A high country winter is a time to explore. Once covered in snow, familiar landscapes are transformed into a new monotone world. That world can look as if no other human has ever visited.
While some (like me) enjoy exploring on foot, others see the sights by car or perhaps by snowmobile. Imagine that your car runs into a snowdrift, or you twist an ankle on hidden rocks, or your snowmobile dies (15 mins of snowmobile travels can mean 24 hours of walking without skis or snowshoes). Would you reach for your cellphone? Are you willing to bet your life that you'll get a signal?
Wilderness survival is one of those skill sets that you hope to never need. Still, if you spend time away from the cities, a few fragments of knowledge could save your life. That which makes winter beautiful can also make it unforgiving.
In the wrong circumstances, cold is a killer. Hypothermia begins when the core temperature of a human body drops from 98.6° to 95°, so keeping warm is essential. Hypothermia can creep up on you, so be sure to check on any other members of your party.
If you're forced to spend a night away from shelter, something as simple as a hole dug in snow could save you from lethal winds, which can rob you of precious heat.
Wind chill on exposed skin can rapidly lead to frostbite, a condition that can cause extremities to freeze in extreme cold. Movement and insulation can help to prevent frostbite, so it's a good idea to carry additional clothing whenever there is the slightest chance that you'll need them (a spare coat and gloves, for example).
Even in winter, travel on foot can lead to perspiration. During periods of rest, that perspiration can lead to rapid cooling. Layering of clothing is key here. Only wear what you need to be comfortable - carry the rest.
Snow blindness is another stealthy hazard. Without some form of eye protection, reflected UV radiation on a snow covered mountain landscape can cause a delayed and painful eye condition, which can make a survival situation even worse.
Water crossings can be dangerous at the best of times, but frozen rivers and lakes can be deadly. If you break through, you'll be immersed in near-freezing water, which conducts heat from your body at least 25 times faster than air. Even experts, when crossing ice of unknown thickness, will often prepare a fire in advance. If you can avoid ice, do so.
Aside from warm clothing, probably the most important advice is to stay where you are if you become stuck or lost. Your vehicle is usually easier to spot than you are. Additionally, be sure to let someone know where you plan to go and when you expect to be back.
Some of this might sound discouraging, to say the least. Most people never experience a wilderness emergency, but a little preparation and knowledge could save your life one day.
I couldn't hope to give meaningful advice within the confines of this page, but I do hope that I've provided a little food for thought. Contact me for further reading recommendations.
I'm going to leave you with a short video showing a winter self-rescue drill by the experts. Have a safe, fun winter!