“This must have been what it was like completing the channel tunnel,” said the guide crouched next to me as a spade shot through the wall beside me, revealing a ring of German voices and grinning faces.
We had already been working on our caves for a few hours, which you could tell from the way my gloves and trousers were soaked to the skin. Proudly I can say that, being the smallest person in the group, I helped out a fair amount with the construction. Trust me, being curled up to fit into a tiny hole is no fun. Especially when the only way to enlarge said hole is to scrape snow off the walls and pile it in the entrance. In those couple of seconds when the circle of sunlight shrinks, I got very thankful that I don’t suffer from clostriphobia.
Despite the tight working conditions, that day was one of the best days. Building the snow cave was great, seeing it go from barely a dent in the snow to a space large enough to fit six people was a proud moment.
The design of our cave was fairly basic; there was a trench dug into the side of a hill, getting progressively deeper (we tried adding steps at some point, but they didn’t last long). At the end of this there was an entrance, which was a hole just big enough to fit a person through. After this we dug upwards and outwards, so the cave opened up, it was maybe a meter or so tall. On the far side from the entrance we also constructed a rudimentary sleeping ledge, in the end we managed to fit 5 people along this. Then to the side there was another opening, which linked up the adjacent cave.
Would I recommend building one? Yes. Would I recommend sleeping in one? Let me get back to you on that.
You could say it was the worst night’s sleep I ever had, but that would have meant that I got to sleep at some point. In hindsight, I should’ve worn several hundred more layers, and used a bigger tarpaulin. But hey, hindsight is a wonderful thing.
After dinner and the required talks (you really don’t want to know about the improvised toilet the guides supplied) everyone dispersed back to their respective snow caves, of which there were 3, along with one improvised igloo.
Despite the cold it wasn’t all bad though; in the cave there wasn’t room enough for everyone to get ready for bed at once, so I ended up waiting outside (that was good though, I think it was warmer out in the open) luckily the clouds that had been brewing earlier in the evening had mostly cleared. I can now say I actually know which constellation is on the New Zealand flag.
The real trouble arrived when it wast turn to get ready for bed. Struggling to take off boots and ski-trousers without a) falling over and b) touching the wet snow in small space made entirely of snow was an interesting challenge. We’d also ended up building our sleeping ledge on a slight slope, which meant that we had to dive head first onto it, with the hope that you made it. The 5cm gap between my face and the roof made moving difficult, I actually ended up with only a half zipped up sleeping bag, because I didn’t have enough space to move my arm down.
Whilst we lay shivering in our cave, the exchange students next door blasted out German pop and had a mini snowball fight, I’m pretty sure that once the laughter died down and the night crept in, that they regretted that a bit.
The worst part about the cave was definitely the cold though, I had on my big ski jacket and gloves, but sadly wearing only thermal leggings doesn’t quite cut it. If I had to guess, I’d say I lost the feeling in my legs 3 hours in? It was a very long night spent waiting for the glow of dawn to seep through the entrance.
Perhaps I am being melodramatic, after all, I spent the night in a snow cave! Waking up in the morning was magical, and crawling out of what was described as a ‘frozen coffin’ to a Christmas card of falling snow, put a mystical glamour over the whole experience. There was just white, it seemed to absorb everything around it.
Much to our disappointment we never got to collapse in our caves.
Instead we just shovelled snow to conceal the entrances and tramped back down to the hut in search of breakfast. The guides also let us know that they were intending to let next weeks group sleep in those snow caves too. Yeah.. We weren’t too happy about that.
Regardless of lack of sleep, Hoth-like conditions and damp thermals, I would do it again and hopefully then I could actually say that I slept in the snow cave.