A group of Spokane Mountaineers shouldered packs earlier this month and snowshoed out from Lookout Pass with shovels and positive attitudes for their first winter camping experience in snow caves.
“Everybody who heads out in winter should know how to make one,” said Sara Schmelzer, the outing organizer.
They didn’t have to, but they wanted to build snow caves and sleep in them.
Each member owned a perfectly good tent. In fact, with his snow excavating skills still untested, Shannon Lavada packed one with him just in case. “Murphy’s Law seems to rule wherever I go,” he said.
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But Lavada took to winter shelter making like a young badger digging its first den.
By late afternoon, he and his caving partner, Lexi Nelson, had a roomy white suite in the five-foot snowpack of the St. Regis Basin. They were all smiles. The tent stayed in the pack.
“This was my first winter camping experience, and I loved it,” Nelson said later. “From Shannon’s experience, I learned it’s necessary to bring a complete extra outfit to wear because your clothes and gloves will be soaked from digging,” she added, noting that Shannon did most of the under-snow excavation.
Water-resistant overmitts can be worth packing, along with good rain gear.
Leslie Hvozda liked the performance of an inexpensive shovel she’d bought at an auto parts store. “The slightly curved blade shape helps shave off smooth walls and ceilings,” she said.
Ideally, a group might also have a shovel with a flatter scoop, which is better for cutting and lifting out snow blocks from the snowpack.
The group talked about site selection. Champagne powder doesn’t work without packing and time to settle. The snow pack should have some consolidation, as in a drift. Above all, avalanche terrain must be avoided.
On the trek in, they passed a small group of dads and young Boy Scouts who’d made a snow shelter camp at a safe lower elevation. The snow wasn’t deep enough for a cave, but Scouts are resourceful.
They’d built a quinzhee — a giant pile of snow they’d shoveled up and then hollowed out to create a shelter. It looked a bit like an igloo from the outside. Sleeping platforms were neatly carved out of the interior. Nicely done.
Snow shelters can range from a rabbit hole in a tree well and a snow-block-covered trench to a multiroom cavern. They almost always require more time and energy to build than simply stamping a platform in the snow with skis or snowshoes and pitching a tent.
When planning a winter trek, one must ponder these and other pros and cons of a four-season tent against a snow shelter.
Tents provide quick shelter that’s dependable in a wide range of conditions. Finding or digging a fairly level platform is necessary, but that usually requires less exertion than building a snow shelter and there’s far less chance of getting clothing wet.
The inside of a tent can be warmer than a snow cave during a sunny winter day, but the tent will be colder on cloudy days and at night.
Meanwhile, the interior temperature of a ventilated occupied snow cave and a couple of candles burning will hover around 32 degrees, which is pretty dang nice if the temperatures are in single digits outside.
A snow cave or igloo might be the preferred shelter for a multiday stay at a base camp. Snow shelters are bombproof in high winds that can damage tents, although snow-block walls can help protect a tent in a storm.
Time is a major consideration. The Mountaineers required 3 to 4 hours to build their first snow caves. Tyler Nyman had to redirect his efforts when he dug into a boulder.
Excavation became more tedious when they dug in and discovered the snow slope they’d selected was riddled with alder branches that might have been flattened lower to the ground had the first deep snows of the season been wetter and not so light.
“Always carry pruning clippers,” Nelson advised, thankful that Schmelzer, a veteran snow caver, came prepared.
In the 1970s, the late Russ Keene, a veteran of the 10th Mountain Division, and his son, Rob, had a tradition of skiing up the slopes from Schweitzer Mountain Resort and building a snow cave for a week of celebrating the new year.
They were masters. Rob, who’d learned to eliminate wasted steps and shovel strokes, could build a comfortable cave for two or three people in less than 90 minutes.
They loved to invite people to join them on the extra sleeping platforms they would build, each with its own carved out shelf for keeping head lamps, mugs and toiletries handy, and a nook for a candle.
The warm glow of the flames in the cave (a vent hole was punched into the rounded ceiling) set the atmosphere for a toasty evening inside while sipping hot tea and talking about the art of winter camping.
The Mountaineers brought various types of LED lights or lanterns to brighten their caves.
Rather than digging to start their entrance hole for a cave, the Keenes would double the use of that effort by using squarish shovels to excavate snow blocks and setting them aside.
The blocks would be used later to downsize the entrance hole and build a wind screen for the outside optional cooking and eating area. The finished cave and patio was fit for a Better Homes & Gardens spread.
Snow cave designs vary depending on size and snow conditions. Basic features include a step up from the entrance hole to a floor with the sleeping platforms a couple of feet above that. The lower area at the entrance acts as a cold air sump. A rounded ceiling increases structural strength.
Wands or ski poles with ribbons are used to mark the cave to warn away someone — a snowmobiler, for instance — from unwittingly crushing the structure.
Snow blocks can be brought just inside the entrance to seal out wind at night, or a pack can be used as a door.
A shovel should be brought inside the cave in case it’s necessary to dig out through a snow drift.
The Mountaineers were equipped with one or two sleeping pads apiece. Insulation between your body and the snow is critical for a good night’s sleep. A few pads were rolled out on the snow bench for comfort as they sat around a group kitchen carved out of the snow pack.
They shared stories and tips. The first-timers were warned that the roof of a snow cave naturally settles several inches during the night. It might seem much closer to your face when you wake.
Schmelzer said the most restrictive cave she’s seen was a Y-shaped rabbit hole – one entrance branching into two sleeping tunnels.
The most interesting cave she’s slept in was built into a tree well and included a small evergreen tree which, unbeknownst to the cave makers, was inhabited by a considerable population of wintering spiders.
“They awoke with the heat of our bodies in the cave,” Schmelzer said, leaving the rest to our imaginations.
These Mountaineers added an important skill to their winter outing repertoire last weekend. Over the years, stories have been written about skiers or climbers who survived unplanned overnights or endured deadly storms by holing up in an emergency snow shelter.
It’s a skill you may never need, but then again, you might need it urgently.