Snow cave at Cameron Pass Colorado -- 18-19 March 2006

Bob says:

I have been wanting to snow cave for a while. Actually I have been wanting to "have snow caved", in the past tense, for a while. Something to talk about over lunch and for when I get too old to actually do these things. But in order to "have snow caved" it turns out that you actually have to snow cave first! So I talked a couple of other adventurous souls into it too.

On Saturday, March 18th Sue, Keith, Chris and I snow cave on Cameron Pass at about 10,000 feet. We hiked a short way in on Joe Wright trail. I used a probe to check the snow depth at various spots. There is always another spot "just over there" that looks just a little better from here than where we are standing. As you can see that can go on for a while. But eventually we found a spot with a drift that was about six feet deep and dug it out into a quite a large snow cave. Actually I think we created a "fortress of solitude" snow cave. Probably too big but since this was the first time we were going to overnight we wanted the space for our gear. The only problem we had with the cave was that we could not get the snow to pack enough to close up the entrance into a smaller, lower opening. So we made due and built it up from the bottom. It worked fine but it did let more heat escape than a lower entrance. We were amazingly warm in the snow cave just the same. And at least we had no worries about ventilation.

That night it snowed about four inches of powder over everything. Inside the snow cave we could not tell what the weather outside was doing unless we went out and looked. You really are protected from the outside elements. The next day it was a beautiful sunny day with the sparkle of new snow over everything. Truly a gorgeous day.

Sue says:

March 18 we went snow caving with Keith and Chris. We went on Joe Wright trail up on Cameron pass. Very nice trail and very low usage since the trailhead sign on highway 14 is missing :-) so if you don't already know where the trailhead is, it can be tough to find. We went a short ways up the trail, then looked for a nice drift to dig into. Found one that was 6 feet deep and started digging. We dug a pretty big cave for the four of us, was great to have all the head-room, didn't expect to get as wet as we did, didn't expect it to take so long, and didn't expect the sun to go away and for it to start snowing as we finished and were planning to fire up the stoves for dinner! Chilly for a bit but hot chocolate helped, spicy chili, spicy chicken nuggets and a change of clothes helped a lot. Crawled into our sleeping bags and by 7pm Chris was snoring. Bob and I stayed up longer, played rummy (cards) for a while, and finally laid down around 9:30pm. Bright full moon made Chris wonder if it was dawn already :-), and he was awake at 6:30 when the sun peeped in to warm up his face. We got up at 7 and boogied out. Our wet boots had frozen solid, a few of them in bad shapes :-( so that took a bit of banging on them to be able to get out feet into them to drag out the packs and put on snowshoes for the trek out. Down to Fort Collins to meet up with the rest of "the women" for brunch. They'd had a pajama party staying warm while we got wet and cold. But I think we had more fun. Tick, now we've snow caved! Wouldn't mind doing it again, with a little more prep on different food cooking methods, start the stoves sooner, maybe start sooner in the day and do a hot lunch instead of trying for a hot dinner. We'd planned to meet at 9:30 but didn't quite work so we ended up getting on the road at 10:30 and started digging around 1pm.

Here are Sue's captions of the pictures from the trip.

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  At the parking lot, unpacking the car. Keith, and Sue's pack Bob and Chris put on the gaiters and get ready Notice the parking lot is dry - no recent snow! Getting from the road up to the trailhead

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  Quite a jump Second attempt after "penguin style" failed Keith gives "the Captain Morgan". Bob is digging out the snowbank to give us "steps" up. Ready to snowshoe in. The box at Keith's feet is the sign-in box, normally at chin level. Chris, Sue, Keith. Backside of Sue's pack with stuff hanging everywhere off it. 33 pounds.

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  Bob's big pack with almost everything fit inside. 29 pounds. Keith and Bob. Keith has the big horse blanket which by itself is like 5 pounds. Bob opted for the extremely lightweight closed-cell foam pad. Probing around to find a spot. We have a 6-foot probe pole, looking for a large area where it doesn't hit bottom. Sue eats lunch before we start digging. Laid out the packs on a tarp to keep them snow-free while we dig. Worked pretty well!

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  Bob's pack stands alone. Starting to dig the initial trench. Haven't hit ground yet. Keith smooths out the snow we're tossing on top so it doesn't avalanche back down. And gives us a good pose :-)

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  "Bucket Brigade" - Chris at the entrace carves out a block, Keith tosses up to Sue, who tosses further up and outside the trench. Near ground level there's a lot of "sugar" snow that has to be shoveled out. Entrance is done, internal central cave is nearly done. Keith starts digging a bench to the left for sleeping quarters. Keith chooses a side.

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  Domed celling, high enough to sit comfortably and almost stand up! Keith's up on the left sleeping bench. From the inside looking out dig dig dig Chris starts digging a second bench to the right for more sleeping quarters. We dug in a T-shape, 2 people on each side. Gotta love Keith's expression

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  Poof 3 hours later. Done digging, stoves fired up and good dinner eaten, and changed into dry clothes, and finally warm and comfy inside sleeping bags. It's snowing outside and quite cold outside. Bob and Sue getting steamy. Our breath is fogging in the camera flash. It's above freezing inside the cave but humid. We had enough height to sit upright on the sleeping benches. We're so excited to be IN a snow cave! Bottle of OJ up on a shelf did not freeze overnight... some of the bottles served double duties :-)

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  Each sleeping side was about 7 feet deep, 5 feet wide, and 3 feet high. Morning sunshine with light snow. We could not get the snow to pack and so could not make a proper snowcave entrance. Instead we blocked up about 3/4 of the entrance from the bottom up last night before changing into dry clothes, to keep the heat in. The tarp was an attempt to be able to get in and out without getting snow all over us... Keith in his happy place.... in the sunshine! Note his boots in the sunshine thawing, ours are frozen in un-natural shapes. We're all warm in our sleeping bags, not wanting to get out Warm in the sleeping bag. "But in purple I'm stunning."

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  7am after the night's snowfall, gorgeous. The bumps are the snow blocks from digging yesterday. Bob is hauling equipment out of the snowcave. Keith makes first tracks out to the trail and down to the car, finding ski tracks from yesterday. Our trail up to the cave. On the road hiking back to the car, Bob and Sue are exiting the trailhead.

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  The snowbank is pretty high - no sign of where we dug steps yesterday. Tired but happy Sue slides down the snowbank on her butt. Bob catches her, another sign of true love :-)

Bob says:

Having actually spent the night in a snow cave, and had a pretty good time of it as you can see, I know I would do a few things differently the next time around. For one I would not underestimate how quickly it gets cold when the sun sets and dark closes in. I would try to get done with all outside work such as cooking before then and get into the snow cave before the cold sets in.

We got wet, completely soaked through, digging out the cave. We had planned for that. We had dry clothes but did not want to change into them quite yet because we wanted to get a hot meal from the stove into us before we crawled into the snow cave for the night. We did not want to change into dry clothes and then need but not have a third set to change into to get dry for the night. We knew that being dry for the night was critical. So we tuffed it out and got pretty cold while cooking dinner. That is not a good thing to do. It was actually a pretty miserable time. But we tuffed it out and got inside where we changed into dry clothes and got warm and were fine.

Next time we will dry off after taking off wet clothes and before putting on the dry change of clothes. Putting wet feet into dry socks makes wet socks and that makes for cold feet at night. I would bring a camp towel to wipe dry with when changing.

Amazingly I was pretty warm the entire time which is very atypical for me. I am usually one of the first to feel the cold. But my feet were dry and warm in my Sorels and that may have been the factor that made the difference. I think everyone else had wet feet.

I would do dinner differently. The typical hot food during the hike problem. We were disorganized. Oh well. We were only doing one overnight so weight was not an issue and we just brought up some precooked food that only needed to be heated up. Chili. Chicken nuggets, spicey! That was good. I would do that again. But next time we will use a double boiler to keep the hot stove from burning the bottom of the chili. Next time we will put the chicken nuggets into individual serving size ziplocks and boil them. They would get heated evenly. No mess to clean. Use the water for hot tea or hot chocolate. And I would have taken more pictures of things such as us trying to cook in the snow. If you are going to be miserable you should at least have pictures to remember it by later. (Chuckle.)

I would bring a small brush along. Snow just generally gets everwhere. When it is frozen it is easy to brush off. If you have a brush. I found myself using my gloves for this task. It did not work very well. My gloves ended up getting wet needlessly. And more snow was left in to melt where I did not want it.

I would waterproof my boots before the trip. I wore my Sorels which I dearly love. They did a great job to keep my feet dry and warm. But they are getting worn and aged and the leather has lost its waterproofing. This did not cause me any trouble during the day. But they ended up freezing overnight into the shape they were left in. Hard as a rock! Sue's boots were folded over and froze that way. It took some "persuading of the boot" and some profanity to open them up to allow the foot to enter. So make sure that if you have anything wet that it is in the right shape when left to freeze. Better yet is to check the waterproofing and prevent them from getting wet in the first place. Fortunately only the shell had gotten wet. The liners were dry. After we got moving they softened up and worked fine and my feet were warm.

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