An Igloo on a Mountain
March 4-5, 2011

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How To Build an Igloo
All winter I have been building igloos in part because I think they are a curious piece of engineering, and architecturally really cool. I have also been telling people that they are roomier, brighter and warmer then tents. But I have not had a chance this year to camp in one. So I have planned a back-country snowshoe and igloo trip. Winter is winding down and this might be my last chance.

The reason to go winter camping is to experience something you can't experience on a day trip. So I decided to climb the south side of Mt. Cube and to sit on the peak at night. I've climbed this mountain a number of times and I enjoy the summit. It has some clear ledges and a good view. So my plan is to climb to the summit and then build an igloo about 200 meters southeast of the peak. On my topo sheet there is a level shoulder there, in the woods and out of the wind. This way I can return to the top after dark.

As a backup, I could camp at the `Hexacube' shelter half way down the south side of the mountain.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Kodak Trail
Part of the Appalachian Trail

Smarts Mtn.

The Trail on Eastman's Ledge
I spent too much time in the morning debating about details, and it was 11:00 before I got to the trailhead. But then I quickly donned my snowshoes and headed up an unplowed road. There is only one house up here and it is unoccupied in the winter.

This has been a very snowy winter and the woods are full of the white stuff, at least two to three feet thick. Our last snowfall was a week ago and so there is a new layer, ten inches on top of the base. I have on my 25 inch long snowshoes, yet still I sink six to ten inches with each step. I am also carrying a backpack heavy with winter gear. In a hundred yards I know this is going to be a hard hike.

The road winds half a mile following Jacob's Brook, past that lone summer house, and then it joins a snowmobile trail. In the winter they open the gate of the logging road for snowmobiles. The trail is hard packed so I slip off the snowshoes and for half a mile make a quick ascent. It is Friday so I don't see, hear or smell any snowmobiles.

Finally I reach the turn-off for Cube. The sign labels this section of the Appalachian Trail as the "Kodak Trail". Is that because it is picturesque? Or is it because of the name of the cliff faces I'll soon be on top of? Some day I'll have to dig through the DOC's (Dartmouth Outing Club's) archives.

The trail is unbroken. It starts out with a gentle climb too seduce you into thinking that this is just a walk in the woods. Cube is on no ones list of great mountain or hard trails. But quickly the trail gets steeper.

The day is clear with temperatures near freezing and the snow is soft. There is little underbrush here, just a forest of maple and beech, with the occasional hemlock. If there are any downed trees they are buried deep under that ocean of snow.

I am working hard to climb. I find myself sometimes herringboning up the hill, and occasionally even sidestepping. Last week when backcountry skiing this would have made sense. But I am on snowshoes with inch long steel crampons on the bottom. But the snow is so loose that I take numerous slides and tumbles. Each times I pause, get my feet under me, plant the poles and stand again.

Even planting the poles is a challenge. I've extended them to as long as there will go - 140 cm (I usually have them at 125), but they are always punching down through the layers of snow, usually deep below my feet.

Finally I climbed up to the top of the cliffs, Eastman's Ledge. It is an exhilarating spot. The wind whistles by and the world - or at least the South Branch of Jacob's Brook, Quintentown and Hardscrable Farm -- are at your feet.

Another steep rise and I find myself following the tracks of a bobcat. Typically bobcats don't have their claws extended so I wasn't certain if this was a bobcat. But the mark of the heelpad was right. I could also see the mark of fur around its foot. Perhaps it has it's claws out trying to stay steady on the thin crust of the snow.

At last I mounted a small promontory opened to the east. I could look out to Pickerel Pond, a place I've seen on the map, but have never visited. But more interesting here were the moose tracks and scat. Deep, deep tracks down into the layers and layers of snow. And piles of scat, and puddles of frozen urine. Moose are very large creatures.

At this point I have stripped down to just my sweater. My coat, gloves and scarf are lashed to the back of my pack and I am gushing sweat. Finally the trail drops for a quarter of a mile to the outflow of pickerel pond, the North Branch of Jacob's Brook. And then it is time to climb again.

Hexacube Shelter

Two-log Bridge under
4-feet of snow

Ready to cut blocks of snow

My Igloo on Mt. Cube
At this stage it has become clear to me that pressing onto the top at this time is not a good idea and I have settled upon the alternative campsite. A mile and a half from the snowmobile trail is the "Hexacube" shelter. I'm going to build my igloo there. If I pressed to the top it would be almost 3:00 before I arrived and it takes a least three hours to build an igloo.

By the time I make it to the Hexacube shelter I'm exhausted. The shelter really is a hexagon! I find a site for my igloo and tromp down the snow in my future quarry, and then shovel out the base for the igloo. The snow will take at least an hour to form up into good building material, so I sit on the front edge of the shelter's platform and eat my lunch.

It is tempting to start building right after lunch, but I know the snow needs some time to set. But, after tramping in the deep snow my feet are wet and cold. So I head up the AT (Appalachian Trail) again for a half hour walk to warm my toes. I encountered a bridge over a small rivulet made of just two logs. The bridge is less then two feet wide, but the snow on top rises up over four feet. It is hard and I think it might actually support me. But then I think of the consequences and note that there is a simple alternative.

After an hour I return to my igloo site at about 3:00 and start building. The snow is still looser then I would like and so I find myself cutting the blocks thicker then usual. Also since all I have is my folding saw with just a 10 inch blade, my blocks are not quite as tall as I would like. This means that I'll have to add an extra tier.

While cutting out a block I found myself sawing through some frozen moose scat. I ended up abandoning that corner of my snow quarry. Still, there was a very faint essences of moose about the igloo for awhile.

It is no beauty of an igloo. But just as I am running out of packed snow I drop the last few blocks on top and I have a home. There are a lot of gaps which need to be caulked with wedges of snow and a few shovel-fulls of loose snow.

I finish building just a bit after 5:00. If I cook my dinner now I will have a very long evening, which is something I dislike, especially as I am not planning on a campfire. So I decide to try to hike to the summit. It is 1.6 miles and so I expect it will take about 1.6 hours. But I'll be traveling without a backpack. So I fill my pockets with a headlamp and gorp and head up the trail. I tell myself that I'll go until it is so dark that I can no longer find the trail. If I am circling aimlessly I'll turn and follow my footprints back home.

Finding the trail is no small feat even in daylight. Who ever picked white for the color of the AT blaze was not thinking about trails in winter. A blotch of snow against the trunk of the tree is just as white, but perhaps not quite as rectangular. So I look for other things. If I stand by a blaze I scan the woods for the direction in which the branches don't quite meet. There is also sometimes a shadow in the snow, the slight depression where someone tramped through here two snowfalls ago -- although usually the wind has scoured out that detail. I've also hiked here before and studied the maps. I know where the trail designer wants this path to go. In addition I also know that when that trail engineer reaches a ridge he/she will cut to the south to mount the ridge and then headed towards the peak along the ridge. Actually I am not certain how I find the path, but I do.

Smarts Mountain in Twilight

The Top of Mt. Cube
There are three pieces of ledge you come out on while climbing up. At the first I look back to the south where I can see Smarts Mtn. and beyond that the ski slopes on Holt. The sun has set at this point. At the next opening I can see down the Connecticut River Valley all the way to Ascutney and even pick out the fading outline of Killington in Vermont. The third ledge is oriented such that I can see the peak of Cube. The light is almost gone and there is still a quarter of a mile to go.

The trail drops into one last dark col. After clambering over a fallen tree I find a last blaze in the midst of a small clearing, and then loose the trail. Twilight really has passed and it is dark. The hemlocks at the edge of the glade are thick. There might be a gap to the right or left. I try these for ten meters, but they are dead ends. I returned to the known blaze and stare straight forward. It looks unlikely, but there was no turning indicator -- no double blaze. So I strike off straight ahead and as I approach the trees they seem to part, I find the gap in the dark, and thirty meters later I am on open ledge again. Another minute and I reach the top.

It is now truly night. I can look up and down the Connecticut valley, counting towns. I see the glow of White River Junction and West Lebanon to the south, and Bradford and Newport to the north. I sit here for five minutes drinking it all in. But I have miles to go and so soon point the up-curved tips of my snowshoes south and head home.

At first I trek without a light. I can pick out the dim shadows of my footprints in the snow, it is moonless. But it is slow going especially when passing through a dark and thick hemlock grove. So I switch on my head lamp after fifteen minutes and stride down the mountain.

On the open ledges my foot prints have blown away, but still I pick my way over this now familiar terrain. Down past the open ledges, through the beech and maple forest, around the two-log bridge buried in snow and then up to my igloo. Home and exhausted.

Cooking Supper in front
of the igloo, by candle light
I cook my supper by headlamp and candle light. A bit of a stew. I am also melting snow for the stew and tea. The stars are out and the temperature is dropping. It is 24-degs at 10:00 when I crawl into my igloo, and block the door with my snowshoes and coat.

With a single candle the igloo glows! All that white-white snow is a perfect reflector and with the candle two feet to my left I can easily read. I set my backpack up against the wall of snow and sitting in my sleeping back, on my airpad I read for half an hour. The temperature in here is a steady 32-degrees. It is dampish and my breath is a fog. But it is much more comfortable then a tent. You can sit and lean against the walls.

The day has been long and soon I can read no more, so I place my backpack in front of the door, and my coat and wool pants underneath me, and then fall asleep.

Saturday, March 6, 2011,

"ENJOY" over the door
headed out
I awake before dawn. The sleeping bag is warm, but I am itching to go. As I lay there the cracks between the snow blocks become more and more visible, grey lines in the dark. My boots have frozen, so I pull them inside of my sleeping bag for awhile and watch the day brighten. I wouldn't see a dawn from here, the hill blocks the east sky, but when it is sufficiently bright I dress and crawl out.

The melting of snow and then boiling water always seems to take too long, and by the time I have had my coffee and oatmeal I am nearly packed. I stuff the last bit of cooking and eating gear into my pack, check over the site and am about to leave the igloo. It really is a good shelter, warmer then the open sided log shelter just down the hill. So with my trekking pole I write in the snow blocks "Help yourself to this shelter", and "ENJOY!".

On the first of the
Pickerel Ponds
Down the mountain. When I cross the North Branch of Jacob's Brook I drop my pack for awhile and explore up stream. I know up here is that mysterious place called Pickerel Pond. I find an old logging road next to the stream and soon come out on the first of the ponds. I tromp across it, seeing moose tracks and in the middle of the pond I walk by a beaver house. It seemed too small to me, until I remembered that it was embedded in at least three feet of snow. Back to my backpack and back down the trail, following my tracks from yesterday.

As I pass Eastman ledges my tracks have been broken up by a moose. At first I think it is delightful that a moose would like my track so much as to grace me with its presents. But each moose track is a hole 2-3 feet deep and as much as a foot wide and after I've slide into moose tracks a dozen times I start wondering about sharing the road.

Moose Tracks
Down and down. The moose tracks and I travel together for nearly half a mile. These tracks were not here yesterday, so I wonder if the moose (actually there are at least two of them) are still in the neighborhood. Every time I round a bend I look but don't see anything.

At last I came out on the snowmobile trail. A few minutes before I meet him I can hear the snowmobile and the only person I've seen on the whole trek. The last half mile of snowshoeing is as hard as any and I am feeling the miles. But the trail head is near at hand. The day is warming and I think to myself that this might be the last weekend of the winter where I can build an igloo. There will be snow here for another month, but it is going to get softer and wetter. I can feel the moisture in the air and it smells like spring is around the corner and the sap is on the rise.