MY IGLOO CAMPS last month set me thinking about my first igloo adventure. It took place in January 2016, in Rocky Mountain National Park, and it wasn’t only memorable for the igloo but also for whom I went with: the one and only Igloo Ed!
I originally shared these photos and captions on social media shortly after the trip. I didn’t have a blog back then, but now that I do I reckon they might be worth sharing again…
To start with, let’s introduce the man himself, Igloo Ed, creator of the ICEBOX, a remarkable tool for building backcountry igloos. Igloo Ed is a one-of-kind mountain man. Knowledgeable, experienced, generous, patient, a natural storyteller, and above all an artist when it comes to rearranging snow, Igloo Ed was my teacher and guide for our overnight trip. If he looks like a cross between Dumbledore and Gandalf the resemblance would be appropriate: the way he bends snow to his command is pure magic.
Before building the igloo, we had to get up into the mountains. We reached the trailhead at dawn, with the summits glowing, spindrift flying, and the temperature at 15°F (-9.5°C). Setting out without carrying a ‘shelter’ (such as a sturdy four-season tent) into such a wild place as this felt fairly intimidating…
Our Igloo ‘home’ beneath the moon. Creating a secure and comfortable home in a frigid environment like this takes experience, creativity, trust in the process… and a fair amount of shoveling. As I was soon to find out…
Following a natural off-trail line Igloo Ed led me into the woods, telling stories about each rock and tree. Few people know this place better. We soon reached a snow-softened world of exquisite beauty.
My companion, in his natural environment. No matter the strength of wind, pitch of slope, or depth of snow, Igloo Ed appears to be at home out here!
The snowpack lay deep upon the land, pillowing on rocks, decorating the trees. Snowshoeing through this was no hardship.
The site that Igloo Ed had planned for our shelter lay far above, at timberline on the sheltered side of a wild ridge. To get there we had to weave upwards through the impressively deep and steep fields of snow pictured here, and then afterwards tackle an 800-foot climb through steeply-pitched, snow-buried krummholz, all the while exposed to a blasting, spindrift-laden, sideways wind. After negotiating the snowfield I took one look at the krummholz climb and – not liking the look of it – opted to save it for another day. Igloo Ed, despite having his heart set on the higher igloo site, accepted my call without revealing even a flicker of disappointment. A mountain companion who does that is a mountain companion worth having.
A new site for our igloo was soon chosen, well-sheltered from the worst of the biting wind. The first stage was to build the foundation, carefully turning waist-deep powder into a perfectly level platform of concrete-hard snow. It seemed like an impossible proposition, but with Igloo Ed’s know-how it was soon achieved.
Next, the ICEBOX tool was fixed together and put into use, and the igloo began to take shape. Igloo Ed continually talked about how good the snow was, even though to me it looked like the kind of loose powder you couldn’t even make a snowball from. Fortunately, the snow-wizard knew how much to disturb it, how long to leave it, and how firmly to pack it, and – magically – the snow blocks held together. Igloo Ed carefully explained every step of the process, and despite my many mistakes the igloo rose. If I’d have been by myself, constructing an igloo with the powdery snow would have seemed unlikely, but with Igloo Ed at hand I felt not a doubt we’d succeed. “Trust” the tool, Igloo Ed said. I did… and I trusted the man and his experience even more.
The concept for the ICEBOX is fairly simple – a block-shaped slip form slowly pivoting around an extendable pole, used to build blocks that spiral upwards – but the devil lies in the details, in the well-thought out subtleties of the tool’s construction and in the way it is used. As Ed explained, “The ICEBOX is a tool, and like all tools you have to learn how to use it.” It may look easy, but if not used correctly things can go wrong. But in practiced hands, it can build an igloo from every type of snow.
The finished igloo was a work of art – there was no other word for it. With the temperature outside at 10°F (-12°C), and the biting winter wind blowing hard, a solid-walled shelter was definitely appreciated. A tent would have been okay, but the flapping walls, limited space, and the lack of insulation wouldn’t have made sleep easy. The igloo on the other hand was solid as a castle, and surprisingly warm within – many, many degrees above freezing.
I expected it to feel dark and claustrophobic inside, but instead it was warmly lit and spacious. Ed had dug a trench for our feet between the sleeping platforms, and once all our gear was arranged it felt like a hotel. I’ve never lived in such comfort in the wild in winter… or felt so remarkably secure.
The temperature inside was 38°F (3.5°C) at foot level, into the 40s at body height. A small hole pushed through at the top let air whistle through, stopping the igloo from growing too hot and turning into slush. “The air flows out at 5-miles an hour – we measured it.” Igloo Ed informed me. Such is his incredible attention-to-detail regarding every aspect of igloo building.
With a warm retreat just steps away photography outside in the frosty, moonlit night was easy!
Breakfast, inside our snow hotel.
Sleep was good and restful, warm and sheltered; making the pristine conditions the next morning easy to enjoy.
There was magic, too, in the size of the igloo. Outside, it looks small – how could two people possibly fit comfortably inside? But space seems to expand when one steps within – somehow confounding the laws of physics. Igloo Ed observed that a number of people have said that!
Chest-deep waves of snow: the winter mountains are seldom better!
After a good night’s kip I had energy spare for a short snowshoe above camp. There really was a lot of snow on the ground.
Eventually, the time came to pack up and leave, which was was hard to do – I didn’t want to go! With all our gear packed away the igloo looked smaller and colder inside than it had felt during our occupancy.
Igloo Ed and myself. I felt privileged beyond words to get to share the mountains with this extraordinary man. Thank you, Igloo Ed, for your company, generosity and patience while taking a novice igloo-builder into the wild! (Edited to add: and thank you for all the years of iglooing that have followed!)
On the snowshoe back to the trailhead Igloo Ed led me on a detour past some magical ice formations on Lake Haiyaha.
The lake ice was feet thick – strong enough to support a truck. It was another place I wouldn’t have ventured onto on my own… and I’d have missed out.
Spectacular Lake Haiyaha.
Bubble-filled lake ice, shunted upwards, sparkling in the sun.
Ice art. An extraordinary end to an extraordinary overnight trip.
And finally, look: Igloo Ed can even walk on water!