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Dangers of Hypothermia & Hypoxia When Climbing

By: Jeff Durham - Updated: 29 Oct 2010 | comments*Discuss
 
Climbing Rock Climbing Hypoxia

Any climb or walk that exposes you to extremely cold conditions can put you at risk of suffering from hypothermia or hypoxia if you’re not prepared which can be life threatening when out rock climbing or mountaineering. Hypothermia is usually categorised into three stages.

Hypothermia - Stage 1

Your usual body core temperature is 36.6 C or 97.9 F. If you’re out climbing and your temperature drops by about one to degrees Celsius, you’re likely to experience symptoms of mild to severe shivering and gradually, you’ll not be able to complete tasks with your hands as they start to become numb.

Sometimes a person will experience a sensation of feeling warm again but this can be quite misleading as it can often mean you’re heading towards hypothermia stage 2. One of the best ways of testing this is to see if you can still touch your thumb with your little finger and if you can’t, then this is a clear indication that your muscles are beginning to fail.

Hypothermia - Stage 2

Once your temperature has fallen by between 2 and 4 degrees C, your body will shake violently and you’re likely to be unable to co-ordinate your muscle functions. Your movements will now start to become more laboured and you’re likely to stumble occasionally and may now start to experience some signs of mental confusion. Clear signs of hypothermia at this stage will include your skin turning pale and your extremities such as your toes, fingers, ears and lips may even start to appear blue.

Hypothermia - Stage 3

If your body temperature falls below 32C (90F), you’re likely to start slurring your speech and you’ll experience an even greater degree of confusion and lack of co-ordination which is the precursor towards falling into unconsciousness and, ultimately, suffering from cardiac arrest.

Treatment Of Hypothermia

It’s not enough to simply have more layers of clothing or blankets put on if you’re hypothermic. If you’re out rock climbing and you suspect someone is suffering from hypothermia, the best thing to do in order to transfer heat more quickly is to get inside a sleeping bag and huddle up to the victim as this will transfer heat more directly and quickly. Blankets and warm drinks will help, of course, but neither will be as effective as the direct transfer of body heat. It’s also vital that you get the victim to hospital as soon as possible.

Dangers of Hypoxia

Hypoxia can occur when there is a reduction of oxygen to the blood supply and this is more commonly associated with high altitude. Pilots and those who go climbing, therefore, are two of the most vulnerable groups to suffering from hypoxia. The struggle for oxygen as you take each breath can, ultimately, lead to high altitude cerebral oedema (HAVE) which causes swelling in the brain.

The symptoms include feeling tired and nauseous, being unable to walk in a straight line and you’ll gradually become lethargic. If left untreated, this can lead to coma. Hypoxia can also cause high altitude pulmonary oedema (HAPE) which is the constriction of the blood vessels in the lungs which can then result in the leaking of blood into the lungs resulting, ultimately, in death.

Symptoms include total fatigue and breathlessness as well as confusion due to a lack of oxygen supply to the brain and it can also cause you to cough up sputum which is pink in colour.

Hypoxia Treatment And Prevention

Only by using specially designed oxygen concentrators can you artificially restore a victim’s oxygen levels. This allows them to receive pure oxygen and has the effect of them thinking and feeling that they are at a much lower altitude. However, once their condition has become stabilised, it’s then important to decrease altitude and have them come down from the mountain and to take them to hospital to be checked over.

Rock climbing at high altitude can be extremely risky so it’s important that you receive proper education and training before you tackle a climb at high altitude which could end up resulting in hypothermia or hypoxia as both of these conditions are life threatening.

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