THE FORECAST was irresistible. It called for snow, arrival of an Arctic airmass, and with it the coldest temperatures of winter so far. Overnight lows were forecast to plummet to -13 Fahrenheit, -25 Celsius, which was impressively frigid, or even life-threatening, under certain circumstances. But as I saw it, perfect conditions for my fifth night out this year.
To make the most of conditions I traveled to the Indian Peaks Wilderness. The aim was to build a snow shelter with a good friend, Bryan. COVID demanded we drive to the trailhead separately, and the considerable avalanche risk demanded prudent route choices. We chose the Brainard Lake area – a wide, forested bowl with rolling slopes but nothing too steep. Just west of it, the mountains of the continental divide rise tall and sharp. But they do it a safe distance back.
No one wants to become buried beneath piles of snow.
A few years ago, Bryan and I had built an igloo. It had been my second igloo, coming a full year after my first, a memorable igloo created with snow wizard Igloo Ed. On that first outing, Igloo Ed had taught me how to use his genius ICEBOX igloo-building tool. I’d been mesmerized by the practiced and almost effortless way Igloo Ed had turned loose powder snow (that could never in a million years stick together) into a solid-walled shelter that felt like a comfortable hotel inside. The building process had been leisurely, fascinating, and we’d stayed warm and dry while doing it, despite biting cold. It wasn’t a mere survival shelter we built – it was a work of art.
The second igloo with Bryan didn’t go quite as well. I still hadn’t mastered some of the ICEBOX tool’s subtleties, and without Bryan’s problem solving skills the finished igloo might have been roofless. Bryan is an experienced winter traveler, and a scientist, and a qualified NOLS leader (National Outdoor Leadership School), and he has built a great many other kinds of snow shelters over the decades. With his experience, solutions were found and we completed the roof. Since then, I’ve built a bunch more igloos with the ICEBOX tool, and can see the basic mistakes I made on that second attempt. But back then, I was glad Bryan had come along.
During the build, Bryan had mentioned quinzhee snow shelters. A quinzhee is basically a hollowed out mound of snow, and Bryan thought I should try building and sleeping in one for the experience of it. I was so enamored with igloos at the time that my murmured “Sure, one day, perhaps,” was far from a definite commitment. As I saw it, igloos were just about perfect. Why bother with anything else?
But then came COVID, and the trouble with igloos is they can’t be shared with a fellow igloo builder if that person happens to come from a different household. An igloo only has one room after all, which means shared air, and potentially shared viruses. But with a quinzhee, if the snow pile is big enough, two separate caves can be dug. And so, a two-roomed quinzhee became our plan. Bryan would show me how to build a quinzhee with two separate rooms, and we’d share an overnight trip without inadvertently sharing anything else.
Snow was falling hard when we snowshoed into the forest, but the temperature was relatively mild – the extreme cold hadn’t yet arrived. Progress was leisurely. The mountains were hidden, socked in behind cloud, but not seeing them didn’t matter. The trees were heavily laden, and being on foot among them was magical, especially as we knew we didn’t have to return indoors at day’s end. Spirits were high.
We stopped to build the quinzhee at 2:00 pm, fairly late in the day, but no problem given that quinzhees are quicker to construct than igloos – or so I’d been told. An ICEBOX igloo typically takes me and an inexperienced friend six hours to finish, but I’d read that a quinzhee takes half that time. Of course, ours might take a little longer: we needed to make it larger than normal to accommodate the two rooms. But still, Bryan wasn’t troubled by the late start. So I wasn’t.
We began shoveling in a beautiful spot at the base of a short slope, a location that had a real sense of place. Sheltered by the rising land, it was surrounded by trees that were even more snow-decked than elsewhere, including several dwarf pines that looked like little Olaf’s from the Disney movie Frozen. The slope would also help with creating the massive pile. Easier to throw snow downwards from above than upwards from level ground!
Heaping snow into a pile isn’t rocket science of course. The aim – Bryan explained – was to build a mound roughly six feet high, leave it for an hour or so to set (or sinter, the process by which disturbed snow crystals rebond with their neighbors), and then carve out our caves. In truth, there’s minimal technique, no real finesse, just simple physical effort. One of the things I love about igloo building is that an element of skill is required. Understanding how the ICEBOX tool works comes first; then preparing just the right amount of snow for each block; compressing it into the form with exactly the right amount of pressure; moving the form gently to avoid cracking the blocks; following all the steps with care and attention to detail. In essence, Igloo building requires thought, finesse, and patience – it’s an art form. In comparison, building a pile of snow for a quinzhee felt impressively unskilled and creatively bankrupt!
Building a quinzhee snow pile was also, as I soon discovered, a serious amount of work. Although the snow was relatively light the cumulative effort of moving what felt like several tons of it quickly added up. Shovelful after shovelful followed, for one hour, then another hour, and then for most of the hour after that. Unlike with igloo-building, which only involves moving tiny amounts of snow around at a time to make each block – sweeping it serenely and then gently pouring it into place – throwing snow about to build a quinzhee was taxing. Even while pacing myself, even with only one thin layer on beneath my waterproofs, sweat still came. I remained warm but was soon damp – a state of being I usually avoid at all costs in winter. As time passed I found myself thinking wistfully about the less labor intensive igloo-building process.
I was also well aware that most of the snow we were moving was going to have to be moved a second time. For a quinzhee, you have to build the damn pile, and then remove most of it again, from the inside out. It suddenly seemed like an extremely masochistic thing to do, move a mass of snow twice – something that would make watching aliens scratch their heads and laugh! But despite the effort, spirits were still high. I was outside in a beautiful wild place with a fun and interesting companion, and I was playing in snow. Nothing to complain about. Yet.
By 5:30 pm the pile was complete, and we took a break to let it set. By now, the temperature was falling fast, and waiting an hour with damp clothes wasn’t the most comfortable of pastimes. Bryan filled the time building a fine snow kitchen – a ledge in the snow to cook on. I walked about a bit, chomping at the bit to start digging out my room. I just about managed to stay warm. Just about. Okay, I just about managed to not get too cold.
Finally, Bryan judged that the appropriate amount of time had passed. We set to it, digging our separate entrance tunnels. Ordinarily, with a single-roomed quinzhee, one person would dig and the other would help remove the snow, greatly speeding the process, but we were essentially building two quinzhees, doing both the digging and removal tasks individually. It was slow work, and worse, it was extremely wettening. To proceed, I had to kneel upon snow, couldn’t help but brush against snow on each side, dug into snow above my head, and felt snow cascade onto my back and face. Staying dry simply wasn’t possible. Even with my sleeves and hood cinched tight snow found a way through, and each tiny crystal added up. Plus, my well-used waterproofs proved themselves to be not as waterproof as they once were. Unlike with igloo building, where only gloves touch snow, here I was in constant all-round contact. I could feel melt water soaking through. And adding to that was sweat – inevitable given the effort required to dig and carve. The sweatier I got the harder I worked to stay warm, and the harder I worked to stay warm the sweatier I got. As I moled into the snow it was impossible to forget how comfortably dry I had stayed during every single igloo build. Feeling the effort in my arms, and the creeping dampness all over my body, I found myself growing increasingly un-enamored with the quinzhee-building process.
I grew even less enamored when the entire front of the snow pile made a deep ‘whoomph’ sound, and then shifted forwards ever so slightly. The flat forest snowpack had made similar sounds earlier while we’d been crossing it, proof that the avalanche risk was high. And now our snow pile had done it. Inspecting it afterwards, there were no obvious cracks, everything appeared solid, and Bryan was confident that digging could safely proceed. But I was no longer so happy.
When I re-entered my snow tunnel I couldn’t push from mind the mass of snow poised over my head. How much did it weigh? Had it really settled? I couldn’t stop considering the many ‘what ifs’. What if the pile collapsed? What if it buried me? What if Bryan didn’t notice? What if he didn’t dig me out before I ran out of air? What if it buried him? What if it collapsed on us both at the same time? It would be like being buried beneath an avalanche. The snow would set. Into concrete. We’d suffocate. And it was a possibility. My own research before the trip had raised snow pile collapse as a risk to be mindful of.
No one wants to get buried beneath piles of snow if they can help it. I sure as hell didn’t want to be buried.
Bryan seemed unconcerned, but claustrophobia had me in a vice-tight grip every time I entered my tunnel. My rational mind told me the pile wasn’t likely to collapse – but my rational mind wasn’t in control. Try hard as I could I’d hit a wall that I couldn’t scale – or dig through. On one hand, it was fascinating to discover something new about myself, a phobia I didn’t know I had. But on the other hand, it wasn’t a bundle of laughs. From having a light-hearted time in the snow with a good friend I’d now reached a place where I was profoundly uncomfortable. Irrational fear or not, there was no way I could dig on.
Which, to be honest, was a right royal pain.
Bryan, I could tell, was slightly bemused by my discomfort, but also understood it had become an obstacle I couldn’t work through. So we explored the options. Bryan generously offered to do all the digging, saying I could stay outside and do all the snow removal. Except, that didn’t seem fair on him. Digging two caves would be exhausting, it would take twice as long, and he’d be even more soaked than usual. Plus, I wasn’t even certain I could get over my claustrophobia and sleep inside the quinzhee when it was done. Instead, I suggested I dig a snow trench, cover it with my groundsheet, and sleep in that. Or even retreat home. But neither option was ideal.
In the end, Bryan provided the solution. He suggested I start digging into the mound from above. If I dug downwards there’d be no risk of collapse or being buried, and patching the top once done would still leave me insulated from the promised overnight cold.
I set to it.
It still took an immense amount of work to dig my shelter, removing all the snow I’d shoveled hours earlier, carving out a cave large enough to sleep in. But I got there. Shovelful by shovelful I linked my open-topped cave with the tunnel I’d earlier begun, scraped out a flat platform, dug a trench for my feet so I could sit inside in comfort, threw a groundsheet over the hole, and covered it with a layer of insulating snow. By 8:30 pm I was finally finished, not too long after Bryan had completed his room. It was late, dark, I was tired, wet, cold, and hungry, and my right forearm had developed a throbbing pain from digging and hacking at hard-set snow. Knowing the walls were now only 12 inches thick removed the claustrophobia, but, honestly, I wasn’t impressed. A gentle igloo build it had not been. A large palatial igloo interior my cave was not. A beautiful work of art to behold it was not. Perhaps it was unfair to compare a two-roomed quinzhee with a single-roomed igloo, but from my perspective the quinzhee-igloo contest had a resoundingly clear winner.
The rest of the trip went better, although cooking dinner outside to keep Bryan company pushed me to the edge. Understandably cautious to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning, Bryan prefers using his stove outside a snow cave, even when ventilation air holes are poked in the ceiling. I’ve never had a problem using my denatured alcohol Trangia stove inside a well-ventilated igloo, but I was here to share the trip, so respected Bryan’s preferences. But by the time my meal was ready I couldn’t stay outside any longer, and retreated into my comparatively warm room to eat.
I slept well in my tiny quinzhee cave – once I finally fell asleep. I’d changed into dry clothes, and once I was wrapped in my sleeping bag I was actually too warm. Which was impressive, given the plunging temperatures outside. The nearest community, Ward, recorded an overnight low of -18 Fahrenheit, -27.8 Celsius, and the quinzhee’s location higher in the mountains was almost certainly below that. So the shelter did its job. But so would an igloo have… without the hard labor of building it, or the wet clothes, or the painful right forearm that I can still barely use four days later.
Or without the fear of collapse.
Breakfast within my cave was blissful. Coffee in bed. And I felt toasty warm. Despite the temperatures outside my water bottle was unfrozen, but the same couldn’t be said of the gloves I’d worn the previous day, or the clothes, or my so-called waterproofs – they were all stiff as a board and sparkling with frost. But no matter. I had spare clothes, spare gloves, and it was no longer snowing outside. I packed up, bade my farewell to Bryan who was staying longer, and began the journey home. As I snowshoed away through the glorious snow-draped forest beneath a clearing February sky I couldn’t help but reflect on the quinzhee experience I’d just had. On the lessons. I’d learned something about myself for sure – that I had claustrophobia. The discovery was unexpected, and perhaps unwelcome, but not necessarily bad. In truth, any kind of growth in self knowledge is a positive thing.
And I’d also learned about quinzhees. That they didn’t compare favorably with igloos. If the building of a survival shelter half kills you, it ain’t much of a survival shelter.
Or so I think.