Think Fast To Counteract Hypothermia On A Mountain

July 25, 2012 0 Comments

By Geoff Goond

Hypothermia has the power to sneak up on a climber even if they are fit, healthy and experienced. The condition is concerned with the cooling of the body’s inner core, which is usually kept at a near constant temperature. Much like a normal home’s thermostat the human body keeps itself at the optimum temperature for comfort and performance. If this temperature significantly decreases then the metabolism will start to slow down to a point where it will cease completely. Climbers need to be think fast and possess the power to retreat in order to beat it.

The body is kept at a near constant temperature of about 37 degrees. If the environment gets to hot then the brain can make adjustments to re-regulate temperature. If the environment becomes too cold one of the body’s primary responses is to initiate shivering. This contracts the muscles and begins to warm up the body. At a certain stage in very cold conditions the body’s capacity to maintain homeostasis will be exceeded by the environments cooling capacity. Once the inner temperature falls below 34.5 degrees the defence mechanisms begin to fail, and hypothermia can set in.

Mountains can be very dangerous places even when the weather is sunny and the wind is still. The environment is fraught with hidden dangers, which explains why so few humans still inhabit them. Generally the higher grounds on earth are colder and windier than on sea levels. The only other place more exposed to the dangers of the cold would be open water submersion. Climbers or hikers have the added complication that they are exercising within this environment. When the muscles begin to cool their power output decreases significantly which results in an earlier onset of fatigue. For example as a climber becomes weaker late into a day’s climb their work output decreases and they create less heat. When this is combined with the rapid cooling capacity of cold temperatures you get a deadly combination.

If you come across someone who is hypothermic then it is important to apply first aid skills to help that person overcome the condition. In the early stages the signs to look out for are increased long periods of shivering followed by weakness and an inability to maintain exercise. As the condition progresses the person will lose their appetite and thirst at a time when it is needed most. At this stage all the symptoms can be combined with confusion and change of personality that can eventually lead to unconsciousness and death.

As a first aider or even just as a friend you will need to treat the victim quickly in order to save their life. On a mountain top this requires getting the person off a cold wind swept face and into the safety of a camp with a tent. In certain cases this may not be possible and therefore an emergency bivouac would need to be set up. By getting the person inside a tent there is a greater chance of getting their body warmed up. It is then important to warm them up at the same rate that they were cooled. For example someone who had slowly become hypothermic needs to be warmed back up slowly. If the process is done too quickly then the sudden shock can cause cardiac arrest.

Warm clothing and hot drinks can be used to rewarm the body. When safe to do so you should retreat to get professional help. Getting a casualty further towards sea level can also increase their chances of survival. At higher altitude the body has to work harder and struggles for oxygen. Getting a hypothermic victim off a mountain allows for greater oxygen consumption and can initiate a return to homeostasis.

If someone suffering from hypothermia fails to get this treatment ultimately they will die. The main problem concerns the cooling effect on the heart. As a person cools there heart rate drops steadily. At a certain point the heart is unable to function, which is followed by cardiac arrest. Sadly the chances of reviving someone on a mountain are very slim mainly due to the unavailability of medical care. Ultimately it is the role of a climbing partner to the spot the signs early and retreat off the mountain to safety.

Geoff Goond is a leading first aid instructor, and mountain rescue worker. Did you know how to treat hypothermia? If not then visit the emergency first aid course learning zone @ for free tips.

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