Once the trees thin out and YOU get above 12,000 feet you know you have to deal with thin air. And altitude sickness is the prime cause Tusker trekkers fail to summit Kilimanjaro or make it to Everest Base Camp.
If you’re smart you listen to your guides, eat & hydrate properly, go slow and make adjustments for altitude.
But altitude isn’t the only high backcountry issue you need to adjust for. Freezing temperatures need you to make physical, mental and clothing adjustments as well as pre-trip training if you want to achieve your trip goals.
It’s the middle of January there is a blanket of ice outside your window and you’ve got the thermostat cranked to the low 80’s.
You’re looking at the calendar and can’t wait for your April Tusker trek to Everest Base Camp. Instead of going for your normal jog through the park, you stay inside; bemoaning endless winter and how cold it makes you feel.
Babying yourself through winter is about the worst thing you can do before a Tusker trip. It requires an attitude adjustment.
EBC and Kilimanjaro’s summit temps are below freezing. Patagonia and Mongolia are warmer, but not that much on windy and wet days.
If you can’t handle winter in Brooklyn how are you going to enjoy the cold days on your bucket list treks? Get off the sofa now and start winterizing.
Many people hate cold weather because it’s in their head as well as their toes and torso.
Being cold is as much a mental state as it is physical. Once the trees shed their foliage many of us shut down physically and avoid outside exercise.
By not being physical you can easily fall prey to Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) or winter depression. The best way to avoid being SAD and staying warm is to conquer your fear of the cold by embracing winter.
By getting out three to four times a week for a minimum 30 minutes of exercise you will strengthen your immunity to the cold. Jog, cross country ski, skate, snow shoe, snow camp or just walk through the park.
Join a group that does these outings and learn from them how they embrace and cope with winter’s chill.
Instead of seeing winter as a metaphor for all things bleak, start enjoying winter’s beauty. Reap its tranquility having the park to yourself. Notice the tracks of many nocturnal animals in the snow while marveling at the blue jays toughing out winter.
Unlike your neighbors, Blue Jays didn’t migrate to their condo in South Florida. They adapted to the cold and over time got tough. Soon you will discover you are tougher too.
Dress For Success In The Cold
If you don’t have anemia or another illness that causes you to be cold, there is just one other reason you are freezing your butt off. You don’t have the right clothing.
This can get complicated, but’s let’s keep it simple.
Start with your extremities finding the warmest hat, socks and gloves. Then learn how to layer your core with quality outer, middle and base layers.
This could cost you a few bucks because quality wool and waterproof materials are not cheap, but will last a long time and will keep you toasty.
Start from the bottom up with a pair of Darn Tough Hiker Full Cushion socks and a pair of silk sock liners. Darn Tough makes a pair of mountaineering socks that are knee high in merino wool and on that midnight start to Kilimanjaro’s summit these will keep your legs warm.
Opt for mittens, not gloves at high altitudes sub-freezing conditions. Mittens are warmer than gloves and what you lose in dexterity you gain in warmth.
Marmot’s Expedition Mittens are designed for South Pole scientists and Everest summiteers and in addition to being warm are waterproof. Black Diamond’s Mountain Mittens are stuffed with sleeping bag insulation filling and have a removable inner lining. Expect to shell out north of $100, but this is money well spent.
Hats are perhaps the most overlooked and among the most important pieces of your winterizing. You lose up to 10 percent of your body heat through your head so keep it covered with a tight fitting beanie made of merino or high tech materials from companies including Black Diamond, Mountain Hardware and Seirus Gradient.
The 3-1 Quick Clara Hat from Seirus is well thought out with a Merino beanie and an attached fleece face mask. It’s stylish and cheap at $25. With any headgear be aware that most will not tolerate snow or rain so make sure your jacket has a water proof hood.
Pack the Alpaca
For torso inner coverage, learn how to layer finding the warmest, but lightest travel friendly materials that work for you.
Wear this clothing in the cold well before your trip. Make sure it’s going to keep you toasty camping in Kilimanjaro’s crater or on the way up Kala Pattar, the high point on the EBC trip at 18,513 feet.
The base layer hugs your skin so you want nothing scratchy, but something warm that will wick your sweat. Lightweight Merino wool inner shirts from Icebreaker or Ibex are high tech and highly efficient.
Avoid cotton it’s not warm and when you sweat, it will chill you quick.
Sweaters have been around since Vikings and Mongols laid waste to the coldest parts of the world, but you can learn much about staying warm from the ancients.
The Incas were Andean mountain warriors and they found the wild alpaca roaming above tree line to have the warmest wool. It not only kept them warm, but alpaca thread was also used to build swing bridges.
A 100 percent alpaca sweater is superior to cashmere and merino wool for warmth and because it compresses is great for travel. They are made in different weights and a medium weight works for Mongolia and Patagonia.
A heavier weight keeps you snug in Nepal and Kilimanjaro. You can pick them up very reasonably in the markets in Santiago, Chile before you head down to Patagonia. Online alpaca sweater prices are below $100.
Technology has made a big difference in outerwear. Jackets are lighter and just as warm as the old-school expedition goose down parkas and are better in wet conditions.
Synthetic insulation developed for sleeping bags is now in many high altitude trek jackets and mimics down. Check out Mountain Hardwear, Patagonia, Arcteryx and Outdoor Research who all make highly rated cold weather jackets you will need for EBC and Kilimanjaro.
Try to buy something that is water proof not just water resistant and make sure it has a hood that won’t blow off in the wind.
Low Tech, Still Warm
Backcountry Tibetans and Mongols never had high tech fleece or synthetics and still don’t. Yet they figured out ways to beat the freeze. They use their creativity and whatever materials they had at hand to survive.
The Tibetans developed inner heat meditation exercises and within ten minutes without moving could get warm. Through visualization they could see a fire erupting in their spinal column that warmed their core and extremities.
Mongolia is among the world’s coldest places; its biggest city Ulaan Baatar, is the world’s coldest capital, but instead of complaining, the Mongolians cope.
Rural herdsmen line their Gers (tents) with felt, they lace their tea with butter, eat heaping bowls of dumpling soup filled with game meat. They prepare for winter months before gathering animal dung to feed their stoves.
They shear their goats and make cashmere coats and hats. They know winter is coming and prepare for it just like their ancestors thousands of years ago.
Many people limit themselves because of the cold. They see themselves in a sleeping bag over 10,000 feet with cold feet and visualize frostbite. Instead of experiencing the wonders of the Himalaya or camping out in Kilimanjaro’s crater they opt for a beach trip in the Caribbean.
Visualize yourself on top of Kilimanjaro or Everest Base Camp in a tee shirt and shorts basking in the sun. Sure that’s a stretch, but if Tibetans can see their spinal column on fire, let’s be creative, resourceful and overcome our fear of the cold.
True adventure travel is about coping with the elements, becoming tougher, smarter, and more adventurous. By figuring out how to stay warm you can acclimatize and travel anywhere.