I hate having cold feet. I’m not talking about my feet being chilled a wee bit from a draft while watching TV in the family room. When that’s the case I just light the propane fireplace and the old tootsies are toasty in a jiffy.
On the contrary, there are many times in the life of outdoor folks when these most functional of extremities are bitter cold, paining or even numb from exposure to extreme freezing temperatures. What can we do to keep those toes warm?
Over the past couple of weeks I have learned plenty about frosty hands and feet from watching a reality show, not “Big Brother” or the “Keeping up with the Kardashians,” but an honest-to-goodness excellent series about climbing Mount Everest. If anyone’s interested, all three seasons are on Netflix. It’s titled “Everest — Beyond the Limit,” and it follows groups of climbers over three climbing seasons in their very personal bids to reach the pinnacle of the Earth — Everest at 29,029 feet above sea level.
No doubt, drama is stirred into reality for entertainment effect, but overall I totally enjoyed the show and learned tons I didn’t know about survival at extreme altitude and cold.
During each narrow seasonal window of opportunity to climb Everest, people invariably die, more often on the way back down when they are disoriented from exhaustion, dehydration, cold and altitude.
Climbers often return to base camp with frozen fingers and toes. Sometimes, after they thaw, everything is fine and the brave soul returns home intact, none the worse for the ordeal other than some discoloration, peeling skin and an ample measure of pain. But in extreme cases, when the tissue has been frozen too long, amputation is essential to stop the spread of gangrene.
In the modern world, where the absolute finest gear is available and reasonably affordable, why would people climbing mountains lose fingers and toes to frostbite? I’m assuming nobody is foolhardy enough to climb mountains with boots purchased at the local hardware store.
The fact is that in extreme conditions, even with the best boots money can buy, your feet can still get cold.
Why is this? Your body is an extremely complex and highly adaptable product of evolution. It wants to survive. If you subject it to stress of one sort or another it will prioritize and choose the best option for survival.
You can live without toes or fingers and your body knows this, although having no fingers would pose a challenge at the fly-tying bench. The body doesn’t care about catching fish; it just wants to stay alive.
So when you get cold, the body restricts blood flow to the hands and feet so it can keep your internal organs from cooling off and shutting down. So your feet can get bitter cold, even when you might be shod with the finest winter footwear.
This primal survival response can also be triggered by dehydration and exhaustion. On summit day, Everest climbers need to drink a full gallon of water, typically stored in plastic bottles beneath their clothes so it doesn’t freeze. They still return dehydrated and cold.
Some consider a pinkie or little toe a small price for standing on top of the world. I’m not so sure on that one. Mountain climbers are a tough breed.
Down here at sea level or nearabouts, one can still experience cold feet on the snowy trail. My first bout with icy feet came at the tender age of just 19 years. I’m talking really cold feet here, not the sort most of us experienced while tobogganing or playing hockey on the pond.
I recall my mother sitting me in front of the stove and placing my feet on the oven door for 10 minutes or so when I’d get home from after-school pond skating. At least you could run home when you got cold.
My first seriously cold feet crept up on me where there was no running home to Mom’s oven. Boyd Winsor, Chris Coombs and I were on a three-day winter snowshoe hiking trip in the hinterland of Harbour Grace. It was the 1970s and our best boots for winter travel were those sort we called Ski-Doo boots. They were rubber to the ankles, followed to mid-calf by nylon and leaky uppers. Insulation was provided by a felt liner which could be removed for drying or overnighting in a less than adequate sleeping bag. They tied tight around the calf with a drawstring, so at least the snow wouldn’t fill your boots and leave your feet soaking.
For readers who know the area, we started out at the foot of Bannerman Lake at the break of day and hiked over the ice as far as Anderson’s Path.
From there, it was upgrade to Anderson’s Pond and on to Western Island and Fox Pond. Then we left the ice and huffed our way on snowshoes overland to Matty’s Pond, our destination. Actually, a small gully just east of Matty’s Pond was our home away from home.
We bunked in a small, one-room cabin owned by an older gentleman from Harbour Grace. Boyd knew him and he kindly gave us permission to use his abode. I stopped by the site a few years back and there’s nothing left but the old cast iron stove.
The hike in had been fantastic, four or five hours of sucking in cold, clean winter air while soaking in the bright sunshine associated with a glorious high-pressure system.
The next day dawned a little cloudy with the sun poking through here and there, and much warmer. This was to be our ice fishing day.
We chopped holes and explored the myriad of coves, points, islands and channels that is Matty’s Pond. It’s more like three small ponds connected by narrow canals. Anyway, we had a splendid day fishing and returned to the cabin just as the sun hid behind the hills, hungry for a fry of delicious, plump mud trout.
As I ate the last of my trout and beans, washed down by strong black tea, I heard rain on the roof. Nothing to that, we thought — sure the sun was out a few hours ago. We were very wrong.
It poured all night, stopping just before daylight. This was our walkout day and the ice on the ponds was covered with four or five inches of water. To make matter worse, the temperature was dropping back below freezing. We had no waterproof boots. Our only alternative was plastic bags inside our Ski-Doo boots.
The sensible thing to do would have been to stay put until conditions improved, but there were no cellphones and our families would be worried sick. Off we trudged through the slush and water.
The plastic bags worked for a while, but eventually failed and left us all with soaking feet. Wet and cold occur in nature just like they roll off the tongue, inseparable. My feet have never been so cold since, and I hope they never will be again. It was a long, cold miserable walk back to Harbour Grace.
I explained earlier how the body prioritizes and shuts off blood to the feet. I think on this day my body worked so hard to keep my feet from freezing that the rest of me got cold. If we stopped walking for more than 10 minutes, we’d take to shivering. But we made it back and learned the hard way never to leave home without waterproof boots.
Today there are much better options than Ski-Doo boots. I’ll tell you more another time.
Paul Smith, a native of Spaniard’s Bay,
fishes and wanders the outdoors at every opportunity. He can be contacted at