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Health Centre deals with frostbite damage during cold snap

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P>Extremities, exposed skin at risk again in future once frostbite sets in

Hand and toe warmers may have been flying off the shelves during the recent cold snap but for some people it was too little, too late.

Frostbite was nipping at the tips of toes and fingers and ears, keeping Whistler’s nurses and doctors busy during the unseasonably cold temperatures in Whistler recently. Temperatures on the mountains remained between —20 and —30 for several days in a row this past week.

Registered nurse Shirley Balzarini has treated cases of frostbite, particularly in mountain staff and backcountry skiers, over the past week at the Whistler Health Care Centre.

"Most of the people that do come in (to the clinic) have damage I’m afraid," she said.

"Their toes will be black and blue or their fingers will have blisters or their cheeks can have blisters. (It’s) not always a deep, deep frostbite but usually by the time it’s black and blue there’s damage there."

One backcountry skier who had been very diligent with his hygiene while in the backcountry, changing his socks and drying his feet every night, had severe frostbite on his toes despite doing all the right things.

"This person won’t be putting boots on for several weeks," she said.

"They are in agony."

She has also seen mountain staff with frostbitten toes, particularly if their boots are too tight. This cuts off the circulation and just adds to the chances of getting frostbite. She said when it gets this cold it’s time to leave the racing boots behind and rent a pair that will keep the blood flowing.

The first onslaught of frostbite is called frostnip, identified by white, numb patches on exposed skin.

"That’s something that people always should be watching each other for," she said.

The blanched skin is white because there is no blood supply getting to the area. People with frostnip need to get indoors and get the affected area warmed without rubbing it. Balzarini suggests cupping your hands over the affected area.

"Once it’s pink you can go back outside because there’s no damage," she said.

If the skin does not return to its original colour it should be assessed by a doctor.

If it is ignored it can progress to superficial frostbite. Large clear blisters will appear within a day or two. Then the skin will turn black. This can cause permanent damage and it can also progress to deep frostbite.

And it’s not just skiers. Without proper winter wear, people can get frostbite. Balzarini has seen it on the toes of people wearing skater shoes rather than winter boots.

She has seen people come into the clinic with fingertips that are black and blue, suffering from deep frostbite, after passing out in the snow from a few too many drinks. It can be agonizing ordeal she said.

"Our extremities are the last place to get circulation," she said.

"Your toes and your fingers are vulnerable."

But surprisingly she said that in previous years the clinic has seen more cases of frostbite, even though temperatures may not have been as cold in the past.

"Some years we have seen more, for some reason," said Balzarini.

"Maybe it was so cold that people didn’t want to go out (this year)."

Still she cautions everyone to be aware of the onset of frostbite. Once you get it, you’re at risk forever, so look out for the white patches and go inside if your toes and fingers are numb, she said.

Despite the bitter cold Christopher Nicolson, public relations and communications manager with Whistler-Blackcomb, said some people were still skiing on the mountains.

"People that are travelling here from markets across North America or overseas, they’re going to ski anyway," he said.

"Minus 20 is a very common temperature for many, if not the majority, of ski resorts in North America. Whistler in many ways is an exception with mild temperatures.

"So for many of our destination guests it was normal. But for people in Vancouver and people in Whistler, it’s colder than they’re used to."

Nicolson said Whistler-Blackcomb takes precautions with its staff when the temperatures dip by rotating them to different positions. That means they get to go inside more often to warm up as well as ski to different locations so they’re not standing in one place for very long.

Nicolson has other tips for skiers who can’t stay away from the mountains even in the chilly temperatures.

"When it’s very cold you ski slower so that you don’t have as much wind against your skin," he said.

"You go in frequently. With your buddy you also make sure you look at each other and make sure there’s no little white spots. And obviously you put on more clothing."

He also said it’s better to stay in the trees as opposed to the high alpine to cut down on the wind factor, or stay lower on the mountains where it might be warmer.

Instead of riding the chairlifts many riders were sticking to the gondola over the weekend to warm up.

"The temperatures we saw are just a normal course of action for most resorts in North America," said Nicolson.

"So there wasn’t anything exceptional about the temperatures except that they were at Whistler."

Whistler is expected to warmer weather this weekend with more snow and a low of —9 on Sunday.