Monday, February 2, 2009

Excursion Article Series 02.04.09: Make like a bear and hibernate in a snow cave this winter

I can't say that it was uber comfortable with the snow hardening to ice underneath my back, but it kept me warmish in the freezing temperatures. There's no place like snow cave.

Excursion: Sleeping (I mean shifting restlessly) in a snow cave
Where: Anywhere there is more than four feet of snow with a base
Equipment needed: Tarp, sleeping bag (or two), warm waterproof clothing, a sleeping pad, short- and long-handled shovels, tent for backup sleeping arrangements, and headlamp
Difficulty: Moderate

Like bears, all of us humans have to go to sleep during the winter. Unlike bears, we wake up a little more than a handful of times. Also contrasting bears, we generally don’t sleep outside during the winter.

This makes it much more interesting when we do. And I don’t know that I’d call it “sleeping.” Despite the nearly faultless snow cave I built, I found myself in a cold-to-wet-to-hot-to-uncomfortable cycle throughout the night. Any sleep I did get was under my radar, as it never felt like I had been asleep whenever I awoke during the night. The snow I left for insulation underneath the tarp became stiff ice due to my radiating body heat sometime during the night, making my snow cave a little less friendly.

Anyway, my Boy Scout troop set up camp near Coal Creek on the west side of Teton Pass to try our hand at building serviceable snow caves. Just a couple hundred yards up we found a suitable creek crossing. A wide trunk piled with a three-foot layer of snow made a perfect bridge to an ideal camping spot. The shallow, half-frozen Coal Creek wound its way down the hill past our site. Large flat expanses next to the East-facing hills of Taylor Mountain in our chosen site were perfect for tent camping just in case we had to use them due to poor snow conditions. Conversely, the site boasted hills sheltered from the sun where the snow could accumulate in peace.

So while boys set up tents, us leaders went and started checking the hillside conditions. We quickly came to the conclusion that the base was solid enough and deep enough to build our modest sleeping quarters. For safety’s sake, it is good to build a mound of snow about four feet across hours before you carve it out. This makes your base stronger, gives you more snow to work with and makes your roof more domelike, helping to keep moisture off your sleeping bag in the middle of the night.

Because of limited time, I dug straight down until I hit the frozen ground about four feet down. While doing so, I carved an entrance out behind me which also facilitated digging later on. I took a gamble by piling the majority of the snow I was extracting on top of where my cave would be. Though I knew I wouldn’t have a lot of time to let it settle, I felt conditions would be forgiving of the extra weight, making a better snow cave with a deeper base in the end.

Once we approved the conditions, a line of scouts fanned out across the hillside and set to digging, some of them begging for help when they saw our caves were coming along faster. The basic idea is to dig from as high as you dare down to the appropriate depth. This technique makes it so the snow bridge above you doesn’t have to support as much weight. If you go too high, collapse is imminent. Same if you are digging too low. In fact, three of our caves did collapse before we could use them, making all but me opt for tents.

Brenner had to jump about five times on my roof to bust one foot through the roof of my excellently crafted shelter. I thought this was kind of funny with just one of his feet sticking down through it.

Here Jason and Brenner play in the remains of my sleeping quarters. I let them have the fun of trashing my makeshift room for the night.

If you have trouble knowing how close to the top of the snow you are, have someone on top shine a light down to help determine thickness. If you can see the light easily, the top is probably a little too close. When the snow has settled and you’re confident in your snow cave, make a ventilation shaft or two so you don’t suffocate.

Even though I was the only one that used my cave, digging by headlamp was one of the highlights of the campout. Another highlight was the fire pit. When we dug it, it was maybe a foot deep. As we stood around the fire telling scary stories, we realized it was getting farther away from us even though we weren’t moving. Time we were done with the fire it had dug itself a four-foot well and still hadn’t reached the ground.

Yep, that's Jason in there and the firepit is up to his shoulder.

Though it was a fun and memorable experience, I think I’ll leave hibernation to the bears. It’s just a little tiring for my tastes.

Nate flies off a stump the morning after snow caves. We managed to get a few runs in on some beautifully powdery slopes. It was worth all the discomforts of snow caves and then some.

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