(Note this is Part 2 of a story. Please read Part 1 first.)
Exhausted as we were, we pushed on, comforting ourselves with the thought of those burly Australians working above us. Surely when they were done with their igloo, they’d come help our poor little family finish our snow cave.
There was a port-a-potty an eighth of a mile away, but we were supposed to use the trees if we only needed to urinate. Unfortunately, the drifts between us and any decent-sized trees were easily waist-deep on Girly Girl. And since her snow pants have suspenders, she would have to remove both layers of jackets, and then pull down her snow pants. Nor is she fast. She’s a very methodical mover.
So when she said she needed to pee, I hiked with her to the port-a-potty. In the meantime, Mars pressed The Animator into service to do my job, scooping the snow away from the door.
When I came back, Mars said The Animator was complaining that his feet were wet, despite good snow boots. I suggested changing his socks, but Mars said he already had.
Thirty minutes later, The Animator begged to be allowed to go to the warming shed, but we weren’t supposed to use it except in emergencies. The shed — part of a machine shop that holds a wood stove — was being used during the day by a catskiing group.
I sat him down on a snowbank and pulled off his boots. His wool socks were sodden. We’re still not sure whether he was just playing so actively that he filled his boots with snow (certainly possible) or whether he’s damaged the boots sufficiently to fail (also possible — he’s very hard on shoes). I dug out my spare pair of wool socks and put them on his feet.
An bit later, our instructor came by to say the Australians were concerned both about finishing before night and about the structural integrity of the igloo. They had decided to abandon the Inuit igloo and make a Scottish igloo instead.
So much for our rescue.
I went up to see the igloo before they demolished it to reuse the blocks. It was a beautiful sight. But put into perspective by the omnipotent mountains looming above it, the abandoned shelter was a fragile, temporary thing.
I could not imagine starting over at three p.m. I grabbed a shovel to help clear the new homesite, but soon I had to return to my own. Whether or not we had shelter for the night was clearly going to depend solely on Mars and me.
We settled into a routine. Mars worked inside, throwing snow out, while I used the tarp to pull it away from the door. We created an apron of snow right in front of the door, which periodically had to be shoveled further downhill. Occasionally, we switched jobs, to use different muscles.
Our instructor told us to start digging out to either side, rather than back, and that helped a lot. The snow that ran parallel to the ridge was much softer and easier to dig than the ice at the back of the cave.
At four o’clock we still had to close in the top of the doorway, to drop the level of the opening below the sleeping platform. That’s how a snow shelter works — the cold air drops to the door and out, while the warm air rises to the sleeping level.
The Animator again began to complain about his feet and begged to be allowed to go to the warming shed, so I asked our instructor if he could go. It was a little early, but he said he’d take him up. They disappeared up the steep path.
Mars and I continued to work. Time passed — far more time than I thought it should take for them to go to the warming shed. I began to worry that The Animator’s toes were frost-bitten. I pictured an emergency scene at the shed, with the instructor desperately trying to call for help.
I imagined rushing The Animator to the city for medical treatment — and I’ll admit that the possibility of having to spend the night in a nice warm hotel room with clean sheets and running water had a certain appeal. They’re only toes, after all.
It occurred to me that if we were going to be rushing The Animator to the emergency room, there really was no point in continuing to shovel out the cave. The Australians would, no doubt, be happy to finish it. It would get them into shelter far sooner than the igloo they’d just started.
So rather than continue to spend my flagging energy on the shelter I just knew we wouldn’t be using anyway, I casually mentioned to Mars that I was going to go check on The Animator. Fortunately, he thought it was a good idea.
I ran into our instructor on the way to the warming shed. “The Animator’s fine,” he said. “I told him to come back when he was ready.”
Sure enough. The Animator was fine. His socks were drying on a toast rack above the wood stove, and his bare feet (hardly even pink) were propped in front on a milk crate. I won’t allow myself to admit that I might have been just the tiniest little bit disappointed to see all ten toes, still attached and healthy.
Back to our homesite I went. After the warmth and laughter of the crowded warming shed, the cold seemed worse than ever. The wind had risen, and it cut through the balaklava to my cheeks. I was feeling the effects of the high altitude (not to mention a full day of heavy labor!), and I had to stop every two or three steps. But I slogged on.
Mars had started on the doorway. With the instructor’s help, he’d placed two big snow bricks on either side as pillars, and one long piece across them as a lintel.
“Now it’s just my jigsaw puzzle to solve,” Mars said, his tone much less cheerful than his words.
As the light dimmed, we cut and fitted snow blocks. What holds the blocks together is flat sides melding into each other. The larger an area that touches, the stronger the bond. So you want the blocks to have the largest possible flat area, pressed up tight. Without ever pressing down on the lintel, of course. Put too much pressure on the lintel, and down it comes.
I’d choose a block from the brickyard that looked like the right size and hand it to Mars. He’d cut it square and place it, filling gaps with loose snow when necessary. When we finished, we chinked the gaps that remained and threw loose snow on the whole thing.
We were nearly finished when Girly Girl announced she needed the bathroom. It was nearly dark, and I didn’t dare let her go alone. Nor would she have gone — she was terrified of the steep, slippery slopes even in daylight. I took both kids, and headed to the port-a-potty.
Afterward, we popped in to the warming shed to find it empty, and blessedly warm. We sat down for a moment — which stretched into ten minutes. I was just about to get up when the door opened, and Mars entered.
He had finished. We were deeply fatigued and famished, but we had a shelter to sleep in.
More surprisingly — we were done first. Yep, that makes me proud. Two old, out-of-shape fogies built a relatively roomy shelter for four, and finished before anyone else.
Of course, Mars did most of it himself. I helped, but he was amazing. Definitely a heroic figure! What girl doesn’t love a man who builds her a house with his two bare hands? Or gloved hands, in this case.
The next older couple, who had also chosen to build a snow cave, came in not longer afterward, but it was close to eight pm before the instructor and the Australians straggled in — tired but triumphant. They’d finished the snow trench, another snow cave, and a Scottish igloo big enough for the tallest of them to stand in.
Our dinner — canned chili (but a good brand, with big chunks of meat) and french bread — could have been chateaubriand for the way we scarfed it up. We didn’t feel much like shmoozing afterward though — just headed back to lay out sleeping bags and collapse.
Good thing. It was much harder than it sounded.
(To be continued)