Learning to build an igloo in the mountains outside Vancouver

By Remy Scalza
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, February 6, 2011; F01

Chilled from a day in the snow, stiff from hours of shoveling, we worm down the tunnel of the igloo one after the other. The wind's howl mutes to a low hum. The day's gray light goes black. I follow the pair of boots in front of me, crawling through cold, clammy air toward the glimmer of light ahead.

The boots belong to Michael Harding, igloo evangelist. An outdoor guide with baby-blue eyes and snow-white hair, Harding has raised untold hundreds of igloos in this corner of western Canada. "They're warmer than tents. They're soundproof. They're practically cozy," he'd explained that morning, as we climbed into the backcountry of the mountains outside Vancouver in his late-model Nissan Pathfinder. A friend and I have joined him and another guide for a one-day crash course in igloo basics. Not that I'm planning an assault on K2 anytime soon. But even for armchair adventurers, there's just something about an igloo.

Our proving ground today is a plateau high atop Cypress Mountain, whose 4,700-foot peaks rise dizzyingly just beyond the city limits. Perhaps best known as the host to some 2010 Olympic ski events, Cypress is stubbornly wild. More than 30 feet of snow falls here in an average winter, and the endless, craggy backcountry provides a popular training ground for hard-core hikers gearing up for expeditions to Washington state's Mount Baker, Alaska's Mount McKinley and other high peaks of the North American West. Never mind the tots in ski boots in the parking lot and the legions of Lululemon-wearing hikers: Cypress still feels extreme.

Harding's eyes are shining on this rare sunny morning as our small group sets off down the trail. A young-looking 62, with an accent that betrays his English roots, Harding got hooked on Vancouver's epic scenery while backpacking here in his 20s, selling fish-hook jewelry to fund adventures. "You can ski in the morning and kayak in the afternoon, which I still always do a few times every year, just to remind myself I'm in outdoor heaven," he says.

Our group this morning, in snowshoes and sporting heavy packs, might pass as intrepid outdoorsmen, but this is just a trial run, valuable practice should we ever venture into the mountains for a real overnight trip. Fraught with hazards that fair-weather campers rarely face, winter camping in Vancouver is serious business. In fact, I'd initially had ambitions to make an overnight trip. But after watching the weather forecast with trepidation all week, wondering whether my Wal-Mart ski parka and borrowed sleeping bag would be up to the challenge, I got a reprieve. With a storm blowing in, the grizzled trip leader, with no time for newbies, politely recommended that I first invest in some proper equipment and remedial training. Igloo 101 seemed like a good place to start.

Climbing higher up Cypress under blue skies, we pass a sign posted trailside warning of avalanche country ahead, a reminder of the threats that accompany even day trips into the backcountry.

After huffing our way up a long, snowy ridge, we're greeted with an only-in-Vancouver view: Thousands of feet below, half-hidden by shifting clouds, a cityscape of glass towers cascades toward the gray-green waters of the Pacific. Plumes of vapor billow into the air as we catch our breath. Abandoning the trail, we crunch along to a nearby clearing flanked by pines buried to mid-trunk in the snow.

Harding's second-in-command, 31-year-old Steve Santelli, fresh off a week-long expedition to the 18,000-foot mark of Mount McKinley, unloads a threatening arsenal of steel shovels and snow saws with serrated teeth. "There's something about being in the middle of nowhere, in the freezing cold, miles from help," he says, meditating on joys of winter camping that I can't really relate to.

With a telescoping metal probe, Harding tests the snow, poking around in search of rocks, trees and buried hazards with the delicate touch of a surgeon. The pole sinks down - three feet, six feet, nine feet - before sounding bottom. When a cold wind suddenly picks up, Harding spreads the gospel: "Even if it's howling outside, it can be completely silent in the igloo. You'd never believe it."

His enthusiasm is well founded. Traditional winter dwellings of Canada's Inuit, igloos are engineering marvels, having little in common with the haphazard snow caves I built as a kid. Their precision-carved blocks curve inward and upward in an elegant, self-reinforcing spiral. The dome itself is a miracle of resiliency, strong enough, after freezing over, to support the weight of a grown man. And they're marvelously efficient at trapping body heat. Even in polar conditions, the interior stays a relatively balmy 32 degrees Fahrenheit.

Not to mention that all the building materials are right at hand. In the 1922 documentary "Nanook of the North," a classic shot in the Canadian Arctic, amiable Inuit Nanook builds a spacious family-size igloo, complete with ice-block picture window, with little more than an ivory knife in about an hour.

Ours will take considerably longer.

It starts with a dance. Still strapped into snowshoes, we trace a circle six feet in diameter in the snow and begin stomping. The idea is to compress layers of powder, slush and ice into a uniform pack, from which we'll quarry blocks for the igloo. We stomp on for a good 10 minutes, circling round in a snowshoe-clad jig and getting stares from cross-country skiers whooshing by. My Vancouver buddy Peter Walter, also new to the world of igloos, peppers the guides with questions. "So, how about campfires inside the igloo?" he asks. For many good and suddenly obvious reasons - melting snow, smoke, suffocation - they strongly advise against them.

"The snow here is fantastic because it's quite moist and sticks together easily," Harding explains. With the packing done, he shovels out a small, knee-deep cubicle in the snow and jumps in. Flashing his saw, he proceeds to carve out an inaugural block with a series of practiced strokes. It's a thing of beauty, sliding off the blade like a 20-pound slab of angel food cake. Peter's efforts and mine leave a little more to be desired: Blocks crumble frustratingly and sheer off along fault lines. But by the end of an hour, sweaty and sucking air, we've got our material: 50 or so glittering snow bricks. It's time to build.

But first a lesson in Vancouver mountain weather. With impressive speed, blue skies dim to a threatening gray. A thick mist creeps in, swaddling the valley like gauze. British Columbia's Coastal Range is the first line of defense against weather systems swirling in from the Pacific. All year long, clouds barrel in, dumping regular deluges on the peaks. Today turns out to be no exception. A light drizzle now starts up, clinging to our clothes and to exposed skin, wicking away warmth. And the building has only started.

The first blocks are critical. To get the coveted dome shape, the initial blocks have to lean inward like teetering Towers of Pisa. "Everybody doesn't believe they're ever going to stick, but they do," Harding says. I plant a block down with a satisfying thud as Harding spreads a mortar of loose snow with a gloved hand. Other blocks follow, custom cut with the snow saw for a smooth fit and nestled edge to edge.

Meanwhile, bundled-up couples and families out for a winter hike swarm the growing dome for smartphone photo-ops. Kids peer inside, desperately wanting to help. A parade of dogs in sweaters sniff the perimeter and threaten to yellow our masterpiece. "There's something magical about building a little house in the snow," Harding says, beaming for his paparazzi. "People love it. It's so simple and so beautiful."

By the third damp hour of construction, however, spirits are low. My hand-me-down gloves and ski pants have soaked through, and my hearty breakfast of muesli and mixed fruit is hardly holding me over. Meanwhile, Santelli is regaling the group with a real adventure tale about the time he got crippling altitude sickness only feet from the 10,781-foot summit of Mount Baker. Nose running shamelessly, I man up and labor on.

Harding passes around a Thermos of hot tea and offers some liquid encouragement. Faster now, walls rise, the dome arches higher, and finally there's just a single skylight in the roof left to be capped. Buoyant now, Harding eyeballs a block, shaves it down and extends it to waiting hands poking through the hole.

The result is impressive to behold: a tidy dome of uniform blocks - just like the igloos of countless Saturday morning cartoons - rising from a field of white. But it's what's inside that counts. For Harding, a day of boasting of igloo warmth, of comfort, of superior construction comes down to this. I've got my doubts. As I wriggle down the entrance tunnel in my wet gear, I'm expecting little more than a dark, cold tomb.

I get a cathedral. The interior is flooded with light tinged blue by the dome of snow above. It's roomy enough to turn around and nearly stand up in, nothing like the claustrophobic confines of a typical tent. The sound of the wind is muffled to a whisper. Layers of snow and ice crystals meet at intricate angles overhead, like a Baroque ceiling painting. I'm an instant igloo convert.

After a precious few minutes of sanctuary inside, I slip back through the tunnel and out into the cold, wet Vancouver afternoon. The winter light is fading. It's time to push back down the trail. Sadly, because the igloo might get snowed over and pose a hidden hazard to skiers, we have to demolish our creation. A few kicks to the white walls send the new dome tumbling down. A desecration to be sure, but not to worry, Harding says. Others will rise.

Scalza is a Vancouver-based journalist and photographer who blogs at RemyScalza.com.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company