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How to survive altitude and avoid frostbite – written by an unprepared adventurer

Annapurna - how to avoid frostbite

Do you dream of snow capped peaks and breathtaking scenery? Have you got mountains on you mind and feet itching for adventure? Are you planning an incredible trekking trip sometime soon? If the answers yes then there’s a few things you should know before you set off.

  1.  Its going to be one of the hardest and most rewarding experiences of your life
  2. Its going to be cold, really cold. Especially if you’re an Aussie because we’re pretty much total pansy’s when it comes to cold weather!
  3. You’ll be telling stories of your adventure for the rest of your life

In no way should this blog post deter you from going high into the mountains, it certainly hasn’t stopped me! I want to use this post to share with you my experience. What went wrong and what mistakes I will never make again!

Let me start at the beginning. I booked a trip with my favourite travel company Intrepid Travel and headed for Nepal where I would be spending 11 days trekking in the Himalayas. This was the kind of trip I had been dreaming of doing for years!

Annapurna - how to avoid frostbite

Annapurna - how to avoid frostbite

Annapurna - how to avoid frostbite

 

I joined 11 other trekking enthusiasts including my sister Kirsten and boyfriend Ryan and we headed for the Himalayas in the Annapurna region. Our goal, make it up and over the Thorong La Pass at 5416m. The first 9 days of my trek were tough as hell but completely amazing! It was on day 10 that things started to go wrong for me.

After spending the night at 4450m we were up at 3 am to prepare for the biggest day of the trek so far! Today was the day we headed for the pass. With almost 1000m altitude gain ahead of us we had to set off early. I dressed in almost every item of clothing I had with me and started walking in the darkness.

Annapurna - how to avoid frostbite

 

After a few hours of slow trekking we made it to Thorong La High Camp at 4800m. We took a break here to wait for everyone to catch up, this is when things started to go downhill. I felt like we waited nearly an hour but in reality it was probably only 20 minutes. In this time I had completely lost feeling in my hands and feet and this had me quite concerned. I mentioned it to one of our guides and he gave me hot water and swapped gloves with me because the cheap knock offs I’d bought in Kathmandu were useless!

Soon after we set off on our way, I thought “great I’m moving, I should start to warm up”. I was very wrong. Not long after we set off I collapsed. I started to feel sick and dizzy and next thing I knew I was slumped in the snow. Kirsten kindly described my appearance as “corpse-like”. My skin had turned deathly white, I had big black rings around my eyes and my lips were blue. I was a bit delusional by this point and I was sure that somehow my socks had gotten wet.

The guides first concerns were that I was succumbing to altitude sickness. I knew this wasn’t the case, I was cold, it was as simple as that, I was starting to freeze. He suggested I swap my socks to a fresh pair and insisted I wear his big jacket. I decided I would walk a little further before swapping my socks. I wanted to reach the warmth of the sun that had just started to appear.

 

As I started to walk again I was mortified by the fact that not only had I completely lost feeling in my hands and feet but the numbness had also totally consumed my calves! When I sat down in the sunlight one of the guides and a porter went to work on getting my boots off. I watched on helplessly, there was nothing I could do, my hands were frozen in a claw like position. It was only when my socks came off that I noticed a glimmer of panic in my guides eyes. My feet resembled the feet of a marble statue. They were solid white lumps and I couldn’t move them at all. I wasn’t sure at the time but following some research on my return home I’m 99% sure I was experiencing the onset frostbite.

The guys went straight to work on getting some movement and blood flow back into my feet and with a bit of warmth from the sun, the extra jacket and some hot water I started to feel a little better. Once I had regained the ability to move my feet we put my shoes and socks back on (my socks weren’t wet) and I set off at a shuffle heading for the pass. Once I was walking and the sun was shining I started to feel human again. I didn’t dare break for too long for fear of turning back into an ice block. Ryan stuck with me and a few hours later we triumphantly reached the Thorong La Pass at 5416m!

Annapurna - how to avoid frostbite

 

This experience is the scariest thing that has ever happened to me. The crazy thing is that I probably could have avoided the whole debacle if I’d been better prepared. I’ve made this list to make sure no one goes through what I did, I wouldn’t wish it upon anyone!

How to survive altitude:

 

  1. Do your research – read a book, do a google search or watch the movie Everest. I don’t mind how you do it. Just make sure you understand what altitude sickness is and what symptoms you should be looking for, it could save your life.
  2. Train, train, train – If you’ve booked a trekking trip you’re probably already a hiking enthusiast. Make sure you’re fit enough to hike for days on end. Find some mountains in your area and hike them in preparation for your trip, the steeper the better!
  3. Plan to hike with a guide –If you’re trekking for an extended period of time in an unfamiliar area a guide is essential. It’s impossible to prepare for everything but these guys will have local knowledge and years of experience in high altitude situations. If I hadn’t been with experienced guides I would have been in a lot of trouble.
  4. Go slow – the best and most effective way to avoid altitude sickness is to take it slow! By going slow you allow your body to adjust to the change in air pressure and oxygen levels and thus decrease the risk of altitude sickness.
  5. Stay hydrated and eat lots of carbs – because you need plenty of energy if you’re going to make it up a mountain!

How to avoid frostbite:

Learn from my mistakes and don’t focus on packing light, focus on what you’re going to need! The following items are essential:

 

  1. A down jacket – I put this at the top of the list because I can’t even begin to stress how important it is… I didn’t have one (stupid, I know!) and I suspect this was definitely a factor that contributed to me almost freezing!
  2. Gloves – They should be high quality, thick, warm and a perfect fit. I bought my gloves last minute from a store in Kathmandu for about $7 AUD, that might be where I went wrong.
  3. Big woolly socks – Preferably Merino Wool and maybe wear 2 pairs if your feet are particularly susceptible to the cold
  4. Waterproof hiking boots – Chances are you’re going to be hiking through snow and the last thing you want to end up with is wet feet, or worse yet, frostbite! My boots weren’t waterproof and as I mentioned my socks weren’t wet like I had thought but I do think a better quality boot would have gone a long way in keeping my feet warmer!
  5. Waterproof pants – be prepared for any situation, at high altitudes the weather can change in the blink of an eye, without any notice you could find yourself in the middle of a blizzard! This was another item I decided I didn’t need.
  6. Gore-Tex Jacket – even if the temperature isn’t that low the wind chill can be brutal, a quality Gore-Tex jacket will act as a barrier between you and the blisteringly cold winds.
  7. Thermals – these base layers are essential, if possible a set of merino wool thermals are ideal.
  8. Beanie and scarf/neck tube
  9. The essentials – shirts, shorts, underwear, toiletries etc.

Annapurna - how to avoid frostbite

I visited Nepal on Intrepid’s “Annapurna Explorer” tour and I wouldn’t have made it up and over the pass without the incredible team trekking of staff. There is nothing they could have done to prevent my situation and I’m so grateful they were there to help. You can read more about my Himalayan Adventure here. Or check out my youtube video below!

 

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