In February, 1980 I arrived in Baker, Oregon after three days on a train from the Midwest. I was there with a group of mountaineering neophytes to participate in an Outward Bound Winter Camping/Ski Mountaineering course in the rugged Blue and Wallowa mountains of eastern Oregon.
During the next three weeks I lost 24 pounds, learned to a cut a smooth telemark, slice through untouched snow on skis and to build a shelter that made a brutal Rocky Mountain blizzard a somewhat enjoyable experience.
Part of the Outward Bound curriculum was spending two days alone in the wilderness, living off of dry rations and sleeping in the snow using recently acquired winter survival skills.
Prior to our solo jaunts into the wilderness we were paired up with a companion from our group to spend two days together honing our survival skills. I was paired with a likable Irishman from Kentucky named Finn, who was lean of limb with red hair and a red beard and preparing himself for graduate school by taking the OB wilderness survival class.
On a sunny, frigid February morning, my new Irish pal and I set off into the wilds of Oregon’s Blue Mountains to prepare for our solo adventures. As we embarked we learned that a major winter storm was coming our way and that we should set up camp well before dark, in whatever manner we thought appropriate.
After traipsing through three-foot deep powder basins for an hour or two we decided to prepare for the storm to build a snow cave for shelter.
Our abode was a simple mound of snow that we excavated into a cocoon, our protection against the coming storm that was expected to dump more than three feet of snow in less than 24 hours. Our snow cave proved to be warmer and more comfortable than any piece of manufactured equipment at our disposal.
Building a snow cave
With all the telltale signs of heavy weather moving our way, our first task was to choose a flat site away from any perceived avalanche danger. Since we were already above 6,000 we had more than 8 feet of snow below us to work with. We chose an area in the open where we could pile snow with relative ease and build a shelter that could accommodate the two of us.
We started by making a large mound using light-weight plastic shovels brought along for that purpose. We moved snow until our mound was about five feet high and long and wide enough to accommodate the two of us. We then tamped it down a bit to give it some compaction and strength.
In an emergency, if shovels are not available any device such as a ski, snowshoe, cooking pot or even hands can be used. We let the mound settle for about an hour and went in search of pine boughs we could use as sleeping mats, a luxury not often available in emergency situations. Back from our bough search, Finn and I took turn digging a trench outward from the leeward side of the mound. For protection from the coming winds we made the trench about shoulder deep.
Shaping the interior
Once the trench was dug we began tunneling into the mound by getting on our knees and digging upward to make an entrance to our living area. We had been told by our OB advisors that ideally the tunnel entrance should be at least a foot below the living area to prevent warm air from escaping.
We took turns excavating and hauling snow from the cave. Moving the snow became a major task at this point and we dozered with shovel and shoulder moving snow from our living area out beyond the cave-site.
Once we had the cave hollowed out we began carving out two sleeping ledges and a storage space for our packs and shelving for candles, a mini lantern, a single burner stove and a picture of Mom.
We were told by our OB instructors that the cave walls should be at least 12 inches thick and the thicker the walls the more stable the structure. With this in mind we dug out the interior into an area large enough to allow us to sit upright and smoothed out the rough spots throughout the structure.
As we progressed our attention turned to the increasing wind and dropping temperatures. With only an hour or more of daylight we had started our construction none too soon.
Soon the storm was in full fury. Snow piled up and the wind blew at gale force as we put the finishing touches on our shelter/home.
Our elevated sleeping ledges allowed us to be nearer the warmer air in the upper part of the cave. Using a ski pole, Finn punched a 2-inch diameter ventilation hole through the roof that allowed warm air from body heat or a burning candle or stove to exit the cave and prevent a dripping, melting ceiling.
And then the storm
That night and through most of the next day we had to check the vent hole at regular intervals to prevent it from becoming clogged. We had to actually go outside and remove snow from the cave roof to keep the vent hole open. We also had to dredge the trench to prevent it from filling up with the blowing and drifting snow.
Outside our shelter the wild howled and roared as the blizzard rolled through the upper elevations of the Blue Mountains dumping enough snow to cover a passenger car. The wind chill factor was well below zero and the snow kept coming.
Inside the cave we could barely discern the commotion that was going on out there on the mountain. Thanking the snow gods that neither of us were talkers, we settled in with books we brought along, reading by candlelight.
As the storm roared on we took turns putting on our snow pants and heavy jackets and lumbering out through the tunnel to clear snow from the vent hole and trench. At one point in the night Finn had been gone a lot longer than it usually took to clear the vent and sweep the roof. Having been out there I knew that a single misstep or two and Finn would be out of sight of the cave as it was not only dark but we were in white-out conditions.
Finally, to my relief, Finn lumbered back into the cave and I flashed a light on his ice-caked beard. While pulling off his parka and removing his boots he said, “I’ve been stuck at the base of some rugged places in the Appalachian Mountains and I was stuck in a swamp one night in Georgia but I have never in my life have I been in a more inhospitable place that was more enjoyable than this.”