Sierra Nevada Mountains Winter Camping

Ben Badal, Los Angeles

Trip Report/Review

When I tell my friends I went camping in the snow and slept in an igloo, they always listen with great fascination. They ask me why I go. It is difficult to explain to someone why one would leave a comfortable house to freeze to death in the mountains - even my wife does not understand it But as my uncle in Uruguay said when I sent him the pictures, "Every nut with his theme" (literal translation sounds funny, means everybody with his thing). And for me, there is no other place I would rather be than in the mountains during the winter. This winter I went with my brother and nephew to the mountains of Sequoia National Park in California to camp in the snow and build a snow shelter. We had a lot of fun and enjoyed the beautiful views, serenity, and recreation that the mountains offer during the winter. And contrary to what many think, we were comfortable and dry thanks to the igloo that we built with a tool that I found on the internet called the ICE BOX. I wanted this tool for my Boy Scouts. Now I think this is an essential piece of camping equipment if one wants to be comfortable in the snow.
On Thursday March 11, 2004 I left my house in Los Angeles at 4:00 am to make the five-hour trip to the Sierra Nevada mountains and to meet my brother Gerardo and his 16 year-old son. We met at 9 am in the Sequoia National Park, in the area of Wolverton, close to Lodgepole. A little before I arrived I passed through the giant sequoia trees that are so majestic that it was an impressive experience in itself. There was a meter of snow where we parked the cars and started our hike with snow shoes. Our plan was to walk 8 kilometers Thursday and Friday towards the area of Pear Lake at an altitude of 2,084 meters, and return Saturday. But the snow was soft and the trip was hard. We only walked 3 kilometers the first day. We wanted to camp near a creek where we had found water the previous year. This was so we would not have to melt a lot of snow for drinking and cooking water. Also, we wanted to build the igloo with daylight. Having drank all our water an hour earlier, we were thirsty. But to our surprise, this year the creek was covered with three meters of snow. We had to search until finding a spot where there was a little hole created by the trunk of a huge pine tree crossing the creek like a bridge. I took out my shovel and widened the hole until I could enter and reach the water with a bottle tied to a string. Now with an abundance of water to drink and cook with, we started with the second priority of making an igloo.

We Love Winter Camping
We Love Winter Camping

We were very excited to build an igloo with the help of the ICE BOX. I had heard of the advantages of sleeping in an igloo, a warmer temperature than a tent, a profound silence, and most important for me, protection from the wind that can be dangerous in these temperatures. The ICE BOX is a tool that removes the science, risk, and difficulty of building snow shelters. What you end up with is an igloo with a perfect curve that takes less time and energy to build than a snow cave. In fact, according to Mr. Ed Hueser the owner of Grand Shelters that invented the ICE BOX, that curve is the key to the strength of this igloo. The ICE BOX builds an igloo with a perfect parabola called a catenary curve. Or in other words, the most stable curve where the same amount of force pushes down as inward. The catenary curve was discovered by the Romans and they used it to build the aqueducts. In Europe they used the catenary curves in the flying buttresses of the cathedrals. Using that curve, the ICE BOX builds an igloo so strong that Mr. Hueser had photos of three men on top. I bought the ICE BOX for less than the price of a tent from North Face. Also, it weighs the same as a tent and comes with straps to attach to a backpack. It came with well-written instructions (in English) and a 20-minute video that demonstrates how to assemble and use the tool. What I found was a three-sided, plastic form that attaches to an aluminum pole, which in turn attaches to a stake that one puts into the snow as the pivot.
Well, we assembled the ICE BOX but I discovered I had forgotten the instructions at home. We had to assemble the ICE BOX from memory and continue on faith. I had read the instructions and watched the video many times, but we still made some fundamental errors at the beginning that caused insurmountable problems later. The most critical error was we did not reinforce the stake which was loose and came out of position. Some times we completed several blocks before noticing that the stake was out and the form was out of position. This caused the second row to not line up with the first and we had to stretch and change angles to compensate. Well, these problems only grew for the third row and we realized we could not salvage the situation. My nephew was feeling sick from the altitude so we just decided to sleep in the open sky. It was late, it was getting cold, and there was a very cold breeze coming down the mountain. Our wall gave us protection from the wind which helped a lot.

We Love Winter Camping
We Love Winter Camping

We had success building an igloo the next day. My nephew woke up worse Friday. He was dehydrated, but could not hold down water. We spent the morning trying to help him get better, but we realized that he could not continue to Pear Lake. At noon we hiked to a close place witch had a better view to build an igloo. We found a place we liked and began another igloo around 2pm.
We took 45 minutes to level the base and did a very good job this time (see the picture). We reinforced the center very compact where the stake would go. We stopped for lunch and to spend more time with my nephew. We prepared a bed for him and he fell asleep around 3:15. With the base built, lunch done, and the nephew comfortable, my brother and I attacked the igloo.

We Love Winter Camping
We Love Winter Camping

We were at a disadvantage since we wanted an igloo with a 3 meter diameter for three people, but we were only two people to work on it. We were very, very careful on the first row to make sure the stake was stable and to get right angles. The first row, which is the most critical, took more than an hour. The following rows went much faster because the circumference was getting smaller and the form was easier to release from the blocks. When we got to the sixth row we removed the outer panel because the form was leaning more horizontal than vertical. I was surprised by how fast the last rows and top went. We dug an entrance and a trench below the floor. I could not believe it when it was done. The igloo was perfect.