Seek medical attention for anything other than a very minor affliction.

  Dog sledding, Squaw Valley, CA   Snowmobiling Mt. Bailey, OR  
Over the lake and through the woods via dog sled at Squaw Valley (photo courtesy Squaw Valley Ski Resort) and snowmobile at Mt. Bailey, Oregon. As harmelss as these excursions seem, frostbite or hypothermia can occur before you realize it.

Hypothermia develops when the body's core temperature drops below the level where the body can reheat itself, and if immediate steps are not taken can result in damage to vital organs, up to and including death. Signs include slurred speech, numbness, chills and shivering, mental confusion, impaired judgment, a stumbling gait, lack of coordination, failing eyesight, exhaustion, and/or drowsiness.

Symptoms must be stopped in the shivering phase by removing any wet clothing and rewarming the body, torso area first. Use heating pads, hot water bottles, blankets, or people to transmit their body heat. Keep the heat source warm - not hot - as skin sensitivity may be reduced or lost. Elevate feet and lower the head to increase circulation to the chest and vital organs. Keep a close eye on the respiratory system. If the victim is conscious you may administer warm liquids but no alcohol or sedatives. Do not massage any area, and obtain medical assistance as soon as possible.

  Avalanche gun, Wh   Blackcomb, British Columbia  
Avalanche guns ready for some preventative work in Whistler-Blackcomb, British Columbia (Scott Serfas photo courtesy Whistler-Blackcomb). Blackcomb Glacier (Paul Morrison photo courtesy Whistler-Blackcomb).

When the Earth Moves Under Your Feet

Ski areas closely monitor avalanche risk within the area boundaries, but if your choice of recreation takes you into the backcountry you need to know what to look for to avoid this unlikely but real possibility. Most important, check the local weather and avalanche forecasts before you head out.

Stay on safe, established routes and if at all in doubt, stay out of avalanche-hazard areas. Generally, avalanches occur in the same areas, so watch for old slide paths (a pattern of bent or broken timber, or the lack of growth in an area surrounded by trees or bushes). If snow has a hollow sound, "ball bearings" down a slope, or it cracks and the cracks run, be particularly cautious. Greatest avalanche activity is during or just after a storm, but they can occur anytime.

    Avalanche sign, Sun Peaks, BC    
Many ski resorts and snowmobile trailheads post current avalanche conditions, similar to this one at Sun Peaks, British Columbia.

The safest route through a potential avalanche area is across the top of a ridge or slightly downslope on the windward side. If you can’t travel along a ridgetop, stay out in the valley as far as possible from the bottom of slopes. Avoid cornices and steep open gullies and stay in the trees if possible. Do not traverse a slope - go directly up or down, and proceed one person at a time.

    Mt. Bachelor avalanche dogs If caught in an avalanche, discard all equipment and make swimming motions to try and stay near the surface. Before coming to a stop, attempt to make an air pocket in front of your face. Try to remain calm to conserve air and strength. If you are the survivor, mark the location where the victim was last seen and search downhill from that point using an avalanche probe, ski pole or stick to gently probe the snow. Don’t go for help unless there is someone else to continue looking or help is only minutes away. After 30 minutes a buried victim has only a 50% chance of survival -- you are their best chance for survival.  
  Hopefully this is the closet you’ll come to encountering rescue dogs like these fellows at Mt. Bachelor, Oregon (photo courtesy Mt. Bachelor)  




Forks Roadhouse, Delali, AK

  Meehan's Motel, Boulder Creek Drainage, AK  




Skyline Warming Shelter, Mt. Hood, OR

  Sometimes you can take advantage of a backcountry shelter. The Forks Roadhouse near Petersville was one of the oldest in Alaska, a relic of the gold rush era. Accessible only by snowmachine in the winter, sadly it burned down in 2012 although other Alaskan roadhouses remain as sledhead destinations. Along the Boulder Creek Drainage at the base of the Anthracite Ridge, “Meehan’s Motel” is the epitome of an Alaskan frontier cabin. Stocked with the basics for survival, all they ask is you respect it and leave some firewood ready for the next visitor. Sometimes local snowmobile clubs construct shelters such as this one at Skyline on Mt. Hood, Oregon, welcoming all winter visitors to enjoy a hot fire and picnic tables.  

If The Snowflakes Hit the Fan

If something does occur and it is impractical or impossible to backtrack, stay calm, make a shelter, build a fire, and stay together. Choose a location protected from the wind and elements that is not under overhanging, snow-laden branches. Use a plastic tarp, space blankets, tree boughs, even a snowmobile to make a windbreak. If this isn’t feasible, seek the clearing at the base of a tree or dig a snow cave facing away from the wind. Gather dry or dead wood or brush, or pine needles to build a fire for warmth and melt clean snow for water.

  Ground to air emergency signal chart   Ground to air emergency signal chart  
Print them, laminate them, and give them a home in your wallet

Lay out a pattern of distress signals using standard Ground-to-Air Emergency Rescue Signals. Make them as large as possible, and do whatever possible to increase their visibility such as outlining them with branches or rocks. On a sunny day, use a mirror or other reflective surface to signal as often as possible.

If you need to determine direction and don’t have a compass, an analog watch can bail you out. Point the hour hand at the sun and south will be halfway between the hour hand and the 12 o’clock mark.

  Snowmobiling at Mt. St. Helens, WA   Snowmobiling at Paulina, OR  
  Undulating terrain like the Mudflow on Mt. St. Helens, Washington, demand vigilance. If not, some willing friends are appreciated. Misery gathers company when Mike blows a hillclimb at Paulina, Oregon, so Dewey heads up to give him a hand but buries his machine, then John to the rescue (not) makes the final score Mountain 3, Man & Machine 0.  

Enjoy The Adventure

There is no reason to avoid backcountry excursions for fear of winter weather or what Mother Nature might set in your path. If you or a member of your party become fatigued or chilled, turn back. Don’t be afraid to admit your limitations; there’s almost always another opportunity to accomplish your goal. Go prepared and use your head to maximize your margin of safety and comfort and you will have many adventurous tales to share. And if you’re prepared and come upon someone else who is in difficulty, you just might save the day (or life) of a fellow snowsports enthusiast.

SURVIVAL KIT Essentials if travelling through the backcountry or for an extended outing --

First Aid Supplies (non-prescription analgesic, gauze, tape, scissors, tweezers, adhesive tape, adhesive bandages, elastic bandage, 2” and 4” compresses, triangular bandage)
Drinking Water
Food, both high-energy and dehydrated
Signal Mirror
Flashlight & Spare Batteries
Reliable Lighter plus Matches in a waterproof container
Fire Starter Cube
Multipurpose Knife
Two 12”x12” squares of heavy Aluminum Foil (use to form a cup for melting snow)
Space Blanket
Flares Duct Tape
Lightweight Folding Shovel
Avalanche Beacon
Avalanche Probe
Nylon Cord
Plastic Tarp

If snowmobiling, include:
Tools (variety of wrenches that fit your machine, vice grips, screwdrivers, spark plug wrench)
Extra Spark Plugs, at least one for every engine cylinder
Spare Belt
Tow Rope
Siphon Hose
Extra Gas & Oil