Frigid temperatures and serious winds blast the Northeast’s highest peaks in winter. Frostbite can happen quickly on any exposed skin. For a winter summit attempt, you must be able to protect every square inch of your face, neck, and head. To accomplish this, you need four essential components: a liner balaclava, hat, face mask, and goggles.
Don’t underestimate the risk. The average January wind speed on top of New Hampshire’s Mount Washington is more than 45 miles per hour; the average temperature, 5 degrees Fahrenheit. In such conditions, frostbite will occur within 30 minutes on any exposed skin. And that’s just on a normal January day. Ten degrees colder in those same wind speeds? Less than 10 minutes to frostbite. Even more severe conditions can (and do) occur throughout winter, but even on a “calm” day of more manageable winds, the risk is still very real. Protecting your head and face isn’t complicated—follow these steps and be prepared.
A liner balaclava functions like long underwear for your head and neck, providing significant warmth and coverage for minimal weight and bulk. Like any base layer, it should fit as snugly as possible without being constrictive or uncomfortable in any way. Pay particular attention to the seams around the opening for your face. These should not dig in unpleasantly even when the lower seam is pulled below your chin (as you’ll likely do when wearing a face mask). Some styles—particularly those designed for cold-weather cycling—offer wind-resistant panels across the forehead and over the ears, a nice feature.
It’s crucial that your hat fits securely and comfortably over your balaclava. Strong winds shouldn’t rip it off your head, nor should the hat shift around as you move, even when it’s underneath a jacket hood. Wind-resistant or windproof fabrics add significant warmth and protection, though be aware that windproof versions noticeably muffle sound and can make communication with your group more challenging. A range of hat designs meets these criteria; personal style is up to you.
A face mask must fully block the wind. It should sit flush against your face and completely protect your nose, cheeks, chin, and mouth without making breathing difficult. Many face masks feature fleece-lined neoprene, a windproof—and recommended—combination that is comfortable against your skin and offers a small amount of stretch to help keep it securely in place. The smooth outer surface helps minimize the icy build-up that forms around your mouth in cold conditions.
Some face masks include additional coverage for the neck, usually fleece. This has potential advantages but may also add an unnecessary (and potentially uncomfortable) layer, depending on how much overlap you have with your base layer, any mid-layers, and jacket. Avoid styles that feature a face mask built into a full balaclava; they often fit poorly and have much less versatility (can you comfortably pull the mask down below the chin when you don’t need it?).
Goggles must work in combination with your face mask, balaclava, and hat to completely cover your eyes, cheeks, and forehead. Pay close attention to your upper cheeks, where the seam between goggles and face mask can leave a sliver of skin exposed. As a general rule, look for the largest goggles possible. These will provide substantial coverage, a wide field of view, and better air flow to help transfer out the sweat and moist breath that can collect inside. Over-the-glasses, or OTG, styles are an excellent option to consider, even if you don’t wear glasses, due to their oversized design.
Periodically treating your goggles with an anti-fogging agent will help minimize the risk of your lenses icing up, which can stop you blind in your tracks. Yellow and orange lenses enhance contrast in low- and flat-light conditions—and provide a brighter, happier world in all conditions.