Last February, after weeks of mixed weather, Chris Townsend finally grabbed a brief window of opportunity to sleep under snow in Glen Affric
A rollercoaster of weather conditions marked the early part of the winter, with snow coming and going with amazing rapidity. Sometimes there was a snowfall and a thaw within 24 hours, with the temperatures dropping below freezing and then rising to unseasonable heights with amazing rapidity. The only constants were the strong winds and cloudy skies. Finally in mid February the weather began to settle. Snow fell and stayed. The temperatures remained cold. The wind eased. Time, I thought, for an igloo.
With three companions from the Inverness Backcountry Snowsports Club I set off from Glen Affric towards the cloud-shrouded peak of Toll Creagach. Down in the glen there was little snow and the ground was muddy and sodden from weeks of rain and snowmelt. Having skis on our backs made for arduous going, especially when the hillside steepened. Good for balance, I thought, as I teetered upwards under my top-heavy swaying load. Finally we reached the first big snow fields and were able to put our skis on and progress more easily. Up here the wind was sharp and cold with hints of sleet and snow.
Finding the perfect pitch
For an igloo site we were looking for somewhere where the snow was deep and there was at least some shelter from the wind. A few possibilities were passed by. There’d be something better up ahead, we thought. And there was: a flattish area under a shallow bank. My ski pole went in up to the handle. Plenty of snow for an igloo and for a door below the level of the floor so warm air wouldn’t escape. We stamped out an area, left it to harden for a short while then began making blocks with Igloo Ed’s marvellous Icebox tool (grandshelters. com/icebox-igloo). I was glad to be building an igloo out in the hills where it belonged. Last year the only igloo I built was in an indoor ski centre in Glasgow on the hottest day of the year!
Four hours later, after much shovelling of snow and breaks for hot drinks, our home for the night was complete. Below a few inches of dry powder the snow had been damp and granular, ideal for packing into solid blocks. Shovelling it was hard work though and my muscles told me it had been a while since I’d done anything like this. The final section of the igloo was finished soon after sunset – I’m always amazed that this horizontal piece stays in place – and we moved inside. Outside the temperature was dropping and the wind was bitter. Inside it was much warmer, almost cosy in fact. Soon boiling water was filling the igloo with steam as dinner cooked while we stretched out and relaxed on our insulating mats.
A triumphant return
Dawn came with a grey light percolating the walls of the igloo. Outside a little snow had fallen and dark clouds suggested there was more to come. The wind was still blowing. Above us Toll Creagach was still hidden in the clouds. We headed up anyway, enjoying skiing with light packs. On reaching the edge of the mist and a broad ridge dotted with rocks where it looked as though we’d have to carry the skis to continue, we stopped. This was far enough. Stripping the climbing skins from our skis we turned and skied back down to the igloo, my first long descent of the season. Different muscles were soon aching.
Back at the igloo we packed up as snow began to fall more heavily and then skied off rather more precariously due to our big packs. Soon there was more heather than snow on the ground and more rain than snow in the air. Reluctantly the skis went back on the packs and we began the long walk out. The rain hammered down. It was the wettest walk I’d had in a while. I didn’t mind. The igloo had been a success and that’s why I was there.
Words and pictures: Chris Townsend