04 December 2008
Note: Many of these articles are very old, and although the technical information is still relevant the equipment mentioned may not be (for example a Stormy cooker was state of that art in 1995, but not in 2021).
When it comes to total mountain protection, be it for emergencies or long-term mountain habitation, nothing beats the snow shelter. Once cocooned within its icy walls you are totally protected from the elements, safe from wind, cold and storms and although you can buy £500 tents that have swing tags that offer the same capabilities, when it comes to the real deal you’ll be snoozing away in your snow palace long after the tent has been shredded and, best of all, they’re free, requiring only the investment of time and energy.
The problem with most text on snow holing is that it comes from a North American perspective, which is really geared towards the backwoodsman (or woman), a bearded creature (that includes the ladies), usually dressed in camouflage and toting a 200 litre fame pack with rifle attached.
The problem with this is although they may have lugged all the tools of the snow trade with them (most probably 200 yards from their SUV), you on the other hand will no doubt have nothing but your winter climbing gear on hand to build your home. The other problem is that most articles assume you have half the day to spend building your shelter, which usually isn’t the case in a mountain environment, so all in all most of the stuff you read about snow holes is just a guide and needs to be modified to be of use to us non-camouflaged climbers.
Now I’ve spent several months living in snow holes, from cushy four-berth, two-room jobs that you could live in for weeks, to confined coffin designs that were so bad they would give you nightmares about being buried alive - made all the worse because when you awoke screaming you actually discovered that you were. But one thing all these snow holes has taught me is that, firstly, none of them conformed to the ideal snow hole design, which is to have the entrance below the sleeping level so as to trap warmth and, secondly, that they require proper tools and hours of time.
This type of snow hole may not be ideal but requires nothing more than what you would normally have on you. This improvised equipment includes:
The adze and pick are used on the snow face to chop and hack the snow away, with the larger the adze the better. When using your adze it’s usually best to flick the adze into the hard snow and level out chunks, or just use it to scrape away the snow. When using your axe watch out for your partner’s and your own face as it’s very easy to get carried away, resulting in a nice bloody red effect across the walls.
This can either be a full length mat, or just the piece of mat out of the back of your ‘sack, but this is used to kneel on when digging and to remove debris from inside the hole. This is done by laying it down and pushing as much debris (the big chunks) on to it so the whole lot can be slid out of the door by someone pulling outside. It can also be used sideway to push the contents out of the door.
This can be used to bulldoze the debris out of the hole, either pushed or pulled.
This can be used to remove debris or dig into soft snow, but care must be taken not to damage it and any snow should be removed once finished, otherwise it may freeze in place.
These can be used for marking the depth of the snow hole when building, or even for cutting or shaping snow blocks.
If you have pans then these can be used as shovels in soft snow.
These are very useful for probing for deep areas of snow when deciding where to begin digging your shelter and models with removable baskets work best for probing. They are also useful for judging and marking out the snow hole when digging and for keeping your air hole open and marking the entrance when leaving the hole for the day (for this role the pole should have reflective tape applied to it so you can find it in the dark).
Well this is pretty basic, just find a snowdrift or area of snow that will allow you to dig into it and then dig away. If the snow is very unconsolidated or wet then you will probably be safer digging a snow pit, but most of the time it’s possible to find enough snow to dig a hole.
To begin with, assuming there are two of you, one person begins digging while the other person removes debris. Both people should wear full waterproofs and remove enough layers to stay comfortable when active (a duvet/belay jacket can be swapped between the digger and debris-removing second). If the weather is very bad then the non-digging person can become very cold so it’s best to rotate every five or 10 minutes. If possible try digging uphill slightly, but don’t worry if you end up just digging straight in. Once you’ve formed a tunnel that is deep enough to allow you both to lay head to toe (about one and a half to two metres from the entrance) begin digging sideways to form the sleeping chamber. By digging to the depth you will be sleeping at first you’re able to check that the snow is deep enough. The digger can help the second by pushing back the snow on the floor with their arms and legs and if a Karrimat is used then they can kneel on it while digging then just take their weight of it while the second pulls it back out of the hole with all the debris piled on top. Once the snow hole is big enough then both climbers can start digging, pushing the debris back behind them as they dig.
In order to keep the walls suitably thick (the softer the snow the thicker the walls) stick probes through the walls at several spots (ski pole sections, rucksack staves) to act as a guide, otherwise you may find you tunnel back out into the raging storm.
Eventually the snow hole will begin to take shape and at this point you should designate a side each and enlarge it to your taste (and haste), first making sure there is enough room to lay out without your body touching the sides and that you have enough headroom to comfortably sit up. If this is an emergency shelter and you don’t have a sleeping bag then try and make it as small as possible to contain the most heat as possible (if you have a bothy bag then make it big enough to sit inside your bothy bag). Finally, scrape the roof so it is as smooth as possible so as to reduce drips and cut holes in the inside walls to hold personal items.
Once finished both climbers should brush each other off then one person should go outside and pass both the Karrimat inside so that it can be arranged properly (laid on top of a bothy bag if you have one), followed by the rucksacks. The person inside should remove all the contents and store them neatly around the sides of the hole (to keep your sleeping bag off the walls), leaving sleeping bags in their stuff sacks for the time being. The outside climber should collect all gear left outside as it will no doubt become buried in the night, plus it’s good to have your digging gear inside with you, not outside with the snow. Both climbers should then get into the snow hole and using the empty rucksacks block up most of the entrance and then get out of their damp gear and get into their sleeping bags.
You should try and keep open some form of venting to the outside and this is often done by sticking a ski pole out over the top of the rucksacks so you can wriggle it every now and again to let more air in. Finally, cut out a small section close to the door into which you can sit your stove (so that it’s close to the venting). If you don’t have a wooden stove base then you’ll need something for the stove to sit on so that it either doesn’t melt into the floor or to insulate its canister and often the only option is to make a bed for your stove out of your hardware.
This type of shelter is smaller than normal and far faster to build, taking around an hour, yet once built provides about the same warmth and protection as a hole built by the book, even if the entrance is at the same level as the living area.
Having a shovel obviously makes digging a snow hole far easier, but most people will only carry one if they intend to use it, yet shovels are often worth carrying anyway, either for digging snow pits, levelling out tent platforms and digging snow walls, or even just for resting your stove on when camping (either in a snow hole or in a tent).
Something to cover the floor of the snow hole is very useful, such as a large survival bag, as this helps keep snow off your stuff. Candles are also very handy and along with the stove can raise the temperature inside the snow hole considerably.
The beauty of a snow hole is that it’s just about the same temperature inside when full of bodies whether you’re half way up McKinley or round the back of the Northern Corries (usually just above freezing), meaning although it may be a bit damp it’s far more comfortable than sleeping in a tent in hostile conditions where high wind and cold will rob your tent of any comfort. Plus it’s not only warmer but it’s also safer, as a snow hole can’t blow away and it’s also quieter, in fact, once inside you won’t even know if World War Three had started and I’ve spent many a day lazing in a snow hole reading a good book, drinking tea and rocking to my MP3 while a storm passed by outside. Anyone climbing in the Alps or Greater Ranges should always opt for the snow hole option if things are looking bad, or if you want a 100% secure base close to the action.