Lessons learned from a polar vortex 

click to enlarge PHOTO SUBMITTED - coping Pique columnist Vince Shuley offers some sage advice on how to keep warm on those frigid days.
  • PHOTO submitted
  • coping Pique columnist Vince Shuley offers some sage advice on how to keep warm on those frigid days.

I can recall exactly three occasions in the last five years when I've been colder than any other time in my life.

The first was in May, 2014 on a glacier in Central Asia. A five-day snow storm with fierce winds had forced our party into basecamp boredom, but that wasn't the cold part. When the skies parted to reveal the mountainous majesty of the Pamir Range, all warmth evaporated. Rising to do my job of capturing the beautiful morning light with my camera, I thought as soon as I got moving that blood would return to my extremities. A few hours and kilometres later, the severe solar radiation at 5,000 metres above sea level finally thawed my frozen digits.

The second was in February, 2018 in a backcountry zone near Sun Valley, Idaho. You know when the hardened Ketchum locals start talking about the "coldest day of the year" that you're in for it. We started at somewhere pretty close to -30 C, then began doubling on snowmobiles for the next 15 kms or so. It was the windchill that got us. Driving faster got us to our destination faster, but more speed meant a colder ride. We were truly damned if we did and damned if we didn't.

The third was a couple of weeks ago right here in Whistler. I'm usually ready for the arctic outflows that arrive in February, but this was the fiercest—and most sustained—cold snap I'd ever seen on the coast. Normally I'd retreat back to bed on such a day, but with friends in town that had flown across the world for a week of skiing, it was time to layer up and rally. I dove into the very depths of my gear closet to retrieve the few pieces of apparel that I'll only wear for a few days every few years—but knowing that fierce cold can strike any time—refuse to part with. The following are items that helped me face the worst of a West Coast polar vortex.

THE ONE-PIECE THERMAL LAYER—People often think wearing thermal tops and bottoms is the same as a one-piece suit, but I can attest I feel warmer in the onesie. There are no gaps for wind and cold air to penetrate and the warmth from your groin and legs doesn't get caught in elastic traps. For the coldest days, I wore my Icebreaker Sheep Suit plus an additional leg layer plus another upper body layer. That was before I added a hefty, hooded midlayer to my torso.

THE PUFFY—There's all sorts of puffy jacket options for all sorts of temperatures. I prefer the synthetics over down when skiing in storm weather because they're more resistant against moisture, but in arctic outflow that matters little. Loft is the magical ingredient here; filling the voids between your base/mid layers and your outerwear. My new Patagonia Micro Puffy I received as a Christmas present did just the trick.

OVERMITTS. A staple for ski racers, overmitts are just that—a waterproof shell that slides over your regular glove providing an extra layer of protection from wind and cold. You do sacrifice dexterity and fashionability, but who the hell cares when it's -25 C and windy?

SOFTSHELL OUTERWEAR—Some may disagree with me here, but I believe Gore Tex shell outerwear is built for keeping us dry, not warm. For the coldest days I substitute my Gore for a soft-shell jacket and pants that are lined with Windstopper or Polartec fabric. These are far more efficient at cutting the wind, and you're rarely worried about your gear wetting out in extreme cold.

BALACLAVA AND FACE MASK—Some people wear these all the time but I personally can't stand heat getting trapped around my neck and face. When the going gets cold, however, I make exceptions. An integrated hood in your baselayer works great too, but making it through the day without frostbite on your cheeks requires that your face be completely covered. The thicker masks lined with fleece fare better than the neck tubes.

ELECTRIC AND CHEMICAL HEAT SOURCES. I haven't yet made the move to battery-powered boot heaters or socks, but plenty of my peers have done so on account of circulation issues, previous cases of frostbite or just not liking having cold toes. I'm lucky enough that my lower appendages generally don't get hit too hard (my hands are a different story), but I do like to have a packet or two of hand warmers in my first aid kit for backcountry emergencies. Electric-heat gloves were flagged a few years ago for having an unacceptable amount of interference with avalanche transceiver signals, so steer clear of those unless you plan on skiing strictly in bounds.

We may be through the worst of it, but arctic outflows are a mountain reality. Such days can also bring the closest thing we have to dry champagne powder on the coast, so don't let the temps keep you at home.

Vince Shuley still can't quite feel all his fingertips. For questions, comments or suggestions for The Outsider email vince@vinceshuley.com or Instagram @whis_vince

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