The prospect seemed legitimate enough. Wake up early. Snowshoe up a steep hill through deep powder to a small valley on Mazama ridge to the SE of Mt. Rainier. Deep powder meaning the 8 feet of new snow from the last week. Sweet. Better that than the rain we’d been hounded with all week down in Tacoma.
The hike meant orienteering. Its a great skill to have, but a tough one to practice when your first time practicing it is in near zero visibility conditions. The consistent snow coming down added an air of epicness to the trek, augmented by the fact that it was so hard to see that 5 feet drops in the snow pack looked flat. Free fall in a soft cushion of fresh powder is as fun as it is shocking.
The goal of the trip was to learn to make our own shelter. The means to achieve this goal: dig. And dig. And dig. We (aka our teacher and more experienced guide and friend Andy) had chosen the valley because it had ideal sides for digging snow caves. Walk halfway up, flatten the side, dig a tunnel in and up. This helps the cold air escape.
After the tunnel you dig a bathtub shaped area for boots, and to help more cold air escape (remember cold air sinks). Then to three feet higher to the sides you dig a cavernous shape long enough for a human body, wide enough for as many people as you have, and tall enough to sort of sit up in the sleeping bag.
So a few people are in the cave as it gets dug. They throw the snow into the tunnel. The “mole” squats in the tunnel, pushing the snow outside, to the guys who shovel the snow off the “porch.” But lets return to the mole for a second. As I got into position, Brad yells down his advice
Put your hood on and don’t look up!
As he finished, a massive pile of snow came tumbling down the tunnel. The mole, who is on his knees, legs spread, in the tunnel that rises at 20 or 30 degrees reaches his arms up, and pushes the snow between his legs to the guys on the porch. Over and over and over. Its exhausting.
As the mole, or as the shovel-er, one can’t help but feel like Sisyphus. You move the snow, you shovel the snow, and there is always more. At least, as Camus presumed, you can do it with a small smile, because we embrace the hard work for good times.
At the same time, the kitchen is dug under a Megamid. 5 feet into the ground to create benches and a table. The digging never stops.
But all of a sudden, everything is dug. Its getting dark. Its still snowing. You retreat into the kitchen for hot stew and hot cocoa. Everything that envelopes you is made by you and your buddies. Its tough to quantify how gratifying that feeling is, its even tougher laying down in the snow cave, snuggling in your sleeping bag with the shocked revelation that somehow, after a day in the snow, you are dry and warm. And will stay that way.
The next day reads in reverse. Leave the snow cave. Breakfast. Destroy the snow cave, and destroy the kitchen. Play with some beacons and jump off some cornices. Laugh. Smile. Poop in a bag and pack it out. Revel in the fact that its clears up for half an hour, and there was a sweet view for a moment. Hike out and revel in the downhill. Appreciate the company. Appreciate the gorgeous nature that surrounds you. Relish in how the so much of the experience came from the fact that you and your mates did almost everything yourselves. And make merry when you get back into town and share beers and hot dogs at your favorite local bar.
Winter camping is not for the faint of heart. Nor the lazy. Especially when snow caves are involved. Its a strange mix of level 1 and 2 fun, where you somehow have fun throughout the cold and hard work, but really don’t appreciate it until you get home.