MARCH SEEMS TO have become ‘igloo month’ for me, and this year was no exception. Building a shelter from snow (ie, being an adult but playing like a child) and then sleeping in it is a hard-to-beat mountain pleasure – and it’s a pleasure that’s made even greater when shared with friends new to the experience.
This year’s igloo involved three visits: the first to scout out a good spot for a beginner-friendly build; the second with two friends to create the shelter; the third to sneak back for an extra solo night a week later. Seeing that I’ve written about igloo-building before (HERE) I’ll make this more a ‘photo blog’ instead…
(Ahem, I took a fair few photos. Let’s see who makes it all the way to the end!)
The igloo-fun began on March 3, heading into the hills to find a good spot. The ideal location involved ticking a number of boxes: firstly (and most importantly) I needed snow at least three feet deep so that the igloo’s entrance could be below the sleeping platforms. Secondly, I wanted an easy(ish) walk in – no more than two hours, to leave most of the day free for building. Thirdly, I sought a relatively sheltered spot, so that standing outside all day playing in the snow wouldn’t be too unpleasant. And finally, a good view wouldn’t hurt, either.
I chose a well-travelled route uphill along firm snow stamped down by many visitors. With a bit of luck, my friends wouldn’t even need snowshoes. After three miles I left the beaten path and climbed into a north-facing bowl, a snow-catchment area buried beneath deep drifts. Bristlecone and limber pines dotted the bowl, giving it real character, while a tree-less ridge rested above – potentially a great spot for views. After scouting around I found an ideal haunt among the trees, probed the snow with my ski poles to make sure the snow was deep enough and then, on the spur of the moment, decided to get a head-start on the igloo by building the platform for it.
For igloos to last, they need a firm foundation. Building one now – two weeks before the planned igloo weekend with my friends – would give the snow more than enough time to set up hard. Normally, half an hour is all that’s needed!
After finishing the platform I went for a wander along the ridge above. Squalls of snow were moving in, and it was almost time to leave – but not before photographing several of the magnificently gnarled bristlecone pines.
I shortened the hike out by heading straight downhill, avoiding the easier path up. Despite knee-deep floundering on snowshoes I made it out in half the time, and was glad I did. By the the time I reached the trailhead, winter had returned!
Two weeks later I was back at the trailhead, this time in the company of Andy and Jesse: two brave and trusting friends who believed that building and sleeping in an igloo was a good idea! At 5°F (-15°C) it was a biting-cold morning, but enthusiasm was high as we tramped uphill. Soon, the cold blue light of dawn gave way to bright sunlight.
The final approach to the igloo site took us onto the windward side of the mountain, and the blast out on exposed ground was fierce. For a moment, doubts rose. Would the site I’d prepared be sheltered enough? Would we have to find somewhere new and use up daylight creating a new platform?
Happily, once we crossed a ridge and dropped into Bristlecone Bowl we found shelter. The platform had drifted over since I’d built it, but half an hour’s work cleared the new snow away and we were ready to begin…
My friends proved to be quick learners, and with three people working progress was relatively swift. Like any tool, the ICEBOX requires some finesse. There are subtleties to it, tricks with how to hold it and how to pack snow. It was rewarding to share some of the tricks I’d learnt from Igloo Ed himself, the co-inventor of the ICEBOX. He was with us in spirit, that was for sure, constantly in mind. I could hear his voice offering advice every step of the way.
Igloo building is fun! Standing in the snow for hours, staring around at the mountains, packing snow, seeing the igloo grow, chatting, joking, laughing and singing with friends, basking in midday warmth – time can pass quickly. We began building around ten, and stopped an hour or so later for a break. But when we checked the time we discovered it was nearly two in the afternoon. Igloo-building does strange things to time!
Only a few of my igloo builds have finished with the sun still shinning… and this was one of them. We capped the igloo a few minutes before the sun dipped behind the ridge, and just in time. The temperature was plummeting.
After an evening of light-hearted companionship inside the igloo, and a long spell of snow-melting for water for the next day, it was time for sleep. To make life easier for all, we’d only build an eight-foot igloo, good for two people. With 75 or so blocks to make, that was more than enough work. While Andy and Jesse settled in, I retreated to camp – and it was indeed a cold one!
Jesse and Andy survived the night too, and it was soon time for them to leave. I’d greatly enjoyed sharing the build with them, and they seemed to feel the same way. Sleeping in igloos isn’t a common experience – in the general scheme of things! But everyone should sleep in at least one. I sensed that for Andy and Jesse, one might not be enough – a sign of a successful trip!
Once Andy and Jesse had crossed the ridge and vanished from sight, I packed away camp and moved into the igloo. It was far superior to my tent in comfort, space and warmth!
For the rest of the day, I bimbled leisurely about Bristlecone Bowl, snacked, took photos, read, drank several cups of tea, built a snow staircase beside the igloo and then – on a whim – set off uphill toward a nearby summit. It’s fair to say that conditions on exposed ground were rough, as uncomfortable as they’d been on Bierstadt the week earlier!
After being up on the windswept mountain, it was good to return to the igloo. A peaceful evening followed. I let the quiet, undemanding location sink deep and, soon, a grin was fixed permanently to my face. One form of happiness, for me, is simple connection with a natural place. The evening gave me that, and then some.
Having spent the previous night in a tent, my night in the igloo had me sleeping long and hard, contentedly snug. I was so comfortable that I almost missed sunrise. Fortunately, I awoke just in time and dashed out with my camera to see the sun crest the horizon.
The sun was only in view for moments. Clouds soon hid it. But while it shone, perfection reigned. A coyote began howling on the ridge behind me, out of sight but wonderfully heard. Soon, it was time to step back to the igloo, pack away my gear and return home… but I took the location with me.
And a week later, it pulled me right back…
There’s always a small element of doubt when returning. Will the igloo still be standing? Will the sun have burnt a hole in it? Will someone have discovered it and knocked it down?! But igloos are built to last, and up here in the cold a mere seven days of high-altitude weather had made little impact. The igloo was solid. It hadn’t shrunk or changed in any way. If anything, its walls were even thicker with fresh snow drifted onto them. I quickly cleared the entrance and settled in.
After dark, and with snow starting to fall, I ventured outside to grab a few night photos of the igloo. The temperature had fallen below zero Fahrenheit (-18°C) but there was magic afoot. Well wrapped up, and with a safe haven to retreat to when needed, I spent an hour or so outside wandering around in the cloud-filtered moonlight. Camping, I’d probably have stayed in the tent. Iglooing, I felt far free to explore.
Dawn was brutally cold. The night had delivered three or so inches of snow, fierce winds, and biting temperatures. Even from within the sound-muffling igloo I could hear the wind outside, bullying the pines. When finally I plucked up courage and stepped outside I found conditions that were truly severe: zero Fahrenheit, fifty-mile-an-hour winds, stinging spindrift. The wind chill on exposed skin was somewhere around -30°F, – 34°C. Inhospitable to say the least!
Eventually, it was time to pack up and leave… uphill first and straight into the spindrift pictured above! But at least I started warm. Preparing for the brutal weather outside from within the protection of an igloo definitely helped.
All the same, heading face first into a raging storm of wind-blown snow made for an adventurous conclusion to the trip. Travel through the ‘tormenting wind’ was intense. I walked (staggered) with my head down, face averted, my eyes focused downward onto my feet. But all good things come to an end! Eventually, I left the exposed tundra and entered the shelter of the forests. Down among the trees I found glorious calm – a simple treasure that is so easily and so often taken for granted. But as usual, the wildness above had provided perspective… and once again it increased my appreciation and gratitude for everything I normally have.