A day in the life … of a winter expedition
Snowholing in the Cairngorms
Director of Scot Mountain Holidays and Scottish Snow-holing Expert.
Expedition Day on our snow-holing trip
Expedition day is invariably a long one for me. Consciousness is heralded at 6:30am by the dulcet tones of John Humphrys. Armed with a pint of tea, I checking-in with the weather gods. It maybe a case of confirming the previous evening’s forecast of a bluebird day (of course!!) but with an approaching storm a lot can change overnight. Do we head for a far flung site to give the guests a true sense of winter wilderness? Is there a weather window or do we play it safe and head for somewhere closer to home? Over breakfast with the guests there’s time to mull over the options before the necessary risk assessment paperwork. Of course this isn’t the end of it and its eyes to the skies through out the expedition.
Gear & weather checks
With breakfast and glove and sleeping mat inspection out the way it’s time for a lesson in snow-holing. I’m a real stickler for design: Scottish snow-holes for Scottish conditions. With the Cairngorms holding the UK record at around -30 deg C you might be surprised to know the Cairngorm Summit record is only half this at -16 deg C. The extremes are reserved for the valley floors. For the high snow-holing sites the seasonal low would only approach – 10 deg C whilst for the vast proportion of the season it would be -5 or above. Scottish snow-hole design is about getting rid of warm air not capturing it so there’s no need for sleeping platforms and cold air drains. Ventilation and time spent digging are the watch words.
The communal kit is then divvied up: a shovel each and a snow saw are the vital bits of kit. Many a snow saw has come to grief against Scottish snow but to be without one can mean absolute purgatory when encountering the “alabaster marble” of our winter hills. They need to be tried and tested. With the addition of candles, billy pans, cooking stoves, homemade food (dehydrated to save wait of course), sleeping bags, etc we head out up onto and then across the winter wonderland of the Cairngorm – Ben Macdui Plateau.
Choosing a site & preparing to dig
On arrival at the snow-hole site I will check it for snow stability and depth whilst the “troops” have a well earned break. Ideally we are looking for a steep bank to dig into but should there be any concerns we may have to move to a shallower gradient which means more digging is required. Once I’ve marked out the doors we swap roles with the guests pairing up 2 to a door. Although possibly quicker to dig, I’m not a fan of separate 2 man snow holes”. Snow is a fantastic muffler of sound and it’s easy to be oblivious to anything out with your snowy abode. The contrast can be startling
The role of the boss
As “site foreman” I’m a hard task master. Big is beautiful (and safe)! Each entrance has to go in a meter to maintain a strong front wall before we start opening things up.
It’s tough going at first with little sense of getting close to achieving our goal. You dig in a further 1.5 meters before turning to dig towards the folks coming in the opposite direction. Time ticks on and still you don’t have anything close to a living space. There’s not a sound except the crunch of your shovel. How much more? You continue you have to; it’s your only option. Then there’s a fait crunch that isn’t yours, then another and another!!
Spurred on you dig deeper. You still have a fair amount to dig but the crunch is getting louder. Then suddenly there is a clash of blades and with relief you break through. The space starts to open up quickly now as you attack the snow from 3 sides. The walls are squared off, the floor is levelled and our signatory apex sealing is added allowing everyone to straighten their weary backs. Inclined ventilation holes are added at the high points. Some of the doorways are blocked off whilst importantly checking for adequate ventilation.
Finally the guests can now snuggle into their sleeping bags whilst I start the cooking for everyone. The cooking area is set out and the stoves are fired up and candles are lit. First on the menu is homemade Carrot and Cardamom soup. Steaming bowls are handed around as I get on with the next course. Chorizo and vegetable casserole with cous-cous is usually next and then its apricots in custard should anyone have any space left. Tipples are exchanged and finally at around10pmI too can cocoon myself in my sleeping bag – a hard earned but rewarding and enjoyable day.