We have had a touch of snow in parts of the UK, and for some reason (probably struggling to think of a suitable blog topic) the following tale related by Mark Seaton about a trip he did back in 2006 with some clients, including my friend John, came to mind.
Mark had no objection then to my printing his report in a newsletter that I edit, so I trust he has no objection to my repeating that exercise here.
Given all the brilliant reports on his trips from John and others, if I ever use a Chamonix guide I will seek Mark out. He sounds a really excellent guide, so even though I have never met him, I would unreservedly recommend him for any level of Alpine guiding, summer or winter. Check him out here. And the pictures on his blog indicate that he has been practicing The Art of Iglooism quite recently, as has Chris Townsend who reports in February's TGO magazine on a trip in Yellowstone with 'Igloo Ed' the man behind the igloo making kit used by Mark.
The Art of Iglooism
“So you’ve bought what? Did I hear you right?” John asked
“Yes I’ve bought an Igloo making machine!” I proudly reconfirmed and then added
“We are going to take it into the mountains and build a perfect igloo. And then we are going to sleep in it.”
“Who are we?” Peter asked
“You guys seem like good candidates!” I offered
“No way!” they chorused
“Okay” I shrugged while secretly banking on them taking the bait
Picture the scene. Peter, John Nigel and I, their Mountain Guide, were all sitting in a mountain restaurant. It was snowing like mad and the avalanche danger was getting higher and higher and our options as to what we might do were rapidly diminishing.
“More wine anyone?” Peter asked
The Igloo would not leave the conversation and the team could not resist asking more questions:
"Have you tried it out yet?" Asked Nigel
“Yes I built a 7 footer in the garden for the children.”
“How long did it take?” They asked.
“About 3 hours. It was perfect.” I boasted
More wine anyone?
“Will it be cold?” John asked
“No the temperature hovers around zero - I have some sleeping bags you can borrow.”
“I have always been fascinated by Igloos - maybe it would be a good idea.” Nigel reflected
“Another bottle?” More questions and then suddenly we had an Igloo Building Team.
So an adventure was born. I had been searching the web attempting to find out how I could build some snow sculptures for my daughter’s birthday party when I came across Grand Shelters and the “Ice Box.”
Two weeks later it arrived from the US. Bought straight from the Internet. Fundamentally it is a bottomless box which you pack snow into to form a block. The “Former” is attached to a long adjustable pole, which is stuck in the snow. You make a brick then move the former and make the next brick going around in a circle. The pole makes sure the Igloo is perfectly round. Once you have made the first layer you shorten the pole and continue until you spiral up and in and voila a perfect Igloo.
Traditionally Igloos are built out of hard packed snow which is cut out in blocks using a saw. Generally this type of wind packed snow is difficult to find anywhere other than the Arctic. Sometimes you can build them in the Cairngorms but it requires great patience and skill and it is very likely that there will be big gaps and cracks, which are hardly conducive to a good night’s sleep. In the British and European mountains the preferred method is to build a snow cave. [Extremely effective and an essential survival skill to develop if you plan to walk and climb in the Highlands in winter.] But snow caves are hard work to excavate and you need a massive drift of snow. In addition you get soaking wet building them. Hardly the ideal state to be in prior to sleeping in any sort of cave let alone one made of snow.
Anyway I was a bit worried that the team, in the cold light of the next day would have backed down. On the contrary their resolve seemed steely and Peter set off to buy what turned out to be formidable supplies. Food: A Gourmet spread from one of Chamonix’s delicatessens. Wine, which would be okay at room temperature: Champagne, plus [unbreakable] champagne flutes. Candles - for atmosphere.
We drove to the ski station of Combloux which is part of the huge Megeve lift system, manhandled our larger than normal rucksacks on to the lifts and rode them to the top. We attracted some strange looks, especially me because I was the only person skiing in France’s most fashionable resort with a saw strapped to his rucksack. (For cutting the door.]
We struck off the piste and with the aid of our ski-touring skis headed off to the “building site.” I must say that we choose a simply stunning position to site our Igloo. It was stuck out on a promontory looking across to the Mt Blanc Massif. Huge pine trees that were covered in fresh snow surrounded us.
We tramped the snow down with our skis and unpacked the Ice Box. I then announced that we would build an “11 footer.” This was a gigantic mistake probably brought on by a pique of over enthusiasm that seems to have beset recent British architectural projects. We started building at 3.30pm by 8.00pm the thing looked like a Millennium Dome and was about as on schedule for completion as the new Wembley stadium.
By 7.30 pm we had witnessed one of the most glorious sunsets that the Mt Blanc massif could ever deliver. But in spite of determined work we still only had a structure that looked a lot like a giant pudding.
By 8.30pm we had not managed to close the dome, which sported an opening the size of a pool table.
Suddenly all notions of Igloo authenticity deserted me and I decided that we should botch the roof by throwing some branches over the top and lobbing snow on the crown.
“There finished.” I said in a way that was meant to suggest that the branches had always been the Eskimo’s preferred method of Iglooism.
The night’s silence was broken by a “pop” as Peter opened the champagne [nicely chilled] and we strolled around our Igloo as if we were at some sort of bizarre themed cocktail reception.
Next I fired up the stove ready for our soup while we sipped champagne and passed the hors-d’oeuvres between us as we now sat in our sleeping bags.
We retired to bed by merely blowing out the candles. It would be untruthful to claim that we had an entirely peaceful nights sleep, but this was down to one of our team being in the British snoring team and nothing to do with sleeping in an Igloo.
Next morning we were awoken by the sun streaming in through our perfectly positioned easterly facing door. Inspiring us for another day in the mountains.
Although we journeyed through the mountains on skis, snowshoes would be functional. So anyone wishing to build Igloos in the Alps need not be able to ski.
The Ice Box can be bought through http://www.grandshelters.com/. It comes with an instructional VHS video.
Further information from Mark Seaton. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
© Mark Seaton - 2006