Igloo Camping in B.C. Outdoors Proves Cozy
The low, snuffling growls bring my uneasy dreams of grizzly-bear attacks crashing into reality. But upon jerking open my eyes, I find I'm lying in a sleeping bag under a bumpy ceiling of snow, complete with a backache that would make a tree planter proud. A painful roll to either side explains the growling: dual snorers assault my eardrums with a cacophonous stereo grunting that would rattle the windowpanes if there were any. It's time to step outside.
It's a crisp, dead-of-winter night in the majestic mountains of British Columbia, and this forested plateau a few hours north of Vancouver is illuminated by a near-full moon. Deciduous trees and skeletal bushes are heavy with snow, and there's the kind of silence rarely encountered in the city. I pan around and face two alien bumps in the otherwise untouched powder. The igloos we spent several hours building are still standing.
Skiing, snowboarding, and snowshoeing are second nature in B.C., where driving from downtown to snowcapped mountains takes less than an hour. Igloo camping, although not yet a common pastime, is catching on as a challenging way to interact with this back-yard winter landscape. When an adventurous impulse overpowered my usual misgivings, I had agreed to join some friends for their annual overnight expedition.
After an early morning drive from Vancouver to Squamish, the six of us gathered, bleary-eyed, at the foot of Round Mountain in Garibaldi Provincial Park. Although the roads were clear, the hiking trail ahead of us was thick with a few metres of snow. It was time to gear up.
Many British Columbians have a not-so-secret addiction to shopping for outdoor equipment--a brief survey of friends revealed a number of kayaks, a tent for every third person, and rainwear outfits that cost more than my regular wardrobe--but my own winter wear amounted to just one oversize woollen hat. For this trip, borrowed alpine gear transformed me into a walking winter jumble sale.
While my fellow igloo builders sported their coordinated fleeces and Gore-Tex gloves, I stood around looking goofy in red Santa Claus pants, white rubber boots, and a hand-me-down blue jacket. After fumbling with the straps on my rented snowshoes, I hoisted on a borrowed backpack stuffed with 20 kilos of essentials.
We were hauling enough gear to cover any eventuality in a region where overnight temperatures often fall to --20 º C. Required equipment includes winter sleeping bags, head-mounted flashlights, and emergency tents. Each hiker also carried a collapsible snow shovel, an extendible snow probe for revealing snow depths, and an electronic transceiver that picks up signals from anyone unfortunate enough to be buried under an avalanche.
The hike was a tough two-hour trek up through dense, snow-covered trees. Since it was a warm, blue-skied day, most of us were sweating within minutes, and we removed hats and jackets. Water stops were frequent, particularly where a clearing revealed a spectacular view of the vast valley below. A few settlements dotted the valley floor, but there was undeveloped land, with forests and rivers, as far as the eye could see.
After an hour, it was time to stop for lunch. My pockets were stuffed with chocolate and trail mix for snacking, but I needn't have bothered: the shared meal was a gourmet affair of foil-wrapped chicken breasts, Brie baguettes, and home-baked cookies. Each of us also carried several litres of bottled water; munching on handfuls of snow is not advisable for long periods because it lowers body temperature, although it melts down well for a passable cup of tea. Wine and beer, decanted into plastic bottles, also added to the weight of our packs.
When we reached our plateau in a clearing at around 1,500 metres, my legs were starting to buckle. But after peeling off my backpack, I was told we had to commence building immediately: there were only a few sunlight hours left, and resting now would mean working in the dark later.
After dividing into two groups, we stamped down the snow in two wide, circular areas, using our snowshoes to good effect. The plan was to build two three-man igloos facing each other, with a trench between serving as an open-air kitchen.
With the sun still beating down, we began digging in each of our circles to a depth of about a metre, using shovels and machetes to remove the packed snow in rough, rectangular blocks. We stacked these blocks, each about the size of two large shoeboxes, around the two perimeters.
Two of my team began construction in the pit while I continued digging for blocks in the kitchen trench. Slicing blocks was easy, and there was a satisfying "whump" each time the machete freed another one from the rest of the snow. The problem for someone like me, who has the upper body of a desk-bound librarian, was the lifting.
Determined not to make excuses--despite burning legs, shaking arms, and an aching spine--I cut, lifted, and stacked more than 100 blocks over the course of the afternoon, earning the nickname Block God from one of the team.
These blocks were used to construct igloos that hardly resembled the perfect domes of childhood cartoons. Tilted and placed on top of each other in a spiralling, inward curve, they pushed together to support each other the way stones do in a keystone arch. We smoothed over the gaps in the igloo wall with handfuls of snow, and the entrance, rather than being on the surface, was a short, U-shaped tunnel dug under the snow to prevent the wind from whistling in.
As each dome rose and began closing at an apex of about two metres, a sense of accomplishment replaced my feelings of exhaustion. And with the sun sinking and hot drinks supplied from two small camp stoves, I was actually enjoying the work.
Cross-country skiers shuffled by, and many stopped to check us out: igloo camping may not be unique in these parts, but it still raises an eyebrow or two. Curious whisky jacks also dropped by, although they were more interested in our snacks than our project.
After five hours, we carefully manoeuvred the final blocks into place in each roof, then stood back to admire our handiwork, discovering that the two igloos had turned out quite differently: one was an almost perfect dome; the other was longer, resembling an egg halved and turned on its side. Debate about the merits of each construction style degenerated into a snowball fight, although the after-work relief ended when we realized we hadn't finished the kitchen.
Using the trench I had excavated for the building blocks, we dug out some seats and shelf space in the snow. We cut rough steps, and adjusted the trench so that each igloo entrance opened into it.
Rehydrated pasta, celebratory alcohol, and back-slapping took over the rest of the day as we admired our igloos, stretched sore muscles, and cracked our spines back into shape. We built a fire in the kitchen from branches cut nearby and sank into relaxation mode. By 9:30, in the kind of inky darkness seldom seen in the city, and with the combination of red wine and beer kicking in, it was time for bed.
I ducked and slid through the U-bend entrance and crawled into one of the three sleeping bags lining the floor. Warmed by candles, the inside was cozy. The ceiling looked like crazy paving: the smoothing and shaping had removed any signs of the straight-edged blocks I'd spent all afternoon cutting. After a fitful night of sleep, during which I was serenaded by my snoring companions, the morning arrived too early.
It was euphoric to wake to the dawn sun illuminating the inside of the igloo. The slightest movement after that, however, meant intense pain, as my body reminded me of what I'd put it through the day before. I pulled on my boots and rubbed the salty sleep from my eyes--further evidence of yesterday's sweaty exertion--before sliding painfully through the entrance.
After packing up our gear and drinking some strong, gritty coffee, we wrecked the igloos in a matter of minutes with several well-aimed kicks. This is an important safety measure to prevent anyone from tumbling into the excavated pit or reusing a potentially dangerous old structure. With no reason to stick around, we pulled on our packs and left.
The sunny descent, with much lighter loads and downhill momentum, was swift and enjoyable. We veered off the path to test our snowshoes in drifts as much as three metres deep, barrelling down the steepest hills at great speeds.
Although talk was of the next trip, my thoughts were of a hot bath and a soft bed. But before returning to the city, we made a pub stop to resolve the argument about who had built the best igloo. A pint of ice-cold beer and a greasy, deep-fried breakfast never tasted so good.
ACCESS: Igloo camping is not for the uninitiated or unprepared. Winter-backpacking experience is recommended, and basic gear like boots, gloves, and waterproof jackets is essential. Vancouver outdoor stores like Mountain Equipment Co-op rent snowshoes, probes, transceivers, spades, and winter sleeping bags. Call ahead for rental rates and reservations at 604-709-6241 or visit it on-line at www.mec.ca/.
If you're not travelling with your own expert friends, Canada West Mountain School offers several guided winter-camping tours in British Columbia, along with courses in igloo- and snow-shelter--building. The 20-year-old company, a former division of the Federation of Mountain Clubs of British Columbia, can also provide guides for customized trips. Prices for guided tours start at around $200 per person. For further information, call 604-878-7007 or visit www.themountainschool.com/.