As Cold As the Earth Can Get

We sat down with Mike Marolt (Skiing Everest) recently to talk about what happens to gear when you are somewhere as cold as cold can be on this planet. There are a handful of people that understand this phenomenon, and those of us who haven’t had to survive at -50F got a glimpse of this in Cory Richard’s 2011 aptly named documentary, Cold. This past January, twin brothers Mike and Steve Marolt found themselves on a winter attempt of a 7000m Himalayan peak in the northwestern corner of China. The particular peak is at the hub of the 5 arguably greatest ranges in the world: the Karakorum, Himalaya, Pamirs, Tien Shan, and Kun Lun. All of these ranges blast the region with extreme cold ranging from -50 to -100F, and constant winter winds.

What is it like, trying to survive in these conditions? Mike explains the challenges of setting up camp, eating, putting on boots, trying to electronics to work, etc. 

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What is it like to even attempt a trip in extreme cold and altitude like this?
As we started to work the mountain, we soon realized that nothing in the 25 years preceding this expedition, including 7 years of expeditions to the Denali and St. Elias ranges, had prepared us for the combination of the cold and altitude that can only be found in the Himalaya in winter.

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As long as we were on the move, there were really no problems, outside of the fairly major discomfort of being cold for long periods of time. However, once we would stop to make a cache or set up a camp, we soon realized that we had a window of about 20 minutes before our feet and fingers began to literally freeze. Making caches was out of the question. If we reached a high camp, we had to set it up and immediately get into the tents and sleeping bags to warm up. Then once warmed, rush outside to collect ice and snow for melting our water, or secure the tents, etc., again, in a rush to get back into the tents to start the warming process all over again. Once in the tents, even with stoves roaring, the temperature never warmed beyond -10 F.  Even in Alaska in early March, we never had problems getting tents warm enough to be comfortable. But those conditions, even at -35, didn’t have the combination of wind and altitude that we were experiencing here.

What do you need to do to make sure you’re eating and drinking enough?
We soon realized that even boiling water was a massive task due to the cold, so any and all water production was limited to filling water bottles. There was little or no hot coffee or food.  Meals were left to candy bars and assorted performance foods that entailed no hot water.

Tell us about the other types of gear you used on the trip.
We were using the Moki 3P on this trip, along with samples of the Canon -40 sleeping bag. Once inside the tent and in our bags, we were in a super comfortable and safe zone, and frankly were amazed at the fact that we were “camping” where we were.

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One factor that also came as a surprise was the issue of our foot gear. This was a ski mountaineering expedition and we thus had AT ski boots. These temperatures made for some interesting conclusions about what was entailed in making our boots function. Normally, in super cold conditions, we make it a practice to sleep with our liners, no big deal. You put them at the bottom of your bag and forget about it. In the morning, you take them out, put them on and slip them into your boot shells. However, with the temperatures, even in the tents, as cold as they were, the first morning on the mountain we soon realized that the plastic of the boots was so cold, it was impossible to “slip” the liners into the shells.  We were able to heat the plastic up enough with our stoves to make it work, but we realized we had to not only sleep with the liners, we had to sleep with our entire boots in the bag. This made for uncomfortable sleeping, but it worked. We did have boot heaters designed for the trip, however the batteries must have froze at some point because none of the systems ever worked. We made them work with over boots and while it was a case of constant numb feet, we made do with what we had. In the morning, we had to cook and prepare for the day in our sleeping bags along with the boots inside, something that we normally accomplished in down suits while wearing the boots to heat them up.  But we found that if we put the boots on even 15 minutes before we were ready to move, our feet would freeze beyond anything remotely safe, and more importantly, would never warm up even after hitting the route. The design of the Canon, with its arm zips and oversized hood that fit like a parka, was exactly what we needed in this scenario.

What were you takeaways from this expedition?
In all, this was positively the most miserable expedition we have ever been on without question. However, in the natural progression that allowed us to even contemplate an expedition of this magnitude, winter ski mountaineering in the Himalaya, it was also the most exciting and fun. It was literally like starting out with the sport for the first time, and the skill set we learned from the experience will definitely prepare us for anything, and positively more winter Himalayan climbing and skiing in the future.The specific needs of this trip’s gear were critical in that all the other engineering made for significantly heavier loads and the balance of weight to warmth had to be realistic in light of what a mountaineer is capable of handling. Typical tents and bags engineered for say the Arctic, where there is no altitude, would work for warmth, but considering the effort needed for climbing at altitude in extreme cold made our research for the right gear extremely important. 

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