Caving In

Caving In

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Sinclair, Sarah Heuck
It was Matt’s idea to build the cave. He considered it good practice and although we’d reserved a warm, dry Forest Service cabin for the night, it seemed like a sensible way to pass a gray afternoon in the snow.

Despite the lure of the roaring fire inside the cabin, Matt, Alex, and I began digging a cave in the snow drift directly across from the front door. The guys had packed in their backcountry avalanche shovels and we took turns scooping. The drift had piled up against a rocky ledge and we slammed the flats of our shovels onto the top of the snow as we dug. We crammed it tight against the ledge. Alex lay flat on his stomach, pressed against the sloppy ground as he tunneled up and into the bank. The entrance to the small cave had to be dug from the ground up at a slight angle to trap the warmer air inside and to keep the cold drifting wind at bay. Alex dug diligently for a while, then backed out of the tunnel and handed me the shovel.

Digging In
I shimmied up into the growing void. My body slid easily through the short tunnel as I ducked my head into the slick snow. I felt the ground give under my weight and I instinctively pulled my elbows in close to my body, bracing for some kind of fall. But the snow settled and I picked my head up from the cold floor of the tunnel. Once I’d pushed my way into the space I stretched my arms out to plant the little two-foot shovel into the crusty snow. My feet poked out into the air behind me and moisture seeped into my wool socks. I wasn’t going to last long.

Still, I had something to prove. My two male counterparts were accustomed to outdoor challenge. I suppose on some level we all were. Like me, my friends grew up in the mountains of the West. All of us chose to spend much of our free time pushing through snow in search of labor-intensive fun. But mine was a fragile spirit. I always wanted to be the girl who could hang with the true outdoorsmen. Something called to me from the mountains and the cold, from the backcountry trails and the frigid mountain lakes. I desperately wanted to feel comfortable in the often uncomfortable world outside of literature classrooms and academia.

It was a hard-fought independence as I teetered dangerously between prissy girl bookworm and wannabe outdoor enthusiast. I learned to crave the lusty rush of adrenaline that accompanies a high-altitude hike. I reveled in my need for it all—I wanted to cast a perfect fly line, to snowshoe and ski and rock climb, and go for days without a shower. I wanted to eat freeze-dried fruit and drink iodine water by the gallon and I wanted to see the tops of mountains and the backsides of waterfalls. And so as the lone girl in the cave, I planned to prove myself content in the hardship of it all.

Trapped
The inside of the cave resembled the surface of a new golf ball—smooth and systematically concave. I heard myself draw a sharp breath. I rolled over and began stabbing at the top of the cave. The rotation did little for my precarious state of mind—I was quickly lost to vertigo. My head began to spin. The snow was suddenly blinding despite the gray, sunless day and the tight enclosure. I opened my mouth in a pathetic yelp, but the snow caught my words. They would never hear my cries for help beneath four feet of snow-pack. My stomach churned as I slid back out of the tunnel and flopped on the ground outside to catch my breath. Alex laughed. He was generally an easygoing roommate, but in an instant my self-loathing overwhelmed his charitable nature. I was completely defeated.

We dug for what seemed like hours. Eventually I went back into the cave, but by the time I’d regained my courage the little room was nearly six feet long and wide enough for the three of us to lay side by side. We could barely sit up or roll over in the space but the satisfaction of building our own sleeping quarters momentarily clouded my judgment. We talked eagerly about spending the night in the cave. Matt pushed his ski pole through the domed ceiling, poking a hole into the crisp night sky. He assured me I’d be just as warm in the snow as my indoor girlfriends were next to the fire. I went after my sleeping bag.

I settled in between the guys. We wore head lamps over our winter caps and mittens inside our down sleeping bags. The glow of the lamps careened off the soft edges of our shoveled walls. The inside of the cave was glazed over with the refrozen moisture of our breathing and the heat of our bodies. We laughed and shifted our weight against each other in a sloppy attempt to get comfortable with our sudden proximity.

I was the last to reach up and twist off my lamp. The darkness was bearable and expected, but the quiet took my breath away. Snow is a tremendous insulator. Sound stops dead in the cold air and hangs like a fog between expectant harbors. We didn’t talk because the snow sucked up our conversation. Somehow I slipped into a fitful sleep.

It was Chinese water torture—the drip, drip, dripping on my forehead. I screamed and grabbed at my face, but my arms were tied tightly to my sides. I squirmed against my mummied sleeping bag and thrashed my arms and legs wildly. The silence was suffocating. Matt didn’t move. Alex snored. And my screams were lost in the snow. I kicked hard in Matt’s direction and he opened his eyes. He looked at me, waiting for some sort of explanation. “It’s falling in,” I yelled.

Matt turned his head away and said nothing. Alex swallowed and started snoring again. I tried to sit up, my arms still inside the bag, and banged my head into the icy ceiling. I was getting out. I rolled over on top of Matt and woke him again. He grunted something about the stability of a domed structure and the impossibility of a collapse as he pushed himself to the middle of the cave. My already exhausted shoulders protested as I struggled to unzip my sleeping bag from the inside. I finally broke free and began backing down the tunnel of snow toward the winter sky.

Freedom
I stood up outside the cave and drew a labored breath. The moon was full and the night sparkled off the snow. My movement seemed to echo off the snow banks and bounce back to me like a sort of invisible boomerang. The pounding in my chest overwhelmed the beauty of the snow, the newly clear sky, and the dark trees. My ears rang and blood rushed away from head. And then slowly I was quiet. My head cleared and I felt the cold shudder through me.

It was as if a sliver of my soul was illuminated. There was nowhere to hide in the lunarscape of snow and ice, no shadows in the brilliant midnight light. I was left only with a nagging sense of self-doubt and a soggy sleeping bag at my feet. I’d forced myself out in the open and I was simultaneously terrified and grateful. Finally I could admit I wasn’t really cut out for this hardcore, I-lost-all-my-gear-and-started-a-fire-with-a-gum-wrapper-and-pine-needles adventure stuff. But I was aware, even glad, of the silent space around me. I’d showed up and I’d failed, but I was present

Nature again crept into my bones. Like a kid knee-deep in a freezing mountain creek, I was happy, oblivious, and utterly devoted to a moment of transitory perfection. Fear had forced me to experience the world I had been working so hard to master. I was not working or playing or proving anything. It was a new kind of freedom. I glanced toward the entrance of the cave. I looked in the other direction at the little log cabin. The old warped windows glowed with the heat of the fire. It seemed like a clear choice: either my fragile adventurer spirit or the comfort of my peers and the warmth of a communal fire place. I ran toward the cabin.

As we packed up the next morning, my girlfriends asked about the snow cave. I made excuses about staying in there more than half the night. I started to feign expertise as I made up something about our failure to dig the ceiling out enough. But mostly I laughed with them. I had fallen victim to my illogical anxiety, but it seemed hardly to be the point. Who knows if I could ever survive a snowy night alone in the Montana wilderness, but clearly I wouldn’t have to anytime soon. My carefully cultivated outdoor will was not broken, but buoyed by the good-natured ribbing of my friends. I was anything but alone in the snowy void.

I was the first to kick into my skis Sunday afternoon. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Matt jumping on top of the snow cave. He stomped through four feet of ice and snow for nearly ten minutes before the cave crumbled.



The Big Dig: Snow Caves 101
Snow caves are a popular way to avoid bringing a tent into the backcountry, but you have to know how to build them correctly. Here are some basic tips:

1. Build on the leeward side, and never at the base of a steep slope. You're asking for an avalanche.
2. Use more than just your shovel. Your ice axe and ski poles can help create air vents and cup holders, for example.
3. Carve out the floor to conform to your body. "Head dents" and "butt dents" make for a better night's sleep.
4. Don't build a fire in there unless you have adequate air flow. Otherwise, you'll smoke yourself out.
5. Remember to make room for your propane stove. Ditto on the airflow.

-Tina Orem



EtaPower EF Stove—PRIMUS
When the EtaPower EF stove arrived on my doorstep, I was initially taken aback by its large size, but it turns out the stove is actually a system consisting of a burner, a wind screen, a 2.1 liter cook pot with heat exchanger, a frying pan that doubles as a lid, a gripper, and a multitool. These items are all stored in an insulated bag that can be used to keep food or drinks warm.

The stove does what good stoves do. It sets up quickly, boils water fast—about 2.5 minutes for a couple liters—and adjusts temperature well so that you can rapidly boil or slowly simmer your favorite camp meal. Because the stove is so efficient, less fuel is needed. That means less to carry and less to throw away at the end of the trip. $100; primusstoves.com.

-Melynda Harrison

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