lördag 4 maj 2013

Igloo camping - Part one - Construction time

After long period of gestation I finally got around to do my first backcountry skiing trip. Ever since I got my Grand Shelters Igloo tool I have had an irresistible urge to go out and actually sleep in an igloo instead of just playing in it (which is great fun for with the kids as well.). The first winter camping trip couldn't be a simple hut-to-hut affair, no, it had to be the whole shebang with igloo, ski pulk and a tent as a safety net.

We decided to go to Vålådalen in April in Jämtland as it is easily accessible from Stockholm and I'm familiar with the surroundings since I've been there twice in summer already. Luckily I also had Jesper as a friend who was willing to share the adventure. Big plans were made up looking at the map fantasizing about how much faster I would be able to move using my Paris pulk on skis instead of walking. These plans were then significantly modified after consulting the personnel at the Vålådalen fjällstation. I have a habit of making over-optimistic plans. In the end I think we moved somewhat slower than when I walked the same stretch in summer. We decided to rent skis at the Fjällstation. Wide waxless ones with steel edges. They worked well enough. Directly after getting the skis we packed the pulk and were on our way towards Smällhögarna.

Excited and ready to go next to Vålådalen Fjällstation
In the beginning things went smoothly on the flat bogs next to Vålådalen. The weather was good and skiing was easy. We had lunch in a convenient already prepared snow pit. No need to bring out the shovels. We had Korean spicy noodles with sausage. One of my favorite hiking lunches. Noodles just by itself is not too much fun, but with a good sausage thrown in, Montorsi Napoli Piccante in this case, it's great.

Jesper smiling - before the uphill stretch started

Jesper not smiling as much - but exercising very well

After Skaftet however the trail started to go uphill. As you might have noticed I try to pack light, but I'm a novice at winter camping and winter equipment is heavier. The weight of our shelters was also doubled since I wanted to bring a tent as backup should the Igloo building fail. My winter sleeping bag is also an old synthetic heavyweight from the eighties. I wouldn't be surprised if the pulk weighed around 20kg. Just the sleeping bag, tent and Icebox Igloo tool weighed in at around 7kg. Lots of kilos to be saved there. Going uphill this extra weight was surely felt.

Pulling the ski pulk uphill close to Skaftet. Heavy work.




The altitude difference between Skaftet and the tree line is scarcely more than 120m, but it was
enough to make us feel tired. Even during this heavy exertion I found that my Paramo Velez anorak worked very well. It has excellent zips on the sides and in the collar and with just an Aclima Merino Net underneath I didn't feel a need to take it off. Good stuff Paramo.

Jesper is happy to make a break at the designated igloo spot
A bit tired after the ascent to the tree line we decided to look for a spot for the Igloo about 4km earlier than I initially thought. Jesper also commented that it looked like there the snow coverage looked pretty thin higher up the mountain. It seemed safer to find a place with good snow further down. It was already 16H as well. We had a short look around and soon found a reasonably flat spot close to where the trail forks west towards Stensdalsstugorna. We dug a small pit and it seemed there was enough snow. It had piled up on the lee side of a an elevated part of the ground. On the flat parts the wind had left only a few centimeters. We also decided to put up the tent to have a place to rest during the building, a traditional three-person Bergans Compact Light that I bought to use as a winter camping tent.

Jesper carefully moves the Icebox form to the position of the next block
In the beginning the building work went very well. Even though Jesper hadn't tried it before he soon got the hang of it and I mainly worked with shoveling the snow. I had decided to try building a 9-feet three-person Igloo since I found the two person to be a bit small for my 193cm. Shoveling snow is the main work when building and I soon regretted not having taken the time to buy a bigger shovel. A twice bigger shovel gives you around four times as much snow volume for each round. The person who packs the snow is almost always waiting for the person shoveling, so the speed of shoveling is essential to the construction time. This time another complication also arose from the conditions in the field. The snow coverage was layered and it was just the top centimeters layer that was powder snow, the other layers were packed harder snow. This meant that the snow had to be crushed by trampling before packing in the form. A time-consuming task, but if not done well enough the blocks would break apart. Something that happened several times during the building.

3 1/2 hours later . many levels of blocks still left
I had estimated that we would put around 3-4 hours on the building. As it turned out it would take around 7 hours. I was indeed very happy to have brought the tent as a backup. Even though I had already constructed four Igloos this year there is obviously plenty more to learn about the technique. Part of the challenge I would say.

The reindeer also took an interest in the igloo
We continued the construction work for some more hours after sunset. We just wanted to get it done. It was getting colder however and after awhile I was starting to feel pretty cold and almost dizzy despite moving around shoveling all the time. Without really noticing we had worked well past dinner time. Not a good idea. By this time we had been physically active for almost 12 hours. We decided to retreat to the tent to get something to eat. Now I realized just how exhausted I was and it was somewhat difficult to do the cooking. I was very happy for all the insulating clothing I had brought (A Klättermusen Liv downsweater, a synthetic ITAB jacket and a pair of synthetic thermal trousers.). I've had the same feeling before and when reading Allen and Mike's really cool backcountry ski book I wonder if my condition could not be classified as early stages of hypothermia. I certainly felt cold and clumsy and interestingly enough shivering is not a prerequisite for hypothermia. This is especially true when people has exercised more than usual. Just my case.

Fortunately we had everything necessary to remedy the situation: A shelter, hot food and drink and lots of insulating clothing. After a hearty dinner of hoummous tortillas for starters, fried rösti and merguez sausages for main-course and rosehip-soup and almondcakes for dessert, I was starting to feel a lot better.

Before retiring to our sleeping bags Jesper went out of the tent and came back and said: "You've got to see this! The sky is amazing!"

Wonderful starry skies with a possible touch of Aurora borealis in the bottom left corner
(20s shutter time at ISO 3200, Sony Nex-5N, Sigma 30mm/2,8)
Using some of the last bits of energy I got out and set up the tripod for some long exposures. I think there was even some aurora borealis going on. I was too cold and tired to have a better look however. Too bad, who knows, I might have missed the Aurora of my life.

As usual the first nights in a tent I slept intermittently and was sometimes awoken by the flapping tent or the pleasant sounds of chirping Ptarmigans passing close to the camp. A portent for the day to come.

Close but no cigar - the last difficult blocks
The next day we awoke to a beautiful morning. The sun was shining through the tent fly and the tent had warmed up considerably. I slept very well through the morning hours. Slowly we ventured out of our sleeping bags and made breakfast. The usual oatmeal/blueberry soup/hazelnut mix. Now we were ready for finishing the roof of the igloo.

The last levels are the most difficult, especially with powder snow. The chunks of hard snow from  the hard layers did not make it easier. Several blocks broke and fell apart. Jesper did not have the same experience as me with this packing and maybe this also played a part.

Delicate snow packing at the last level
In the end we were a bit fed up with failing blocks so I decided to try something unorthodox: Why not close the hole with a traditional igloo block? The opening was so small now a small block would be enough to cover one side and then placing the Icebox form vertically we would be able to cover the other side to seal the hole. From the now packed snow around the igloo it was easy to cut a nice block. It worked nicely, although not beautifully, as it gave our igloo a big wart!

Necessity is the mother of invention - combining new and old igloo techniques creates an igloo wart
Finally the main construction was finished and we could now finally move on to some nice backcountry skiing and bird watching, but that's for part two. Stay tuned.

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