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Hypothermia – dying of the cold

Every winter people die of hypothermia in the Scottish mountains.

Scotland has a relatively mild climate but, because of the combination of wind and wet weather that frequently prevails in our high mountain areas, hypothermia is a significant hazard.

In cold wet conditions, the body can lose heat rapidly. Protective clothing traps air, which acts as insulation, but the insulation is severely reduced if the clothing becomes saturated.

Without protection from the wind, heat loss can become even faster.

As the body becomes colder, blood vessels constrict and blood flow to the extremities is reduced, resulting in loss of feeling in hands and feet.

Shivering produces heat and is remarkably effective, but it is costly in terms of energy input, so that an unfit, hungry or injured walker will become exhausted trying to maintain core warmth and will decline into unconsciousness and, ultimately, death.

Factors which will contribute to a risk of suffering from hypothermia include:

  • Damp clothing – caused by perspiration while active
  • Wet clothing - caused by rain or snow
  • Inadequate windproof or insulated clothing
  • Inadequate food and fluid both prior to and during activity
  • Remaining stationary for long periods of time. In as little as 15 minutes you can become cold if stationary unless extra layers are added
  • Poor morale. Fear, indecision, uncertainty or shock can all contribute to this
  • Injury or illness
  • Exhaustion. This may be due to an over ambitious route
  • Lack of shelter
  • Extreme weather conditions. For example, high winds or deep snow can render travel exhausting or even impossible
  • Wear and carry appropriate shell and insulated clothing, including a spare hat and gloves. Always carry a synthetic duvet jacket to put on over the top of everything else, which is useful for stopping to take on food and drink as well as for wearing in the event of an emergency
  • Ensure adequate food and drink both prior to and during your day out. Carry ‘high energy’ snacks in an accessible pocket so you can ‘graze’ regularly
  • Be conservative in your plans: it’s easy to add onto a route, not always so easy to shorten
  • Always carry an emergency bivi bag and group shelter.

You may observe one or more of these symptoms: shivering, lethargy, apathy, a reduction in rational decision making, slipping and stumbling.

STOP, insulate, eat and drink. If improvements are noted, then head off the hill by the shortest route.

If improvements are not observed, then insulate the victim as best you can with the equipment you have and call for Mountain Rescue.

Hypothermia is widely known as a killer in the mountains, most associated with being a winter hazard. In an article reproduced from the February 2022 edition of Scottish nMountaineer magazine, Ken Crossley of Scottish Mountain Rescue describes what hypothermia is and how it should be treated - as well as how to avoid it in the first place.