Learning to build an igloo in the mountains outside Vancouver

By Remy Scalza
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, February 4, 2011; 1:17 PM

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.

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