Some top tips for snowholing we may not be able to snowhole this winter (damn covid), however we will soon be back to spending nights in them. If you are on your Winter Mountain Leader journey or thinking about it you will most likely be spending a night or two in a snowhole. Over the years you pick up a few tips to make digging, living and sleeping in a snowhole a little bit easier and more comfortable, a few of my thoughts below.
Entrance – Make that initial entrance a nice big space you can stand up in, it can always be covered up with plinths of snow once finished. A large entrance will make life much easier for digging and excavating all the snow out of especially if there are 2 or more of you at work. If possible, have your door a few meters up a slope as that way when you excavate the snow out the door it will roll away, if you are not up a slope you will have move the pile of snow you excavate as it will soon block the door. If there are 4 or more of you digging then go for two doors about 2 meters apart, once in you can turn to meet each other and the door that is not being used can be covered up. One door will be slower as half the team will just be standing around.
Height – Part of your snowhole wants to have a standing space where you do not have to stoop or crouch. This makes it so much easier to put on and take off waterproofs as well as allowing you a sheltered spot to stretch that back out after all the digging.
Design – If possible, aim for single beds! In a two person snowhole I would aim to have a standing area in the middle with a bed of either side. It just means that you don’t have to bump off each other when you get up for that inevitable pee during the night . The drawback is that they are not quite as warm. Having raised beds or a lower standing area will allow cold air to pool and away from your sleeping spot.
Shovel – Go big, go metal and go a telescopic. It may weight a bit more and not be quite as easy to pack into the rucksack but those draw backs are outweighed by the fact that it will be easier to dig with.
Sleeping mat – The warmer and bigger you can go for the better really. A number of the more modern mats are quite skiddy on snow, for this I tend to carry a very thin and low cost old school role mat or yoga mat. It stops the main sleeping mat sliding around and adds a little bit more insulation. I am currently using a Thermarest NeoAir Xtherm https://www.thermarest.com/ie/sleeping-pads/fast-and-light/neoair-xtherm-sleeping-pad/neoair-xtherm.html
Sleeping Bag and Bivi Bag – It is hard to give advice on sleeping bags as everyone needs different amounts insulation. My advice is don’t scrimp of warmth and buy a down bag, they are easy enough to keep dry. Having a reasonable bivi bag is useful, it does not have to be a full in Gore-Tex Bivi and have taped seams as you are not going to be sleeping in the rain. The key thing is to make sure it is big enough. I used to use the Rab Survival Zone which was excellent but too small (I am quite big 6’1) for me and was compressing the down in the sleeping bag. I am now using an Alp Kit Hunka XL https://alpkit.com/products/hunka-xl
Lighting – Traditionally people would carry little candles for this, however the light they gave out was not great. A simple alternative is a set of fairy lights like you might get on a Christmas tree! These can be bought low cost and are powered by AA batteries or even the flat C type batteries and when hung around the snowhole give a good degree of light.
Storage – One of the luxuries of snow holes is you can create your own shelving for much of your kit, however another nice way to store anything in a dry bag is to hang it from a walking pole that you can put up in a corner like a curtain rail by just cutting slots into the snow.
Door – On windy trips I sometimes carry a lightweight tarp, this can be used to drag snow out the door when you are digging and then once construction is complete it can be used t cover the door, a bit like a shower curtain. It stops the snow drifting in and keeps the draft out!
Stoves – Many instructors on WML’s will carry a Jetboil or MRS Reactor as a one person stove, this is because they could be at the snowhole before their college or working on their own. Whilst these gas stoves work fine better for melting snow would be a liquid fuel stove like the MSR Whisperlite https://www.msrgear.com/ie/products/stoves/whisperlite-international/06635.html these will be faster and more fuel efficient for melting snow. If you were in a team of 4 then having one of these for snow melting and a few smaller stoves for actual cooking would probably be the best system.
Treats and Top Tips
These are important, any fool can suffer and with a little though life in a snowhole can be much more comfortable.
- Thermal boots: I have a pair of Montane insulated boots, they weight almost nothing and pack down to less than a size of an apple. I ware mine in my sleeping bag over my socks and they dry out any dampness and keep my feet nice and warm. Plus, they have rubber soles, so I can keep them on if I am popping about briefly to visit the facilities!
- Hot water bottles, I carry two half litre Nalgene water bottles when going to bed I fill them with boiling water pop one at my feet and one around my crotch and they act as hot water bottles, it also stops the water from freezing over night so it is ready to go in the morning.
- Warm Boots – If you have double layer boots then popping the inner boot between sleeping bag and bivi will keep them from freezing so not too bad in the morning. The other option is if you just have normal boots is using a heat pack in each boot, pop it in about 2 hours before you need to put the boot on and it will take the edge off the cold in the boot
Slope stability – Snowholing is without doubt one of the riskiest activities I do and not least because the slope we are digging into has the potential to be unstable. Always take your time to assess the slope for stability and if in doubt find another location.
Linking – If you have more than one snowhole, link them with a length of rope between the doors. This allows you to follow the rope should the doors become drifted in. It is worth noting that allowing a door to drift in is a very bad situation and it may mean that you have to get up regularly during the night to clear the door space.
Marking – Once you have dug the hole and just before you are ready to settle down for the night it is worth marking them from above. This way people walking in the area will know and hopefully they won’t come through your roof. The most common way to do this is to place you avalanche probe (it is worth carrying one of these to make sure they snow is deep enough before starting to dig) above your hole and at night time you could even attach a glow stick to it. It times people take a few avalanche transceiver, the role of these is not to dig people out if they get buried, if you think this is a possibility you are in the wrong place. The idea is you leave one transceiver in the doorway when you head out for night navigation and take the other with you. If the door has disappeared when you get back you can use the transceiver to find the door.