Becoming snowblind is one of the most debilitating hazards of being in the high mountains. This article relates my own personal experience on the Patagonian Icecap with this painful condition. I am not a medical expert and haven’t read up on all the facts, so if you want the medical stuff then do a Google Search. I relate below only my own experience.
I guess after spending over 40 years walking in the mountains I’ve been lucky not to have contracted snowblindness before. Sure, I might have had some mild symptoms before, some sore eyes that I always put down to the wind. But in truth I didn’t recognise these as being snowblind. That was all to change during our last expedition to the Patagonian Icecap in November 2010. Now I am all too aware of the consequences.
It was supposed to be a relatively easy day. Reaching the flat plateau of the Icecap mid-afternoon. We had gone well to start with and were above the serac barrier and onto the long but slow rise to the Paso Marconi when we got caught in a whiteout. Strong winds were blowing spindrift into our faces. Visibility went and we were surrounded by a grey howling mass. It was the worst possible place to get caught as the winds from the icecap escape eastwards, channeling together at the Paso Marconi. Too high to retreat. Pushing on meant some hard hours graft and discomfort.
After wearing contact lenses for 20 years I now wear glasses. Glasses and goggles in a blizzard do not make a good combination. They fog up and make navigation even more difficult. So I abandon the glasses as they are useless. Anyway, my shortsightedness will not affect things greatly. The lenses of my goggles become not only foggy but ice encrusted. I am blind. I am the navigator and as such I need any help I can get from the sloping, featureless terrain. The team are relying on me. I take of my goggles.
My eyelids become iced up. Two inch long icicles hang off my nose. As night begins to fall we reach the icecap and hastily build our snow walls and put up tents.
Next day is just as bad. Today though we are pulling out. Uncertainty with the weather and the previous days mauling make us retreat to lick our wounds. We head east, this time with the wind at our backs. It is still a whiteout and the navigation to find the top of the Serac barrier, the key to our escape, is critical. There is no sun, just a dense grey mass. I leave my glasses and goggles off. After 3 hours descending we reach safety and leave the Marconi glacier.
We rest beside our campsite situated by the lake at “La Playita”. It feels good to be out of the wind. I fall asleep but wake early evening and my eyes feel gritty. During the next few hours the uncomfortable feeling worsens. It becomes painful to open my eyes. Every time I blink a tear detaches from the eyes and streams down my cheek.
I spend an uncomfortable night. The only relief is not to move my eyes behind my closed eyelids. Any movement of eyes or eyelids is painful. My buff is wound tightly around my face. Somehow it feels less painful tightly wrapped up.
Next day head back to civilisation. I have a rough day’s walk with a big pack. More difficult as I find it hard to open the eyes. I squint my eyes together as much as I can and try to negotiate the rough terrain. Any light send tears down both cheeks. It is an awful feeling.
No epics. We get back. But the pain continues for a further 48 hours. I look ridiculous, crying in my beer, in the bars and restaurants of El Chalten! After 48 hours the symptoms gradually gradually, but I feel some discomfort for about a week to come.
So what have I learnt?
Well, I certainly know what to expect should I leave my eyes unguarded. But if I was in the same situation again what could I have done? In my opinion the damage was done during the 10 hours on the first day climbing up to the Paso Marconi. It was vital I was able to navigate correctly. A spare pair of goggles might have helped?
Day two should have seen me put on sunglasses or goggles. That was a mistake. It was grey, an absence of sun. Because of the previous 24 hours battling, maybe my head was not functioning correctly. I should have known better though, as I once got badly sunburnt in the Sierra Nevada on a grey, cloudy days ski touring.
Becoming snowblind is not nice. Even on poor days eyes must be adequately protected. I am going back to Patagonia in November 2012, revisiting the icecap. I will be much more guarded but any advice would be greatly welcomed!