Our spacious little home felt decidedly less so once we got all of our gear inside — four backpacks, four rolled-up foam pads, four thermarest mattresses, and four rolled-up sleeping bags. The kids have down sleeping bags, which also had to be slipped into bivouac sacks to keep them dry and warm.
To make the beds, we had to move all the gear and bodies to one side of the tent while one person worked. Then we switched sides to repeat the process.
Girly Girl dozed off, sitting up, before her bed was ready. We had to wake her up, and then teach her how to lie down to remove her snow suit and how to slide into the bag.
But eventually both kids were tucked in. They were asleep before we even got our snow pants off. And Mars fell asleep seconds after he finally laid down.
I, on the other hand, couldn’t sleep.
For one thing, it was utterly silent. We’d been told snow shelters are soundproof, but the actual experience was a profound silence. Almost too silent.
And my bum was cold, though the cave was warm enough. But the floor had a slight incline, so I kept sliding into the ice wall. I finally dug my jacket out of the stuff-bag pillowcase and draped it over my hip, and I was fine after that.
But I couldn’t stop worrying. I worried the kids were cold. I worried (knowing it was ridiculous) that the cave would collapse. Heck, remembering what a process it was to get undressed, I worried that I might have to go to the bathroom.
Worst of all, the altitude was getting to me (probably compounded by a snow mold allergy), and I struggled to breathe.
I thought about getting my inhaler, but I wasn’t sure where my backpack was, and I didn’t want to wake everyone by looking for it. So I lay in my sleeping bag, trying not to hyperventilate, reminding myself to take big, slow breaths.
Ever notice that breathing correctly is like trying not to think about red elephants? The minute you become aware of it, it’s impossible.
I finally got to sleep, but I woke with my face against the ice wall, thrashing from a nightmare I cannot remember. Another time, I woke coughing (probably from allergies).
And every time Girly Girl woke up, she turned on her flashlight — which woke me up. Ironically, this was comforting. She sleeps with a night light at home, so I was afraid the dark would bother her. But she just turned on a flashlight, and after a few seconds, turned it off and went back to sleep. I was comforted to know she had the light if she needed it — and that she felt safe enough to turn it off.
Still, I spent much of the time just wishing the interminable night were over, and thinking I was never going to do this again!
Eventually, the sun came up, and the light shining blue through the snow wall was lovely.
On his way out, Mars kicked down the toboggan we’d used to block the door, and sunlight streamed in. It looked like a gorgeous day.
I couldn’t wait to get out of the cave, and I promised myself I wasn’t coming back in — not ever. Not for nothing!
The first thing I did was dig out my inhaler, and immediately, I could breathe again. I felt a bit stupid for not doing it earlier.
It was surprisingly easy to get back into my clothes, nothing like the struggle I’d pictured in the night. I’d removed the felt liner to my boots, and they were much easier to put on separately.
I was just about to crawl out when Mars poked his head back in — holding a steaming cup of coffee. Bless the man! Everything looks better after coffee.
A few minutes later, I crawled out the door …
Only to find a fierce snowstorm raging outside. We learned later that Calgary got hit with the worst snowstorm in years Sunday morning, and the mountain got even more.
Fortunately, we didn’t know that then. I pulled the balaklava over my nose, and trudged off to the bathroom. Our path was covered with new snow, but it was easy to follow though I had to keep my head down to avoid the blowing snow.
I passed the snow cave the Australians had dug late Saturday (after building the Scottish igloo), but the door was still blocked by a backpack. No one else was up. And the warming shed was about to be taken over by a new crop of cat skiers. I had nowhere else to go but back to the cave.
When I finished breakfast, I started cleaning up — gathering wet gloves and toques, stuffing sleeping bags, and rolling up mats. I was about halfway done when Mars came back with two Australians in tow, wondering if we had anything ready to carry back to the van.
“I think people are worried about the storm,” he said. “I told our instructor, if we didn’t have the warming shed and a plowed road — if we really were out in the wilderness — we’d be in big trouble.”
“What did he say?” I asked.
“He said we’d be hooped.”
I stuffed as fast as I could and threw bags and backpacks out the door as I finished. We sent the last three thermarests out flat (they’re hard to roll up because you have to squish all the air out).
I grabbed the last backpack and took Girly Girl’s hand to make the final walk out while Mars dragged out the tarp.
We passed the Australian’s snow cave one last time. The backpack was gone, and drifting snow had already half blocked the doorway. I realized then that our ordeal was not over.
Back at warming shed, we heard our instructor was putting chains on the university van. As soon as he was done, we headed down the mountain — at a crawl. Though the road had been plowed in the morning, a foot of snow had accumulated since, and it was treacherous.
I asked how he even knew where the road was, and he said, “I’ve driven this road 500 times this year.”
At the parking area, we transferred into our own vehicles, but the drive back to Calgary was extremely slow and slippery.
We learned from the radio just how “crippling” the storm was, that highways across southern Alberta had been closed due to whiteout conditions, heavy snow, and blowing winds. We passed two different accidents — one that involved seven or eight vehicles, and another that involved fourteen (one a semi)!
Calgary itself was a mess. Even the TransCanada Highway going through town hadn’t been plowed. But the roads were pretty much clear by the time we reached Airdrie — not thirty kilometres north — so the rest of the trip was uneventful.
I was expecting Parks & Rec, not Wilderness Survival.
It was much more physically strenuous than I’d expected. I’m still, three days later, finding my body wants to sleep fourteen hours a day. My knees and hands are still quite sore, and I’m still coughing. It’s been a long time since I challenged myself physically like that.
There were moments I was honestly frightened — moments when I wasn’t sure where we were going to sleep, and how we were going to keep our children safe. Moments when I was so exhausted I thought I could not lift my foot one more time, much less throw another shovelful of snow, but I had no choice.
I’d forgotten how incredibly exhilarating that can be — to push yourself beyond what you believe yourself capable of doing. I’d forgotten how strong I am, that I have a will of iron.
And I learned some important things about snow. It needs to be respected, yes, but it isn’t all powerful. I’m not going to smother if I fall into a snowdrift, and it’s quite possible to walk even up and down steep, snow covered slopes. And I don’t need to hide inside when it’s snowing heavily and blowing.
In fact, the most dangerous part of the trip was probably when we stopped living in the snow and tried to drive in it.
I am so very grateful we did it. It was an incredible experience — life shaping, in a way.
Maybe it’s like childbirth — you forget the pain — because in retrospect, even after only three days, I’d definitely do it again. In a flash!
But I’d take Benedryl for the snow mold allergy, wear an eye mask to block the light, and keep my inhaler close at hand.