Skiing: Fighting the frost in Canada

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The Independent Online
`Wrapping up warm' took on new meaning for Nicola Barranger when she set off down the slopes of the Canadian Rockies at Banff.

The Airtours brochure is upbeat about skiing in North America: "Thermals and layers of clothing are a must, as life on the mountains can become extremely cold - but then again", it chirrups cheerfully, "that's why the skiing terrain is so thrilling and why the season lasts for a good six months of the year!"

If the Canadians say it is cold, it's really cold. When you wake up on the first morning of a ski holiday to a "high" of -30C, you need to speak Polar Bear to convey just how cold that feels. The English language just does not have the vocabulary.

Of course it is freezing. That happened 30 degrees ago. Even the chicken safely in the freezer at home is 12 degrees warmer. However, in the Rockies the air is very dry, so it feels almost bearable.

We had come to the smart Canadian resort of Banff to ski, and that was precisely what we intended to do. There was no option but to acclimatise as quickly as possible - and here speaks a softie who has been known to wear Damart in April.

First of all, listen to the locals. They should dispel all those old myths such as "long johns are for cissies". In weather like this you are talking double layers of everything, even if that gives you more than a passing resemblance to the Michelin man.

As a naive Brit stepping out for her initial experience of arctic conditions, my first mistake was to forget to cover every area of exposed skin. Suddenly my face began tightening up, and the inside of my nose felt decidedly prickly. As I blinked, I felt the hoar-frost forming on my eyelashes. A beard may protect a man's face, but can appear quite revolting to fellow skiers when frost and icicles form below the nose: very Ranulph Fiennes. Some skiers wear black face masks, straight from the set of The Man in the Iron Mask. However, once you have got over a mild attack of claustrophobia, they are highly effective. I preferred to see how many scarves I could wrap over my face and into my goggles.

Disposable hand-warmers are worth their weight in lift passes. Available in almost all ski shops, these are small sachets that magically give off heat for about seven hours - more than enough for a day's skiing. I was amazed to see a number of skiers coming in from the cold and pulling off their gloves, obviously in absolute agony as they puffed on to their fingers. It seems that not every skier knows that mittens offer far more protection from the cold than gloves, which isolate the fingers; whatever warmth remains in each finger cannot be passed on to the next.

At a time when celebrities are perishing on the slopes of the Rockies at a frightening rate, it is worth remembering that in these conditions frostbite is a real problem. One person in our group suffered frostbite after he lost feeling in his big toe, and was more interested in exploring the back bowls than in remembering to wiggle his toes every so often. What he did not realise was how dangerous frostbite can be.

The Canadians preach "buddy skiing". It is best, they say, to ski in twos. That way each skier can look out for signs of facial "frost nip" in the other. Patches of skin go pale and waxy in appearance - a sort of deathly white, since dying is precisely what is in danger of happening to the tissue. This, the first sign of frostbite, often appears on exposed areas such as ears, nose, chin and cheeks. In severe cases, unless you warm up the affected area, gangrene can set in.

One of the many joys of skiing is the thrill of flying down pisted slopes. No such thrill in these conditions, as even a slight wind chill becomes extremely painful. However, we found that doing the odd black run at least kept the heart pumping, the blood circulating and the toes warm(ish). Bear in mind, however, that you may not be properly warmed up - which in itself can be dangerous.

Curiously, the lure of a warm mountain lodge with excellent hot chocolate proved irresistible after only two or three runs. After all, we remembered, we were on a holiday, not an endurance test.

The favourable exchange rate against the Canadian dollar has again meant that British bookings are up on last year. If you are unlucky enough to catch a "cold snap", do not despair, as these temperatures are uncommon for more than a few days. In the meantime, accept the challenge. You will enjoy perfect snow on deserted pistes, and a warm welcome from all the lift attendants.

However, skiing is not all downhill. Skiing cross-country is a superb and underrated alternative. Even in the most severe temperatures, you are guaranteed to keep warm. Do not be put off by moaners who suggest that it is too much like hard work. Cross-country skiing is a secret well kept by those wanting to escape the crowds and hi-tech of downhill. You will be pleasantly warm and alone on the trail, and in Canadian parks you may be rewarded by the sight of plenty of wildlife, including elk, moose and maybe the odd porcupine. When your eyelashes start to freeze up, you can clear them by squeezing your eyes tight shut, allowing the warmth of your face to melt the frost. You may seem to age about 50 years as your eyebrows whiten, but it makes for a great photo.

Skating and snowshoeing are also excellent "keep warm" activities. And if all that seems too much like an endurance test, then think of all the money you will save on the lift passes.

Afterwards, go and indulge in the nearest hot tub, and line up a few hot chocolates laced with rum. As the Canadians say, "Keep warm."