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April 3, 2014: Snow cave Building, 101

Yesterday, while building snow caves, I joked that some pay big money in order to learn how to do this. Yes, there are courses/classes offered by outdoor/wilderness organizations like NOLS, Sierra Club, EMS, ones in which “students” learn the fine art of cave construction and reconstruction. Then they sleep in the caves they build. I have been spared cost and also having to sleep in one of these caverns. I’m okay with both. My having slept under a log in the overnight survival class was self-proof that I could do this sort of thing.

Yesterday, late afternoon, I went with Stacey Re to Hatcher Pass. We were to build new and rebuild existing caves for

Kathy in snow cave

the upcoming three day Mel Nading K-9 workshop. Stacey and I (upon arriving in the Hatcher Pass parking lot) immediately charged up the quasi ski/snowmobile slope, in search of Staging Area II. And once there, we assessed the situation. Two caves were deemed suitable for subjects – but we’d need to build a third one.

I, being the smallest, tested out the two previously done caves. One was just fine. The other was a bit tight. I felt like I’d just been inserted into a cold mummy sleeping bag. So, I made it larger by kicking at the interior with my boots. (It was too narrow for me to get a shovel into the space.)

Stacey began digging yet another cave. She first broke the exterior ice layer, and then she hollowed out the interior soft snow. She did this in short order, and in fact it took her less time to build a new cave than it did for me to refurbish the old one. This reminded me of what Helen and Scott Nearing once said, which was that it’s easier to build a new place to live than it is to rebuild an old place. Lastly, I climbed up on the hill above Stacey’s cave and with feet and grain shovel, began sending the loose snow down on top of the snow cave. This, Stacey said, would make for a stronger top layer.

As we were finishing up, we saw Donna Cramer coming uphill. She was pulling a loaded sled. She joined us – the contents of her sled consisted of two pieces of white insulation foam boards (for reinforcement), snowshoes, and a shovel.

Together, we three moved on to Stage Area One. I was wearing my quilted down jacket, a heavy fleece lined shirt, torn jeans, and long underwear. My having brought along my rain pants and a nylon windbreaker was fortuitous, for by now the temperature was dropping and a breeze had sprung up. We were now also on the lee side of the sun, in the shade. I noticed that as soon as I put on my outer layers, I warmed right up.

In Stage Area One – Steve, the SAR logistics expert – (on his snowmachine) soon joined us. So the four of us worked on rebuilding an existing snow cave. I climbed inside it and again kicked vigorously at the snow, so as to make for more legroom. Then Steve climbed in, and made the cave more roomy. He (I noticed) used a hand pickaxe.

Stacey and Donna used a saw and cut snow blocks. We three then moved them to the side of the cave – these served as reinforcing blocks. Donna and I then packed soft snow around the gaps.

Stacie B (who’d been working on an adjacent cave) then joined us. Stacey Re said that she was getting cold, and so together we headed back down to the parking lot. The others finished up, but were not far behind.

I learned some things the easy way. One is that it’s important, even on short outings, to think about how weather conditions might change, and to prepare accordingly for this. I’d presumed that since it was warm and sunny down in town, that it would be warm and sunny up on Hatcher Pass. I presumed wrong. It got cold fast. I should have brought along a thermos of hot tea. At the same time, I ought to have put my rain pants on in the parking lot.

I also became a bit more tool savvy, particularly as this pertains to snow cave building equipment. I’d brought along a grain shovel, and this was it. I ought to have brought along our smaller avalanche shovel, a handsaw for cutting blocks, and a piece of Ensolite foam. I didn’t need my snowshoes, but it would have been good to have them on hand.

This time around, I learned many things the easy way, the least of which was how to construct a snow cave. I did this without too much duress, and also without having to pay a high fee. Snow cave Construction 101, I can now say, “Been there, done that.”

Next: 94. 4/4/14: Snow Cave Dweller