Mount Warren’s north face was as yet unclimbed, winter or summer. We needed an excuse for a nine-day ski tour into the northern Wind Rivers, and a first winter ascent would be a nice coup. On top of packs towering over our heads we added rock and ice gear, easily the heaviest load I have ever carried in winter. At least those packs explained why it took us so long to reach the Dinwoody Glacier. I noticed every morning my down sleeping bag was getting thinner. Fortunately, we were able to stop during lunches to dry out our bags, and watch them steam while hands hid in parka pockets. I wondered how well we’d be faring if there were no sun. After four days of slogging we made a huge snow cave at the snout of the glacier, an ice palace for six and gear. But still the bags collected insensible perspiration during the night, which froze (sublimates actually, changing directly from water vapor to ice) before escaping the bag, eventually turning a lovely down bag into a frozen mat. The only day of bad weather in a nine-day trip – a ground blizzard, the likes of which Wyoming is so famous for – kept us from climbing Mount Warren, foiling as well the rest of the party’s attempt on Gannett Peak. The take home from that trip had little to do with winter climbing per se: I know we could have climbed that stupid face given decent weather. Rather it was about those damned frozen sleeping bags. There had to be a better way to do things than tents or snow caves. And there was.
We had this little gig to teach winter survival and cross country skiing near Leadville, Colorado, one of the coldest and least intelligent places to camp out in January. We could camp out in tents, but what kind of instructors would we be if we were as dumb as the clients? Instead, we tried out our new skill of igloo building, which we’d been practicing. After several comfortable nights in very cold weather, we discovered our sleeping bags actually dried out in the igloos, even if we spilled something on them. When it was 37 below with a thirty-five mile wind outside, inside with a stove and a couple candles lit, our Igloo Hilton occasionally got up to 40 degrees above. I’ll let you do the math, but believe me; it’s a staggering difference. Our clients kept making excuses to get out of their tents which, despite propane heaters, were desperately cold, just to come “visit us” and sit awhile in a warm, cheery igloo. Our igloos didn’t flap in the wind all night, they kept our bags dry for nine days, and they were warm.
A few years later while teaching some winter mountaineering courses at the U, students were aghast when I told them we would be camping in igloos THEY would make. Every class one student would suggest taking tents, you know, just in case the igloos “don’t work out.” I told them, not to worry, that I was a licensed igloo contractor; that I have never failed to make an igloo. And besides, which would they rather carry, an 8-pound tent or a 10 ounce saw? In many classes I would make igloos that interconnected with domed doorways between: a condominium igloo village. Oh, we would have some broken or falling blocks now and then, but these were easily repaired. The students loved them, and actually learned a useful skill in college…
One January a friend and I decided that since the skiing was so bad (as I said, a guy’s gotta have projects…) we would ski up and build an igloo on the ridge just east of the Pfeifferhorn. We even took along one of those mini, one-burner Coleman lanterns so we could light the interior enough for a good night photo. I had one of those little clamps, which mounts a camera to an ice axe, from which I took several thirty-minute exposures, all in swirling snow. I hoped the long exposures would cancel out the wind-blown snow, which they did. I think the editor is going to use one of these for the magazine, so now you know how I did it. And the igloo? Let me tell you how nice and warm it was with a Coleman lantern inside… The next day we climbed over the Pfeifferhorn and skied out Hogum Fork, and I know it was all better without having to carry a bloody tent.
The igloo which most stands out in my mind was during a winter climb on the Middle Teton. We had skied past a trio of friends who had gotten a late start, and made camp only two hours above the trailhead. And now, the three of them were hopelessly wet after only one night out in the winter Tetons. We continued on, armed with two 10 ounce saws-one cuts blocks while the other shapes them into place- I have to admit it felt committing to be out in the Tetons without a winter tent, but we knew we could build something. We skied up through “the Meadows” of Garnet Canyon, looking for a safe building site, opting finally for the base of the Middle Teton, where a huge granite overhang would protect us from hang fire above. While we usually have to stomp out powder snow with skis in the Wasatch and wait an hour or so to begin cutting blocks, the windpack (read: hard slab avalanche junkies…) in the Tetons was ready made for igloo blocks. We were in a hurry to get out of the wind, and during construction not enough care was taken to slant in each row of blocks more than the one beneath it. Consequently, our Teton igloo was a bit more pointed than it should be, but we knew it would work just fine. We dove in for a good night, slamming in the tails of our skis so they wouldn’t take off in the wind.
Next day we climbed the Black Dike route on the Middle Teton. Although rated an easy F5 in summer, even then it is difficult to protect, and if it’s difficult to find pro in the summer, in winter it’s downright desperate, and slow. We took all day on the route, rapping back to the igloo in a nasty gathering storm. We put our packs and gear against the door and settled in. Inside it was quiet and we didn’t know just how much the storm was raging until we went outside to pee. We better take the shovels in with us I suggested, a good call since we had to tunnel out in the morning. Four feet of wind-blown snow plastered everything: no trace of igloo or skis visible. Although the spot was safe against major avalanches, there were steep side hills on either side of us, which constantly self-stabilized during the storm, and completely buried us. Any tent I’ve ever owned would have been severely damaged, but the igloo held firm, saving our asses. As I was digging out the skis, the slope we had climbed and descended the day before avalanched big time. It went right over us, thankfully over the well-chosen overhang; it was like being behind a huge Hawaiian waterfall. Sobering, too, because it meant we were going to have to be very careful skiing out. No slope was safe really, not in these conditions. “Why don’t we just stay in the igloo for about a week? I suggested. “We’d be safe here…”
My climbing partner just looked at me as he has so many times before. It was a great igloo, he said, it really saved us. And then we quietly started putting on skis thinking of the very interesting terrain between us and the car.
Go out and practice building igloos when you don’t have to spend the night. You’ll make many mistakes on your initial igloos. Don’t make them too big, just enough for two, as larger igloos are much more difficult. Proper igloos require a proper snow saw, but most saws are made for avalanche pits these days, not igloos. SMC used to make a great saw, but the only one I was currently able to find was one made by Wasatch Touring, tell them I sent you. The saw needs to be 24″ long, no shorter. It helps to have a cord loop so you can dangle the saw from one wrist as you position the blocks into place. You’ll see why.
Stomp out a level platform with skis or snowshoes larger than you think you’ll need. If the snowpack is layered with old crusts, surface hoar layers or faceted crystals at the bottom, you may need to boot pack the area and then stomp it down with skis – and even then the blocks may break when you try to move them. Once you stomp out a platform, don’t walk on it, and have lunch. The longer you wait, the better the blocks. The secret to a good igloo is good blocks!
Make a circle whose diameter matches your height, and start cutting blocks in a straight line from the outside working your way in. This trench will be your door. Blocks should be about 6 inches thick, 24″ tall and at least 30″ wide. If you are right-handed, start making a circle of slanted-in blocks in a counterclockwise direction. Chink in all the holes between blocks, using a bigger than average block to bridge the doorway trench, cutting an arch into its underside so it won’t break. Once the first circle is complete and frozen in place, cut a downward spiral from left to right when viewed from the inside from the top of the blocks down to the stomped-out snow platform. The spiral should cut through about a quarter of the circumference. Ok, now the fun begins.
Add blocks to the spiral from the lowest part of the downward cut, ever spiraling upward, always with two very important things in mind: Each row of blocks slants in toward the center more than the row below it; every new block touches the older blocks in ONLY THREE EXACT PLACES, that is, the two bottom corners and the top corner. If a rectangular block is touching in only these three places it will be stable in three-dimensional space – which is what keeps the whole thing from falling down, so pay attention and do it.
Set each block onto the row below it, carving out the middle section between the two corners with the saw. Then lean the block in until it touches the adjacent block, sawing gently the intersection between them at about a 45 degree angle, until the new block is leaning in enough and the bottom side edge is not touching the old block – remember, only the top side edge touches or the block will fall. Sawing these intersections between blocks is when you will like having the saw dangling from your wrist so you can instantly grab it when necessary. Keep spiraling upward, standing in amazement as blocks fit neatly into place even when they are slanting in at what seem to be impossible angles. If you run into a particularly bothersome block, you can try cutting the top of the block below it into a level platform so the new block will like its resting place better; or, try using a longer, more rectangular block as square blocks are generally not as stable as horizontal ones. Sometimes just substituting a new block will cure many problems. The final block at the top is usually an irregular one, cut from inside, angled all around until it falls into place with a satisfying clunk. Carefully chink all the holes between blocks so everything will freeze solidly. Then shovel out the inside so it is big enough for two and gear. You can actually tunnel beyond the initial block circle if you need more space, but be careful not to step there as you might fall through.
Now you must turn your attention to the entry, or “torsho” as the Inuit call it. Place about 3 blocks in a straight line on top of either side of the trench where you began cutting your blocks, then make a right angled turn and place 2 or 3 more. Now for the really fun part. In the best part of your snow quarry, cut out a block like a u-shaped magnet, wide enough to span the trench. Make a mitered one at the 90. Digging out the trench so it is lower than the floor of the igloo will make it easier to go in & out, and also creates a cold air sink so the igloo stays warmer. Be sure to make a little hole by your stove so you won’t suffocate, but generally igloos breathe much better than tents.