Years ago, when I lived in Banff, I owned almost zero appropriate outdoor gear nor could I have afforded it even if I had known what to get. Still, I thought it seemed like a good idea to hike up to the top of a local mountain called Sulphur Mountain, in the dead of winter, when the temperature in the town of Banff was hovering around -25 celsius. If you know anything about tops of mountains, you know it is colder up there than in town. Always.
The problem was that I was incredibly bored because it was my first winter in Banff and I had very few friends at the time. In addition, it was a sunny day which, to my west coast self, meant the perfect type of day to go outside. The thing with Alberta is that clear blue skies in winter mean frigidly cold temperatures. Sure, it looks good out there, but you need to be dressed for it.
As I mentioned, I lacked appropriate gear. I donned my giant Sorrel boots (FYI–not suitable for hiking), managing to stretch my YakTrax around their giant bases. I threw on a few layers of pants and a few layers of shirts. I rounded out my outfit with this hideously ugly army green winter jacket that was, quite possibly, the most unflattering coat I have owned nor ever will own. Aside from the coat, none of these layers were meant to be outdoors gear. I was just going for volume. In my mind, more layers meant more warmth. In theory this is correct, in practice…well, it’s not so simplistic.
All I know is I got about 2/3 up the trail and suddenly realized that I had burning and tingling at the back of my upper thighs and butt. I couldn’t really feel anything when I poked at the flesh there. Frantically, I searched my memory for symptoms of onset frostbite, convincing myself that tingling and burning were really, really bad signs. This fuelled my anxiety so much so that I stopped dead in my tracks faced with this conundrum: did I continue upward on a shorter stretch of trail, but in colder conditions (and the promise of a slightly warmer gondola ride down) or did I retreat which would cause me to hike a longer distance but with increasingly “milder” conditions (though still -25 celsius).
I hemmed and hawed for so long that I began to shiver uncontrollably. I needed to move, and since going uphill generates more heat than going downhill, I continued ahead. I tried to move as quickly as possible assuming that if I worked extra hard, my flesh wouldn’t succumb to frostbite. No matter how fast I moved, I couldn’t seem to get warm and I certainly couldn’t seem to regain feeling in my thighs and ass.
I was so worked up about having frostbite in the most embarrassing of bodily locations that I didn’t notice any scenery whatsoever, and it took me considerably longer to get to the top because I kept pausing to test my flesh for feeling (note: without any real idea of what I was looking for or what the symptoms meant). By the time I reached the summit, I had convinced myself I had frostbite and that I would surely require skin grafts on my ass and thighs. This, I imagined, would be both humiliating and painful.
At the top, my first mission was to find the washroom in the mountain-top tourist centre to see what ghastly colour my flesh would be. Well, needless to say, I didn’t suffer that severe a fate. My flesh was splotchy and definitely numb, but not exhibiting any of the really scary signs of frostbite. However, it did take a full 45 minutes inside in order to regain feeling in the flesh on my ass and thighs.
Later on, upon Googling the stages of frostbite, I learned that what I had actually suffered was merely frostnip. In addition to sounding hopelessly quaint and harmless, it does absolutely no permanent damage to the skin. But my lesson, it was definitely learned…and incredibly simple: buy base layers immediately.