Somewhere between Utah and winter break, Nick and I decided that we would build an igloo.
The sheer whimsy of the idea proved irresistible. We started doing homework on the internet, researching destinations and construction methods. A novel box-and-telescoping-pole igloo building tool captured our imagination, but was difficult to procure. Eventually we settled on a quinzhee, an igloo-like structure based on the lower-tech mound-and-hollow approach.
Diligent as we both were, our research was entirely theoretical. He was in South Carolina, and I was in Albuquerque. Neither of us had snow plentiful enough for a backyard test run. When we met up in Snowmass, we'd be trying this for the first time.
By the time I had finished applying to grad school and driving to Colorado, Nick had already been there for two days. He was well on his way to cabin fever already, and had built a prototype quinzhee right behind the back porch. He slept in it on his second night with his head protruding outside for fear that it would collapse and leave him to a death of lonely suffocation in his own backyard.
I borrowed snowshoes, mountaineering gloves and a -20 bag. We bought an absurd quantity of food. And then it was off to the Capitol Peak trailhead. Our hopeful plan was to follow the Capitol Peak trail downhill to Capitol Creek. We would build a quinzhee from which we would mount a day hike to the lake at the base of the peak itself. Of course, we wound up doing much less.
The road to the trailhead is not cleared in winter, so we parked at another location and spent an hour and a half hiking the difference. Once there, we found that neither the Capitol Peak trail nor the alternative Ditch trail had been traversed by anyone since the last snow. We spent a few hours making some wrong turns, and eventually decided to backtrack and build the quinzhee at the snowbound Capitol Peak trailhead (which, to be fair, was still at least an hour away from the car). All afternoon, we took turns mounding snow while the other sat and boiled water on the stove.
The mountains are gorgeous under snow, but photography fell by the wayside once my #1 concern became the not-touching of cold objects. The temperature was 10 degrees above zero, so my big photographic heatsink stayed in the bag most of the time. Indoor photography turned out to be no better, since the lens would fog instantly inside the humid quinzhee.
Ordinary habits became difficult. Our bottles kept freezing shut, for one. I like to keep an extra bottle full when I am on the trail, but under these conditions it would be halfway frozen by the time I wanted to drink it. Nick and I had been excited about the food possibilities enabled by hiking in a refrigerator - We can bring cheese! We can bring margarine! - but it was a total mess. Everything froze. Canola oil took on a toothpaste consistency. And I wanted to eat that block of cheese like I wanted to eat a block of ice - because that's what it was; it became a block of ice. We walked out with most of the food we walked in with.
Then there was the problem of the hollowing. Our wrong turns that morning had given us a late start on the quinzhee. The sun went down shortly before the mound was finished, and we were hollowing it out in the dark. Daylight makes it easy to see when to stop hollowing, because the quinzhee walls become translucent as they become thin. But without daylight, we did a fair amount of geometric guesswork, aided only by the footlong twigs we had insterted into the mound to warn of impending thinness. At one point, I took a scrape at the ceiling and found myself staring into the black of space. The mistake was only 4 inches square, so this became our vent hole, and we finished the inside by hollowing exclusively in the opposite direction.
We moved in just as it dropped below -10. Nick's last thermometer check, at 9pm, was a solid 20 below. This was the lowest notch on our thermometer, so we stopped checking after that. We never measured the indoor temperature (alas) but I think it was in the high 20s. The roof never dripped, I'm sure it wasn't above freezing. We didn't go out of our way to heat the place. Turning a stove on in that cramped space was a terrifying prospect, so the warmth was entirely from body heat. Aside from an uncomfortably brisk restroom run in the wee hours, I had a pleasant night. The -20 bags were wonderful, and I happily slept in until 9:30 the next morning. Nick and I packed up, ate, gave a house tour to a passing snowshoer from Georgia, and hiked out at noon.
Neither Nick nor I is particularly eager to do it again anytime soon, but you've got to try something new every once in a while.