Picture this as you snuggle indoors, clad in flannel pajamas, a hot cocoa in hand. Somewhere on the slopes of Mount Seymour Provincial Park, in the North Shore’s urban wilderness, a hardy band of winter adventurers sit around a crackling fire, toasting their good fortune. After all, with a southeast storm driving clouds across the coast, they could be facing a less-than-stellar night of winter camping in a wind-shivered tent. Instead, they’re relaxing on sculpted benches in the lee of a thick wall of snow as curried chicken bubbles on a gas-fired stove.
A collection of snow domes surrounds the sunken kitchen, each large enough to house two fleece-clad explorers, who have trekked on snowshoes to a clearing on the forested ridge above Vancouver’s inner harbour, wearing backpacks stuffed with dry clothing and hauling sleds filled with food, saws, and shovels.
Upon their arrival at the chosen site, the first order of business was to tamp down a level plot large enough to accommodate a half-dozen tent-size igloos. Unlike the Arctic technique of carving snow blocks from the surrounding tundra, then configuring a spiral of thick bricks into a shelter, a much speedier approach is to saw rectangles of dense snow from the compacted layer. Whereas northern snow is dry and granular, the sodden West Coast variety is often compared to elephant snot. Although lifting heavy, wet snow presents a challenging workout if you’re on skis or a snowboard, its cementlike consistency works far better for shelter construction than does fluffy powder.
Before excavation begins, the taller of the two individuals planning to share the igloo lies on the surface while the other traces a circle in the snow to define the perimeter wall. No need to go overboard. As with a tent, all that’s needed in the way of space is a shelf wide enough to accommodate the sleepers and a small vestibule for storing backpacks. As the snow bricks are removed, cut by saw, a waist-deep cellar of sorts gradually takes shape. This will be the floor.
With a little practice, the builders fit the first ring of blocks together. The technique is simple: stand two suitcase-sized blocks side-by side. Tilt them on a slight inward angle, pat them together with a mitt of loose snow for grout, and then begin the process again. Within minutes, the slabs have bonded as if welded with Krazy Glue. Even when struck with a fist or kicked with a boot, the structure displays an astonishing integrity when it hardens.
As the walls rise, the pit deepens. Soon all that remains is to fit a final piece into the top of the dome. This is accomplished as one person holds the piece while standing on the interior shelf. Outside, willing hands shape and pat the keystone into place. Time now to crawl inside and admire the handiwork as daylight softly filters through the patchwork exterior.
Although this particular outing benefits from the assistance of savvy guides with locally based Westcoast Adventures, the techniques of snow-shelter building are easily acquired on your own. Igloos, snow caves, and improvised abodes such as snow trenches and tree-well dugouts can serve winter campers far better than tents. For one thing, snow shelters are much quieter, particularly during storms, which can violently shake a tent for hours on end, as if the wind was hell-bent on ripping the fabric apart strand by strand.
Snow shelters also offer the benefit of warmth, as body heat causes temperatures to rise in the cozy interior. In fact, heat may build up to the point where you’ll need to drill a small hole or two in the roof to allow trapped moisture to escape. That’s welcome news, especially when you’re looking to avoid frostbite or hypothermia.
ACCESS: For info on igloo building and dogsled outings with Westcoast Adventures, call 604-662-7209. The Federation of Mountain Clubs of British Columbia publishes a training manual on building snow shelters. The group’s office is located in Mountain Equipment Co-op’s Vancouver store (130 West Broadway). Call 604-873-6096 or visit www.mountainclubs.org/.