Craig Connally gives it a try
I've known about the benefits of igloos for some time: they're warmer, quieter, and stand up to storms better than any tent. In fact, the group I often ski with, the Sierra Club's Ski Mountaineers Section, devotes one outing each year to no-tents camping. Problem is, igloos take a lot of time to build; pairs of experienced Ski Mountaineers generally need at least four hours and most don't manage to close the tops. Igloos don't like to be made from powder or sugar snow, and they seldom come out looking as neat and tidy as the image in your mind. When I heard about the Grand Shelters ICEBOX I was eager to give it a try; it was claimed to solve all the problems of igloo construction yet cost a fraction of what sturdy tents go for.
When I opened the box I immediately smiled. It appeared to be exceptionally well thought out. The ICEBOX is clearly the product of mad scientists who are totally into new school igloo technology. Turns out the guys behind it are plastic mold makers; they obviously know their stuff. Reading the detailed manual was interesting, but in the back of my mind I wondered if I could remember enough to set the thing up properly. The first opportunity to give it a try came just a few days later.
I convinced my buddy Wally, an architect who has built igloos the old fashioned way, to commit to the ICEBOX on a three-day ski mountaineering outing. I even convinced him to carry it. Actually, the ICEBOX only weighs about five pounds–less than a four season mountaineering tent for two, and even less when you consider that you don't need winter sleeping bags. We went to the trail head the night before the outing and built a four-block igloo as a proof-of-concept. It might work, Wally said. Well it'd better, I replied, because we won't be carrying any backup and the wind is howling over the Sierra Crest.
Same weather the next morning. It was storming mightily, but nine people showed up so the trip went ahead. Wally and I did get some funny looks at the contraption we were carrying, and we sized up the other skiers who we might have to beg for shelter if worst came to worse. Later in the day the group had skinned up toward our objective, but we were stopped near the top by high winds. The clouds were dropping along with the sun and the temperature, so we decided to hunker down where we were.
With limited time until darkness, Wally and I set to it. Sure enough, I couldn't find my ICEBOX manual. Don't let this happen to you. The ICEBOX is basically a plastic slip form that swings around a spot that will become the center of the igloo, anchored by a telescoping aluminum tube. I couldn't remember how to snap together the three-section pole and what to do about the "P" markings. Failure was non-optional, so I gave it my best guess and it all seemed to work out. We used the anchored pole to walk off the approximate periphery of the igloo, stomped out the eventual floor, and Wally began shoveling snow while I wrestled with the ICEBOX.
The others in the group began setting up their own shelters, while giving Wally and me some wry smiles and an occasional shovel of snow. Three skiers set up a Megamid and built snow block walls to shelter it. Others set up two tents inside snow block walls. And a communal cooking area was built with trenches and snow blocks to cut the wind. This took about an hour and forty-five minutes, all told.
Wally and I had pretty good starting materials: powder, a little ice, some TG, but mostly your basic heavy Sierra Nevada spring snow. Grand Shelters claims that the ICEBOX works with all kinds of snow, and that certainly seems possible. The igloo soon took shape, as the rows of formed-in-place blocks spiraled upward and I followed all the instructions I could remember. Patting down the snow into the form turned out to be slower than shoveling the snow to fill it. Our igloo soon reached the point where I could barely get my head and one arm through the top to pat down the blocks. The next blocks were shoveled in place with me entirely inside the igloo, holding up half the form. At this point we realized that without a door it was almost impossible to shout back and forth through the walls. Wally set to digging out an entrance, making an extra deep pit, while I used one handful of snow at a time from inside the igloo to close up the holes at the top, enough so that more snow could simply be pitched on from outside. I then dug an eighteen-inch wide and deep trench from the door opening across two thirds of the inside diameter, and with a little smoothing of the sleeping areas and some plastering of thin spots, we were done. Total time: almost exactly two hours.
Now the other mountaineers really got interested. Everyone came in for a look, and soon there were five of us sitting inside comfortably chatting. We had to open our jackets as the igloo warmed up. Later, while the others huddled behind their porous snow block walls, Wally and I casually cooked dinner in comfort, without gloves. We had plenty of room for boots, packs, a cooking area, and spreading out. I'm a little over six feet tall and I could stand up inside; can't do that in a tent, and tracking in snow on your boots is a non-issue. The smaller of the ICEBOX sides makes a good place to keep snow that will be melted for water; the snow stays soft inside the igloo. The larger panel makes a great door; a crude closure was all that was necessary. The outside of our igloo had turned harder than Chinese algebra, complete with ICEBOX logo marks on each block, but the inside set up just enough to stop shedding. We used the pole pieces stuck in the walls to hang gloves and a candle lantern. Totally casual.
During the night we could tell that a storm was raging outside, but inside the igloo it was very quiet. No tent flapping. No snow drifting in. The others followed the tradition of putting hot water in their insulated bottles before retiring. Their bottles froze over night, but a half-filled cup in the igloo stayed liquid. I slept comfortably in my summer bag. The next morning was even better; Wally and I were warm and well-rested, while the others took out their ear plugs and resigned themselves to chilly breakfasts.
A very convincing demonstration for both doers and watchers. The ICEBOX proved to be an ideal solution for basecamp mountaineering any time snow is available. Looks like those mad scientists at Grand Shelters are on to something.