Snow Caving at Lake Isabelle
April 5-6, 2008
Every year about this time, I need to get out and remind myself why I hate winter camping. Despite exhaustive evidence in these pages, I suffer from rosey visions of past experiences and a general failure to learn from my mistakes. 2008 would be no different.
Peter, Ben and I headed out on a gorgeous-but-windy day at the Brainard Lake winter trailhead. We were heavily laden with gear, but not as heavily as we could have been since we weren’t carrying either technical gear or tents as I have on previous winter trips. The plan was to head in to Lake Isabelle–one of the most gorgeous spots on Earth–and set up a snow cave. After a cozy and convivial night, we’d climb something on Sunday depending on conditions… or at least that was the plan.
The trip in to Lake Isabelle was no problem and we managed the 5 miles in a relatively leisurely 3 hours. Arriving at the lake, we quickly found the “ideal” location for our camp; a large boulder on the east end of the lake had funneled the winds and carved out a vertical face in a 12′ deep snow drift. Our eyes sparkled with visions of multi-room snow palaces just waiting to be carved out. I poked around with my avalanche probe and discovered no big rocks lying in wait in there.
The snow was pretty hard-packed, but the probe went in without too much effort, so we started to dig. We marked out a 4′ tall by 2′ wide door and started tunneling. But shoveling was another matter. Even beyond the first few inches, the snow was nearly ice-hard and going was very slow. Once we got in a few feet, we started widening to left and right. Techniques varied. Ben was able to wedge himself in there and pry with his feet on the shovel. I resorted to shaving thin layers and gouging out troughs with my ice axe adze. It was backbreaking work and we were soon soaked to the core. Nor was the weather getting any better. The wind had picked up and it was starting to look ominous. We had purposefully not brought a tent on this trip, so we would either have to finish the cave or hike out before dark.
Ideal snow cave design has a nice platform for sleeping with a domed roof, ventilation holes, and a nicely wind-proof entrance and vestibule/cooking area. However, by 6pm, after four hours of digging, we had a barely-adequate cave about 6′ wide, 6′ long at it’s longest, and perhaps 2′ high at most. Ben and Peter rigged a tarp over the front to keep the wind to a minimum. Cooking was hurried and unsatisfying as we shivered in the wind, so we wolfed down some food, then crawled into our cave. The three of us could squeeze in there as long as our feet overlapped on the end and we didn’t mind a close view of the ceiling. We passed a few jovial minutes remarking on the ridiculousness of our situation and how we had underestimated a lot. Despite our best efforts, snow had gotten into everything and I spent a very chilly hour or two despite the fact that the cave was pretty warm. The tarp failed to block the wind and Peter, with his head closest to the door, was hit with blasts of spindrift every few minutes. We slept fitfully for the first half of the night, realizing that we were stuck for the better part of twelve hours.
Finally, around 1am, the wind died down and we drifted off to some quality sleep. But I awoke at 3:30 feeling very claustrophobic. Those who know me know that I have only once in my life been claustrophobic despite many years of crawling around very tight caves. It was very dark and very quiet. I couldn’t find my headlamp. After some thrashing around in a growing panic, I found the light, snapped it on, and discovered our entrance was gone! Peter and Ben came instantly and fully awake on hearing my shout. How long had we been like this? How much air did we have left in here? Fortunately the snow plug was very soft and I pushed through it with ease. It turns out the wind hadn’t stopped and was blowing as hard as ever, loaded with significant snow.
The rest of the night passed glacially in more ways than one. We endured another few hours in there sleeping hardly at all. Every time a blast of wind came in with its load of spindrift, I whiffed gladly at the cool, dry, oxygen-soaked air. I wanted nothing more than to get myself gone from this triple-sized snow coffin and back to the safety of almost anywhere else.
Finally, at 6am, it was marginally light outside and we carefully emerged. The predicted 2-3″ of snow had turned into more like 10-12″ with more every minute on a fresh breeze out of the west. Despite this, the sun could be seen palely rising to the east. Clearly, we weren’t going to be climbing anything today. Plus we were wet and cold and wanted civilization in the worst way. We threw our gear into packs willy-nilly and were out of there less than an hour after getting up. The new snow and bodies aching from hard labor and an uncomfortable night made going slow even with the wind at our backs. It was with great relief that we collapsed into the car somewhat less than 24 hours after leaving it.
I’ve since learned a lot about snow caves from reading on the internet. First of all, carbon dioxide causes you to wake up gasping, not drift off into sleep never to awake (that’s carbon monoxide), so my claustrophobia waking was probably a sign that we’d used up our 50 cubic feet of good air. I was farthest from the entrance, so probably had the worst air in the cave. Good to know. In terms of cave construction, having a snow saw would have made life a great deal easier, and we might have even been able to make a proper, comfortable, homey abode rather than a three-man coffin shelter. While our location was spectacular and aesthetically pleasing, searching out an area with softer snow would have also been a good idea. Something down in the trees would have at least cut the wind and probably provided.
So, why do I hate winter camping? The reality is always far short of the ideal. Snow gets into everything, it’s hard to avoid being cold and wet, and the nights are really long without any of the usual campfires and whatnot that are so useful in whiling away summer nights. But mostly, everything is just so much harder in the winter. Bring on the summer! In the meantime, if anyone wants a snow cave, I’ll sell you one cheap!
After researching snow saws quite a bit, I’ve determined that I can make one that would be as effective and much cheaper than the commercial options. I cut a bow saw blade (used for limbing trees and cutting brush) off at about 15″ and attached a wooden dowel handle using some bolts. It’s a bit more flexible than the commercial ones, but I suspect it will work out okay. Field Agent Smith is going to test it out for me this weekend as he attempts a second snow cave.