I knocked another one off my bucket list this week. Yes, I finally dug a snow cave and slept in it overnight.
This may seem like an odd thing for someone to want to do. But ever since my buddy Paul Quinn shared a story about the night he spent in a relatively comfy hole in the snow as a blizzard raged above his head, I've wanted to do the same.
This particular adventure almost didn't happen. It was originally intended to be a family affair, but my 2 teen-aged kids figured it was more fun to sit at home and play computer games or hang-out in the mall with their pals, just like every day. It was almost 2:00 in the afternoon on a Sunday before I managed to convince myself it was time to make this happen. If I have any regrets, it's that I spent about 10 nanoseconds thinking about what to pack and in the process, overlooked a few items that would have increased the comfort factor by an order of magnitude or more. (See list below.)
Having not run much due to injury, my wife was keen to get out of doors... less keen about sleeping in a hole in the snow, however. She agreed to join me for a romantic dinner on the mountain, but packed a sleeping bag just in case. (Good call. Read on...)
We arrived at the Mount Seymour parking lot at about 3:00 pm. (Yes, I left a note as to my intentions and relative whereabouts on the dash in the car.) It was a great day to be in the mountains, so the trail to Dog Mountain was busy with snowshoers taking advantage of the fresh powder. Just in case the roof caved in on me in the middle of the night, I figured no need to hike way back in the boonies, so the plan was to pick a spot not far off the main trail near First Lake or about 20 minutes hike from the car.
In years past, I'd seen an igloo not far from the footpath, so figured that was as good a spot as any. Coincidentally, there were signs of human activity around a big pile of snow in the same spot this year. It was getting late, so figured I might get lucky and save some digging, but this was not to be the case. I started digging at about 3:30.
I dug straight down, hoping to create a pit about 2 meters deep, then burrow sideways about a meter below the surface using a saw to remove blocks of snow. Temperatures were in the -7C range, but it wasn't long before I was soaked with sweat. It was very slow going at first, but at about 2m depth, I broke through into the catacombs! http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catacombs_of_Rome
I don't like to think I am claustrophobic, but I doubt I'd make a good spelunker because it did not feel comfortable going head-first down the hole into the catacombs. I did it, though, and found a partially-collapsed ice cave which led to an entrance to an igloo. I crawled into the igloo and found it quite comfortable and totally large enough to accommodate me and my basic sleeping gear. The thought of bunking down there with 3-4 meters of snow above my head and a tiny exit did not appeal, however, so I took some video and opted to dig a cave above the catacombs a bit closer to the surface.
Once I could stand up and start sawing blocks of snow, the snow cave quickly grew in size. Within 4 hours of arriving at the parking lot, I had a space that was about a meter high and wide enough to accommodate 3 people and their gear.
While I was burrowing in the snow, Sibylle was cooking a feast of Kraft dinner and chicken noodle soup out in the elements. It was a beautiful evening, the first after daylight savings, but it was getting cold and dark. Inside the cave, it was almost warm in comparison! We toasted our accomplishment with a couple of swigs from a 1/2 bottle of merlot that I snatched from the kitchen during my lighting packing spree.
While sparse, the accommodations were adequate. A couple of tea lamps were all that was needed for light. A tarp kept the wet away, 2 layers of foam pad and a down sleeping bag protected from the cold. Sibylle opted to share the experience, but was quick to note that the ceiling of our hidey-hole was a bit mushy. "Hummmm... if the roof were to collapse, about a meter of snow would come crashing in. Where would it most likely fail? What were the chances of turning around and getting out the narrow entrance?", I thought as I drifted off to sleep.
Sleep came in fits and starts. There were no drips from above, and it was warmer than outdoors, but it was still below zero in the tomb. A debate rages over who snored the most.
When we decided to make tracks around 8:00 am, there was a bluish glow to our cave from the daylight. This was a surprise, because we were quite a ways below the surface. I heard a muffled, "Holy smokes", as Sibylle exited through the narrow tunnel. It had snowed overnight and our exit was almost completely buried!
Opting for the comfort of a coffee shop for breakfast, we packed quickly and set off into the blizzard. I confess I'd have liked to spend another day working on the entrance, enlarging the living room and exploring the catacombs, but our craving for a strong coffee and a warm cinnamon bun trumped.
Given the current weather, I figure our ice condo should last a few weeks at least. If you're interested in using it, leave a comment and I'll give you directions!
Essential Stuff for a Snow Cave
shovel (I have a collapsible avalanche shovel with saw blade)
saw (I brought a couple of small pruning saws)
insulated camping pads (good for sleeping on and kneeling on as you dig)
extra clothes (gloves, goretex pants, technical shirts... you will sweat buckets)
beacon (MEC turtle light is perfect. Want to make it easy for Search and Rescue to find your frozen corpse)
Hints and Tips for a Snow Cave
be sure to let someone know where you plan to dig your cave
put a note on the dashboard of your car indicating your plans, as otherwise, you'll likely be assumed lost and the police/SAR will come looking
bring dry clothes
make your sleeping area higher than the entrance (heat rises)