Something big happened to me this weekend: I stopped being afraid of snow.
We’d go to a park in the middle of the city — the type that feels like wilderness, but you’re never out of cell phone range. We’d spend a couple of hours building a snow fort, shmooze about the experience around a campfire, and get a good nice sleep in a cozy but surprisingly roomy snow hut. In the morning, we’d drink coffee and wax eloquent about how peaceful the night was and how well we slept. Then we’d pack up and be home by 10 a.m.
This was not that experience.
The First Warning
The first warning came when we showed up for the lecture Tuesday night: we were the oldest people in the room, the only ones with children (much less a disabled child), and by far the least fit. BY. FAR. I cannot emphasize enough how intimidated I was by that roomful of gorgeous, ripped, 20-somethings.
The second warning came as we drove up the mountain. I had understood the instructor to say the location was thirty minutes from the university, but we drove and drove.
Turns out it was an hour and thirty minutes. Up in the Canadian Rockies. In winter.
Yes, I know. Duh, right? Nobody’s going to hold a snow shelter class in summer. But somehow I didn’t expect winter to be so damn wintery.
We had to walk more than an eighth of a mile to our site — a high ridge that lies perpendicular to the prevailing winds, so snow drifts in huge piles. And I mean huge. Our teacher probed the drift with a five-meter (fifteen foot) pole — and he was nowhere near touching ground.
I learned how to walk in deep snow. Up steep hills (kick, step; kick, step) and down them (heel first). And how to get back up if you step on a soft spot and sink thigh high (roll onto your side, smooshing the snow down around you as you do).
We chose to build a snow cave (where you dig into an existing snowbank) because it’s the fastest and easiest way to build a good-sized shelter — and we were two, out-of-shape middle-agers building a home for four!
The only style of snow shelter our group did not attempt was the quinzee: a snow cave you can make even if you don’t have a drift to dig into. You pile up your own drift, let it settle for one to three hours, and then dig.
I did the first round of block cutting. It was very satisfying to remove big chunks of snow in neat, square packages. I was surprised how substantial the blocks are.
We kept all the blocks in one place (which we called “the brickyard”), to use when we had to close off the door.
Once we got under the roofline, it was much more difficult to remove neat blocks because you could only cut out the sides, not the back.
The snow also became quite a bit harder the further in we dug. We would loosen the snow with the saw first, and then chip it out however it would come. And then we had to haul it out of the cave.
But it was exhausting work no matter how we did it, done most of the time either sitting or on hands and knees.
See the orange handle sticking out of the snow to the left of the entrance? That’s the saw we used to cut blocks. Our instructor told us never to just set it down because you could lose it easily under falling snow or snow you were shoveling out. We were always careful to stick it in the snow with the handle jutting out like that.
At least — that’s the theory. We had finished the cave, doorway and all, when we set it flat on the snow just one time, while we tested the doorway. It wasn’t quite big enough, so we shoveled down a bit more and …
Yep, you guessed it. The saw disappeared. We sifted through our snow pile and looked under all the blocks, but we never found it. Our instructor said he’d just have to come back for it in the Spring.
When the cave was big enough for two, the kids took turns sitting inside where it was warm and throwing larger chunks of snow out the door. The Animator even took a turn or two with the shovel.
They got bored fairly quickly though. Girly Girl sat down where she could watch and covered herself with a “snow blanket,” which she said made her much warmer. She didn’t move for a couple of hours.
Once when our instructor popped by to check our progress, he asked if she was OK. Mars called over to her, and she quite cheerfully announced that she was fine.
Mars told me later how impressed he was that our instructor never flinched when we showed up with a disabled child. He said that one question — “Is she OK?” — was the only hint the instructor ever gave that he even recognized an additional risk. Talk about inclusion!
I ate my lunch there because it was surprisingly comfortable. Except for one big vulnerability.
See all the snow on the branches beside it? Our instructor walked past while I was eating lunch, and he just couldn’t resist shaking the tree.
Yeah, you never know what young boys will find amusing, eh?
Speaking of which … this is The Animator too.
Yes, that black blob, just to the right of the little tree.
Or, strictly speaking, this is The Animator’s body, sans head. He found it amusing to lie with his head and hands tucked into the snow under his body, and his butt stuck up in the air.
Must be his father’s influence.
In the meantime, Mars and I shoveled snow out of our snow cave while, at the top of the ridge, a group of Australians were building an Inuit igloo.
Last year I read the haunting book Touch by Alexi Zentner, and there’s a scene where the northern town gets socked by thirty feet or so of snow. A couple gets trapped in their barn, and though they can look over the drift from the hayloft, they dare not step onto it for fear of falling through the snow and being buried.
It was a powerful scene, and it stuck with me. I’ve been afraid to walk in deep snow since. Yes, I know their snow was fresh, and that they did walk on it later … but still.
When our instructor told us we’d be digging into (and sleeping under!) a huge snowdrift, it hit my trigger in a big way. I had to keep telling myself, he knows what he’s doing. He knows what he’s doing.
I had to repeat it to myself – he knows what he’s doing – when I realized the Australians were directly above us.
Yes, that’s right. They were building their igloo right on top of us. On our roof, so to speak.
But it turns out, the instructor did know what he was doing. You can walk on a snowdrift that is twenty feet high without falling in and smothering.
In fact, you can dig into it while hunky Australians build above you, and you’ll still be safe. At least, until they smile at you.
The Third Warning
Our third warning came when our instructor said our cave wasn’t nearly big enough. “Gotta be twice the size at least.” He glanced at his watch. “It’s two o’clock. You’ve got about three more hours. You don’t want to be digging in the dark.”
Mars and I were exhausted. But the temperature had already begun to drop, and a severe winter storm was coming in. We had to keep digging.
(To be continued)