The Snow Cave

there's snow place like home

The plan seemed simple enough drive up to the mountains for a weekend of cross-country skiing, but instead of sleeping in a cramped tent, my friends and I would construct a roomy snow cave. I'd never built a snow cave before, but it sounded easier than setting up a tent in the wind, although probably more time-consuming. We were headed for Donner Summit in the Sierra, where a recent storm had built up the snow pack to over 16' of cold, reasonably dry snow. There were four of us and four snow shovels, but we took tents along just in case.

Our efforts to get an early start proved to be "unfruitful" and the 5 hour drive to the mountains seemed more like 10 with the top speed of our VW van never reaching normal freeway speed. Two of us were sleeping in the back, I was half sleeping in the passenger seat, and our driver was hopefully awake when we skidded to a stop at the end of the plowed road where we would spend the night.

To our good fortune the highway department had used their rotary plow to create a huge wall of snow along the road, and we just pulled in facing the snowbank and used the van's headlights to illuminate our work area. Here is where a choice had to be made if we kept the engine running while the headlights were on it would save the battery but might come close to draining the remaining quarts of gas that were in the fuel tank, but if we shut the engine off to save gas we might run the battery down by keeping the headlights on. The decision was made to keep the engine off, as we could "always just push start the van" if the battery died. For some reason this appeared to be a decision based upon sound judgement, and we piled out of the van and began digging away.

We began with one person digging out an entrance tunnel, which would be widened out after a few feet into the main room of the cave, where we would all sleep. As the first person twisted around to dump their shovel full of snow behind them, the second person would scoop the snow up and throw it to the side. Meanwhile, the other two people would stand around and offer lame suggestions while draining a half gallon jug of Hearty Burgundy to stay warm.

Soon the poor soul who got the first shift of digging reached what they figured was a sufficient distance for the entrance tunnel, and they backed out, offering to trade with someone else. The standees, although reluctant to give up their position as wine tasters, were eager to dig if for no other reason that the exercise might warm them up and the seemingly never-ending chore of digging snow might end sooner.

As each person rotated through the position of lead digger, snow thrower, and wine taster, we all came to the conclusion that if we ever have to dig another snow cave we would start earlier and bring larger shovels. Once the hollowing out of the "main room" began, we switched to having two people digging inside, one transferring their snow through the entrance tunnel to the outside, and the last person throwing the snow away from the entrance. Our progress continued this way as we levelled out four sleeping platforms and made sure that the ceiling had enough of a curve to it that drops of melting snow would slide down to either side, rather than just drip on us all night.

skiing at Donner Summit
skiing at Donner Summit

As we made finishing touches on our sleeping chamber we suddenly noticed that it had gotten very dark, and we turned to look at the doorway and saw that it was blocked by snow! Fearing an avalanche, we all squirmed around and began shoveling the snow from the entrance back into the sleeping room, not knowing how far we would have to dig or what we would find when we broke through to the outside. After only a foot or so of snow we reached the outside and eventually discovered that the guy who was in charge of keeping the entrance clear had walked away to pee, and his call out to those of us inside was never heard because of the soundproofing that several feet of snow provides. All the while we were throwing snow back into the entrance tunnel until we noticed that it was plugged up.

The diggers crawled back inside to finish up clearing out the rest of the snow and again we noticed that it wasn't as bright as before. Cursing the sentinel we stationed outside, we crawled out again and noticed that the headlights were now very dim. Attempts to start the van proved that the battery was dead, and here is where things got weird.

All of us worked at one time or another at a backpacking store in Santa Rosa where the low hourly wage was buffered by a decent employee discount we got on equipment. At that time some very thick and warm woolen mittens called Dachsteins were popular, and we all wore them proudly in lieu of pay. [pause for a moment and remember how your fingers can get "stuck" to a metal surface if it's very cold] Sizing up our resources, we figured that with one person driving and three pushing, and 50 miles of downhill road in front of us, we would just push start the van.

Releasing the parking brake, the van coasted back until the driver executed a sharp turn, which more or less pointed it down the road. The rest of us assumed the position in back, pushing on the cold metal surface of the back and hollering at the driver to release the brake so we could start pushing. Seconds ticked away as the driver, with the windows rolled up against the cold, awaited the OK signal from us. Meanwhile, as we started to push we instantly realized that the road was frozen and we just slipped every time we started to push. Seconds turned into minutes as we slid around in back before the van began to creep forward. Each time we pushed we slid two feet backward as the van moved one foot forward. Soon our incredibly inefficient movements, coupled with the steep grade, got the van moving at a pretty good pace, and we hollered in vain for the driver to pop the clutch.

This is where an interesting lesson in physics came into play if you try to jump start a vehicle on an icy surface, the rear wheels will actually turn backwards. I have no idea why this happens, but it did. Next is where things really got interesting as the van miraculously came to life as we were running downhill behind it on a frozen road and the driver having the windows closed, we realized as we attempted to let go of the van that our hands (or the mittens anyway) were stuck, and we couldn't!

Now we were just being dragged behind the van helplessly, skidding along on our boots. Trying to slide our hands out of the tight-fitting mittens was futile, and suddenly the van skidded to a stop, much to our relief. The driver opened the door and looked back for some sign of us along the road, but we were behind the van and he couldn't see us. Yelling loudly we alerted him to our situation, and at a standstill we were able to extricate our hands from the still frozen mittens, which we freed up by pouring some wine down behind them. We all started laughing hysterically as we tried to imagine what it would have been like if the driver had continued down the road to a gas station a few miles from where we were with us reluctantly following along behind.

As we drove back up to the snow cave, we decided to turn around and park headed downhill, in case the battery was dead in the morning. We dragged all of our sleeping gear into the snow cave and began to set up "camp". Tiny shelves were scraped out of the walls to hold candle lanterns, and we all were surprisingly comfortable. The temperature never got below freezing, there was no wind noise and certainly no noise from the flapping of a tent, and there was plenty of light for reading (and drinking).

skiing at Donner Summit
skiing at Donner Summit

Without being able to see the sky, it was difficult to tell what time it was, so I looked at my watch and it read 9:00 o'clock. Thinking that I had slept the entire night and it was now morning I sat upright and looked around. The others were still asleep, so I rolled out of my bag and crawled over to the doorway, only to discover that it was 9:00 o'clock at night. Crawling back to my sleeping bag, I had a few more swallows of wine to help settle into the long winter night.

In the middle of a really weird dream I woke up with a terrible headache. The snow cave was filled with a dense cloud of smoke, and I faintly smelled what seemed like automobile exhaust. I got up and crawled to the doorway and saw the back end of an idling pickup truck. It was parked right outside of the entrance to our cave, thanks to our decision to park the van across the road. I managed to slither out of the cave and ran up to the driver's side door and pound on the window, scaring the shit out of the guy inside. He rolled the window down a bit and I hurriedly explained about our situation. Fortunately he took my incoherent ramblings to heart and pulled forward a few feet and shut the engine off. I thanked him profusely and crawled back inside the cave to check on the others.

They all woke up a bit slower than usual and with much convincing on my part got dressed and exited the warmth of the snow cave into the early morning chill outside. I explained what had happened and we were all glad that things turned out like they did, as there was no way I could have alerted the driver to what was going on if he had parked another foot closer to the snowbank, as my hollering from inside the tunnel couldn't be heard outside. This "sobering" event caused us to begin a de-sobering ritual, as more wine was retrieved from the van and we heartily toasted the morning unfolding around us. What we did (or didn't) do the rest of the weekend has drifted away from my memory. No matter how eventful a skiing trip might have been, it was no match for the simple building of a snow cave.