Your personal ice climbing first aid kit is an indispensable piece of kit for every time you don a set of crampons. To start, there really is no such thing as the perfect first aid kit, regardless of the activity. The contents should depend entirely on the anticipated hazards based on the group, terrain, environment, trip length and objective. And while the best ice climbing first aid kit would be custom tailored to each outing, that simply isn’t realistic for most of us. Pre-made kits, are a good starting point, but you may not need everything in it or you may have to add to it based on your personal level of first aid experience and the factors above.
Ice climbing is inherently a dangerous activity. And while we do our best to employ prudent risk management to mitigate the risks we will face, accidents happen. We’re venturing into inhospitable landscapes with twelve knives strapped to our feet while swinging overhead into an ever-changing, unpredictable medium while battling the unforgiving elements. So when customizing your own kit, we seek to address five main issues:
Stop bleeding. Splint an extremity. Manage pain. Package a victim. Call for help.
In a perfect world we would all have extensive kits and training that would make a paramedic jealous but the reality is that we’re limited to what we’re willing to carry. Think of how many times you have mulled over and the extra dollars you’ve spent to save a few grams on your climbing kit and then ask yourself if you’re really willing to carry a five pound first aid kit, just in case? We need to strike a fine balance between practicality and functionality. I’ve included a list of the items I currently have in my ice climbing first aid kit for you to use as a starting point. The contents and rationale for each can be found below.
Gloves and CPR Mask
First and foremost, we must protect ourselves. This means providing a barrier to blood-borne pathogens or anything else that may be encountered in saliva, vomit or other. So include at least two sets of nitrile gloves near the top of your kit. Size them slightly larger than your normal hand size for winter use to potentially fit over a thin glove in cold conditions.
Single-use CPR face shields are cheap and small. As it is imperative that we protect ourselves, this is a tiny piece of mind to include.
This are applied directly to a wound to stop blood loss and keeping things clean (lacerations, compound fractures, chest punctures, damaged eyes). Carry a combination of gauze rolls, sterile pads (both 2″x2″ and 4″x4″) and non-adhesive dressings.
A must have for both an ice climbing first aid kit and also a repair kit. It can be used for gear repair, holding dressings, splinting, chest occlusions and countless other scenarios. The standard here is plain ol’ cloth medical tape. A single roll should suffice. While many people will recommend duct tape, myself included, note that cold weather tends to reduce the stickiness over time and be sure to rotate yours our regularly. If you’re anticipating overly wet conditions, a self adhesive wrap like Coban tape that doesn’t use a glue may prove beneficial.
A small selection of banadages in a variety of sizes may very well be the most used part of your ice climbing first aid kit. In a small ziplock back I keep maybe ten bandages, a few strips of moleskin for blisters and five or so Steri-strips. Cold weather, taut skin and falling ice is a recipe for small nicks to bleed excessively, particularly on the bridge of the nose and chin area. And I’ve found nothing works quite as well as Steri-strips.
Splint A Break
I operate under the belief that if one falls while leading an ice climb they will break an ankle at the very least. And whether relatively minor like a broken wrist or a devestating injury like a broken femur or pelvis, splinting is a vital way to manage pain for a victim. Fortunately for us as ice climbers, we have a myriad of tools at our disposal for improvisation including ropes, slings, cordelette, carabiners, treking poles and even ice tools. That said, there are a few items that I have found to be extremely handy time and again.
This pliable, foam-covered aluminum splint can be customized infinite ways. It is lightweight, compact and nothing beats it for molding a neck brace for cervical spine injuries. I include this if I have nothing else in my pack with which I could improvise a with. Or at least nothing I’m willing to part with. I shove it down the back panel of my pack and never notice that it’s there until I need it.
While not essential, I’ve grown quite fond of these. I’ll often use them for securing crampons or ropes to a pack but often i’ll wrap my Sam Splint with one as nothing beats it for cinching down a brace.
A multipurpose item, capable of being a sling, tourniquet, wound or pressure dressing or splint. I’m particularly fond of these in the winter for wrapping ankles without removing stiff, heavy mountaineering boots. These can be quite bulky but can be purchased vacuum sealed for only a few dollars so after use I’ll typically replace it with a new one to save on space. Included in the picture above is a roll of tensor bandage which supplements the triangle bandage very well.
Aside from splinting, a integral part of a pain management strategy is providing people with the option of taking over-the-counter pain medication. Not being a medical practitioner, this is a sensitive topic so I’ll elaborate under the assumption that I’m bringing along the following selection for my own personal use.
Found under the brand names Motrin or Advil, “Vitamin I” is the go-to non-prescription pain reliever and anti-inflammatory.
Commonly known as Tylenol, this pain killer is processed by the body differently than ibuprofen and when taken in combination with one another the affects can be quite profound.
Some people swear by stronger prescription grade pain medication such as Tramadol but it’s availability and use is, and should be, regulated by your doctor. Whatever pain medication you choose to bring along, it is important to keep it in it’s original packaging for dosage information. You can find travel sizes of these at any pharmacy and the ten-count packages are small enough to fit in a tiny first aid kit.
Package A Victim
In the event you’re managing a victim while awaiting for help to arrive, heat loss can occur at such a rapid rate that impending hypothermia can become the primary issue. While there are a number of ways we can package a patient, the reality is the items we have at our disposal
A silicone impregnated nylon tarp gives you a way to create shelter, make a rescue sled or wrap someone up to keep them warm.
A small space blanket helps also.
Space Blanket – To be used with the trash bags to warm someone up. This helps reflect and retain the person’s body heat when used correctly. A space blanket should be large enough to fully wrap and enclose a person to lock in heat. Like a burrito! Then add the trash bag tarp and you have a very effective warming system, especially if it’s used over a sleeping bag and there’s ground insulation, like a sleeping pad. Very cozy. A space blanket can also be used as a signal too.
Call For Help
Most ice climbing locales are far away from external assistance. Should something go wrong, the greatest asset we can call upon is outside help. Each member in your party should have some means of communicating.
One of the most crucial items to have is a fully charged cell phone. While the temptation always exists to use your phone as a camera, make sure you have enough battery life in case you need to call for help. Even if you’re outside a cell reception zone, if you’re sent to get help, make sure you have enough juice to call the second you enter coverage.
Personal Locator Beacon
And should you be outside cell reception this can be a literal life saver. The best options, like the Garmin InReach offer two-way communication but the value of a Spot or Fastfind Ranger can not be overstated. I’m currently using the Fastfind Ranger in conjunction with a VHF radio as this does not require a subscription fee, however, quite often I’ve longed for the ability to send off a simple check-in message, which is a feature of the InReach.
The most expensive option, both upfront and on an ongoing basis but this provides the greatest reassurance as you have the ability to converse with a human in real time. Options have come down quite a bit in price however you can still expect to shell out over $700 for the phone and upwards of $100 per month depending on the provider.
Other Items To Consider
During short winter days we will regularly begin and end a day of ice climbing in the dark. Make sure you have a bright, reliable headlamp. I prefer a USB rechargeable model like the Petzl Reactik because I never have to doubt the remaining life in my batteries. Cheaper option are the Petzl Tikka or Tikkina, which are powered by AAA batteries (make sure you have a few spares packed). These offer great illumination for an excellent price. Because light is so important, I always keep a tiny 27g Petzl E-Lite+ in my first aid kit as a backup.
Protecting your eyes, skin and lips with sunglasses, sunscreen and lip chap not only make for a more enjoyable day (and life) but can mitigate the possibility of painful sunburns or worse, sun blindness.
As a contact lense wearer, I’m well aware that my competence in the mountains is severely hampered, it not totally impeded, should my vision be compromised. This is surprisingly easy to occur with dripping waterfalls while looking upwards. As such, I always keep two spare pairs of contact lenses and a small packet of non-chemical or alcohol based cleaner (basically a wetwipe) to clean dirty fingers before touching my eyes.
In addition to any other personal prescription medications that you are required to take, there are a number of other drugs that people like to carry. Some will insist upon single doses of Aspirin for it’s potential life-saving abilities during a cardiac episode. An antihistamine such as diphenhydramine (Benadryl) can also be a literal lifesaver in the event of an allergic reaction. Both of these can be sourced in individual packets.
But before that, it is important to note that no first aid kit contents, no matter how extensive, are a substitute for proper training and rational, problem-solving mind set. If you’re in doubt at all, seek proper training from a reputable provider. Even if you are confident in your skills, you should probably get additional training anyways.
Are there any items you bring in your ice climbing first aid kit that weren’t included? If so, please comment below and let us know why you bring them.
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