by Paul Richins, Jr.
Igloos and snow caves are excellent shelters in the face of a raging snow storm. The snow is an excellent insulator, remaining near freezing even in face of subzero ambient air temperatures. While climbing the East Ridge of Mount Logan (Yukon Territory, Canada), I conducted an experiment to illustrate the insulation properties of snow. I dug a small snow cave and placed a pan of water inside and sealed it. The water was left in the snow cave over night. Even though the air temperature dropped to minus 10 degrees Fahrenheit, there was only a thin layer of ice on the surface of the water in the morning.
This illustrates the benefits associated with snow shelters . The temperature can plummet and the wind howl, yet a backcountry skier will be comfortable inside and well protected. The temperatures in a well built igloo or snow cave will not drop much below freezing. Cooking and human activity will push the temperatures a bit warmer. Take off your jacket, pull out a book from your pack and enjoy life.
Your first attempt should be done on a day tour when you do not plan to spend the night or bring along a tent for a backup shelter in the event your snow shelter is less than successful.
Dont do as I did as a teenager in the 1960s. Based on reading a short description on how to build an igloo written by Gaston Rebuffat in "Between Heaven and Earth," Dick Everest and I charged into the depths of the Trinity Alps for a four day excursion in the dead of winter. With snowshoes strapped to our feet, carrying leather lace-up, double, alpine ski boots and alpine skis on our backs, we headed for Bowerman Meadows and the true backcountry wilderness of The Alps. Being fit and strong, we arrived at our destination after a grueling climb with heavy packs around 3:00 p.m. This left us little time to build our first igloo as it would be dark in a couple of hours and a storm was moving in quickly. There was no margin for error as we had no tent as a backup shelter. All went well. It began to snow lightly and was near dark as I finally climbed partially up the side of the igloo to place the top snow block.
That night it snowed 18 inches. Even though I slept on the cold side, Dick became very cold in a sleeping bag that was little more than a cotton liner. To warm his freezing feet, he lit a candle. Big mistake! His numb feet lacked any feeling and he ended up burning the bottoms of his feet with the candle as he tried to warm them.
Often times I reflect back on that trip and wonder how we would have survived the long winter night without the safety of the igloo. In those days, we had no bivy sack, no gortex parkas, no storm gear. We were relying on the igloo and summer weight, cotton sleeping bags. I look back in amazement and wonder what we must have been thinking.
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