Sunday, January 9, 2011

Outside Adventures: Snow Cave Edition

Taken from the inside of the cave...the best (though ineffective) impression of the compact space.

Ever since returning to our home state, Curtis and I have enjoyed exploring the terrain looking for adventure. Whether it’s crossing an icy stream while out mountain biking, or narrowly escaping a moose after (accidentally) crossing between a mom and its baby, we have been taking full advantage of the wilderness that exists almost right outside our front door.

This weekend we ventured almost two hours north with Curtis’s co-workers for some “wilderness survival training.” While public cabins were rented—cabins that lacked both plumbing and electricity--snow cave construction was part of the agenda.

I arrived on Friday evening, after a long week with my lovely junior high students, ready to conquer the wilderness. I had watched the car’s thermometer drop steadily since leaving school, from a balmy 18 to a not-so-comfortable 1. It didn’t help that I knew from previous experience that the car’s assessment of the outside temperature is usually optimistic. I put on almost every item of clothing I had brought along, and trekked a half mile down to our cabin on a narrow, winding, uneven trail carrying my virtually empty backpack.

Once we arrived at our cabin, the safe-haven in case of snow cave disaster, we dropped off my belongings and hiked another half mile to a different cabin where we would be eating dinner. We arrived just in time for snow cave awards.

The leader of the wilderness retreat had personally assessed all the caves constructed earlier that day, and was ready to report about his findings. One cave was deemed most aesthetically pleasing. Another was complimented for interior construction. And then the leader turned his attention to Curtis and complimented his design as likely yielding the warmest cave—due to the six foot tunnel that led to the compact, inside cave. “I hope your wife is not claustrophobic” he joked, while my eye brows jumped about six inches off my face and everyone chuckled.

“Did he forget?” I said while chuckling, eliciting further laughs from the crowd.

On the inside, I was terrified. I have long been uncomfortable in small, confined spaces—especially those without a quick escape. A six foot tunnel not even big enough to crawl through on my hands and knees, leading to a space three feet tall and six feet across? Not exactly my cup-of-tea.

Soon enough we ventured back to the cabin where I took my first look at the cave. Curtis was clearly pleased with his construction, but all I could think about was how small it was on the inside. How in the world was I going to relax enough to fall asleep? Once we settled in for the evening, I found myself more and more okay with the confined quarters. Despite the constant shower of ice shavings every time anyone touched the ceiling, a common mistake with such compact quarters, it was actually quite warm. Eventually I fell asleep.

That it, until I woke up screaming.

Turns out that even though I had convinced myself while awake that the snow cave was safe and secure, my sub-conscious was having nothing of it. After a very realistic nightmare that the snow cave was collapsing in on me, and anxiety that plagued me every time I started to fall asleep for the ninety minutes after that, I called it a night. I struggled to put all my layers back on, shimmied back out of the six foot tunnel dragging my sleeping pad and bag behind me, and ventured into an overly warm cabin to spend the night, getting up at two hour intervals to stoke the fire—lest the true survivors come in from the cold to find a cold cabin as well.

The next day when the snow cave was dismantled, I was unsurprised to find it incredibly secure. It took several people nearly ten minutes to break it down, and even when half the roof had been broken in, Curtis could still vigorously jump up and down on the other half. The ceiling was at least eighteen inches thick.

When we returned home Saturday evening after a long sequence of other survival activities, I told Curtis that I hoped he didn’t take my intense panic within the snow cave to be any reflection of the confidence I had in his constructing ability; the reality is that I just don't like small spaces. I guess we will just have to hope that we are never stranded in the winter wilderness. And if we are, I hope I quickly develop the ability to operate without sleep.

Even though I normally complete our outdoor adventures with a desire to repeat them at a later date, I think it is safe to say I never want to try and sleep in a snow cave ever again.

The destruction of the impetus of my anxiety...which gives you an idea of how strong (and deep) the cave actually was.


  1. You are SO MUCH more hard core than I am friend! Ha! You couldn't pay me to do that! :)

  2. You are a champ, my dear ! There is NO WAY I would have been able to even consider those conditions due to my own claustrophobia. I'm proud of you for trying something outside of your comfort zone but then again, that seems to be who you are - ready to try anything!

    Lots of love to you and keep the blogs coming - even Matt has started asking what "Ashley from Alaska" is up to on these long winter days and nights!


  3. ps. you owe me a baby gift and I would like it to be the removal of comment verification from your blog. Just sayin... I know, I'm a pain!