Ramblings on Cold Hands & Feet

In his book, “Eiger Dreams”, Jon Krakauer tells the story about climbing the fearsome north face of the Eiger, an alpine wall that has claimed the lives of an inordinate number of skilled alpinists. Krakauer relates how his climbing partner, Marc, “wanted very badly to climb the Eiger” while he “wanted very badly only to have climbed the Eiger.” Winter fly fishing in Montana can be like that. You want to go fishing. You feel like you should go fishing. But you’re glad when it’s over.

Years ago, my late father and I developed a tradition of fishing the Bighorn on New Years day. Our theory was that the inclement weather, coupled with people being hung over from the previous night’s revelry, would allow us to have the river to ourselves. This theory usually proved correct. The flaw in our logic, however, was that oftentimes we didn’t really want to be there ourselves. The temperature was in the single digits, a light snow fell, and there was a fresh breeze out of the north. The trout, already cold and wet, didn’t seem to mind, and we usually caught a fair number of them. We enjoyed telling angling friends about our trip and how clever we’d been, but we left out the details concerning frost bite, hypothermia, snow buildup on our felt wading boots, and how when I tried to remove ice from my tip top while wearing heavy gloves, I ended up breaking off three inches of rod tip as well. So the big question was, “Did we fun?” We told everybody that we did, but if you had asked us to do it all over the next day, we would have abstained.

A Norwegian, or maybe it was a Swede, once said, “There is really no bad weather, only bad clothing.” Of course, what else are those guys going to say, the weather sucks up there. Granted, the guy had a point, you can usually figure out how to dress for a variety of weather conditions, but there are still some unresolved problems out there. Number one on the list is the issue of how to keep your hands warm apart from wearing some type of fur-lined, Iditarod-musher mitten? Remember, we have to be able to tie knots, hold fly line, and release fish. There are all manner of light gloves out there, plus the ubiquitous fingerless gloves, but none of them keep your hands warm and dry in truly cold conditions. Here’s my challenge to companies working on this problem: Give up on the whole glove idea. Make some sort of forced-air heater that you wear like a backpack. If you can keep this contraption under fifty pounds, that would be nice. The backpack heater would have tubes that extend down through your sleeves and blow warm air on your hands. Maybe there could be a little drawer in the heater that pulls out and allows you to broil hamburgers? Okay, forget the burgers but if they’d go to work on the hand issue, that would be great.

In case you haven’t heard, we’ve already solved the cold feet problem. They’re called boot-foot waders. Simply buy boot-foot waders with enough room in the boot to wear a couple pairs of wool socks and you’re good to go. I also recommend wearing fleece pants underneath the waders, as blue jeans don’t cut it. There are “issues” with boot-foot waders, however, namely size and cost. If you have really large feet and a small body, or small feet and a large body, or just a grotesquely misshapen body, there may not be a stock size that will fit you. The stock sizes are expensive enough, but if you have to order custom waders, you may need to ask if financing is available.

There are those who jettison waders completely once the air temperature rises. Wet wading can be very comfortable in the summer months, plus you get a great tan on your legs. But some rivers retain frigid water temperatures despite the hot weather—the Bighorn is a prime example—and if the angler spends too much time in cold water, problems can occur. A condition known as “trench foot” or “immersion foot” can develop. I consider myself somewhat of an authority on these medical problems, as I’ve done extensive research on Wikipedia, plus I have stayed at a Holiday Inn Express several times. Anyway, medical conditions may occur if a person spends too much time in cold water. The foot can appear pale and cold, and sensation is impaired. It can progress to being swollen and red. And if it becomes infected, guess what? Out comes the saw. Seriously. Longtime clients of mine had a guide in Chile that they enjoyed fishing with. This guide always waded wet, despite the icy water temperatures in those rivers that originated in the glaciers of the Andes. One year my clients show up to fish with their friend, and the lodge owner tells them that their favorite guide had to have one of his feet amputated—too much time in cold water. I’m not sure if anything this extreme has happened to a Montana guide, but there is a condition known as Perniosis or Chilblains that has affected local guides. These names refer to “cold induced, vascular disease.” Inflammation of the small blood vessels and capillary beds in the skin develops. The victim experiences painful, itching and swelling of the skin, and even lesions. The first stage of treatment involves getting the hell out of the cold water and putting some waders on. After that, maybe you’ll want to try steroidal cream. I suspect that people with existing circulatory issues probably shouldn’t be wading wet at all, at least for extended periods.

So “cold injury” is something to watch out for, but don’t despair, the Internet, in its infinite wisdom, has important advice to prevent you from getting into trouble. Thought I’d better share this with you, just to cover myself from a legal standpoint:

Tip #1: Avoid exposure to the cold and wet.
Tip #2: In cold weather environments, be aware of the hazards and pay close attention to prevention.
Tip #3: Stay dry
Tip #4: Keep the core warm.
Tip #5: Keep the extremities warm.

I don’t mean to be critical here, but this advice is taking up precious digital storage space that could be devoted to more news about Justin Bieber. Maybe somewhere, somebody has printed out these tips and put them in his backpack or fishing vest. But really? This reminds me of the advice that appeared in a fishing book years ago. The tip was, “Don’t fish vacant water.” I guess when you really analyze it, the advice is sound. But … anyway, I digress.

An icy February day in Fort Smith
An icy February day in Fort Smith