Book Review: Hypothermia, Frostbite and Other Cold Injuries

Two facts for consideration:

1. Snowshoeing is a cold weather, winter sport.

2. Athletes who participate in winter sports put themselves at risk for a variety of sometimes severe cold weather injuries, including hypothermia, frostbite and more.

(This is hard-hitting information, I know.)

For many backcountry adventurers, however, that is where the subject ends. Yes, snowshoeing involves travel through sometimes perilous cold and, yes, that cold could conceivably involve a trip to the emergency room or the loss of a few toes. The details? That sort of information is best left up to the first responders.

The rub, however, comes when a snowshoer is forced to step in as their own first responder, or to assist a companion when both are far from medical help. What to do then?

“Hypothermia, Frostbite and other Cold Injuries: Prevention, Survival, Rescue and Treatment,” by Gordon G. Giesbrecht, Ph.D. and James A Wilkerson, M.D. (The Mountaineers Books, 2006) attempts to answer that question with an exhaustive, but accessible look at the causes of and responses to a wide range of cold weather injuries. Now in its second edition (the title was originally released in 1986), the text includes all sorts of juicy tales of backcountry misadventure (a skier who lay submerged for nearly an hour and a half with a core temperature of 57 degrees Fahrenheit before being successfully resuscitated, is one example; a hiker who sat for more than four hours meditating in ankle-deep snow, resulting in a fairly severe case of frostbite, is another.)

The book is far from a hands-on field guide. Inside of rolling out another laminated handy reference, Drs. Giesbrecht and Wilkerson have assembled a classic guidebook that is designed more for off the trail study than simply see-and-do. Sure, the chapters on “Cold Pathophysiology” and “Mechanisms of Heat Loss” might seem abstract (and they are fairly science heavy, as evidenced by this passage from the chapter on Human Thermoregulatory Control: “The posterior portion of the hypothalamic thermoregulatory center controls heat retention by decreasing heat loss and increasing heat production.”), but overall the book offers a more detailed look at the human body’s response to cold than similar titles.

In short, readers put down Hypothermia, Frostbite and other Cold Injuries with a deeper understanding of the good, the bad and the ugly of cold weather injuries.

Once the nuts and bolts of human physiology are out of the way, however, the authors move into more practical information: dealing with cold water immersion (as both a victim and a rescuer), the treatment of frostbite and the basics of cold weather survival. The second edition also includes a new chapter on choosing the right clothing for winter travel, a section on cold water drowning and new medical information (new since 1986, at least) on the science of cold and cold injuries.

Recommended for both recreational snowshoers as well as winter emergency response personnel.

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