Tuesday 5 February 2013

Igloos and a Thaw: An Adventurous Combination


The return of the snow and colder temperatures meant it was time for another igloo trip, this time with Andy, Mike and Roy from the Inverness Backcountry Snowsports Club. We met in Glen Feshie and headed up into Coire Fhearnagan. The hills ringing in the corrie were pleasantly white, the cloud-dappled sky was blue and there was little wind. Soon the snow was deep enough for skis.

In search of an igloo site

Although the weather was calm and the sky was clearing we knew the forecast for the next day was stormy with strong winds and warmer temperatures so we wanted to build our igloos (we’d decided on two small ones rather than one big one – a decision that was to prove important) this side of the summit of Carn Ban Mor. That way we’d have a relatively easy descent the next day if the weather was really bad. This would also prove to be a sensible decision.

At around 750 metres a wide shallow gully running south into the corrie looked promisingly packed with snow. Prodding with ski poles showed it to be several feet deep. We’d found our igloo site. The angle meant we had to dig out platforms for the igloos before we could start actually building them. The temperature was -2.5ÂșC but the effort of shovelling in the still air meant we were soon removing clothing rather than donning it.

Starting the igloos

As darkness fell a south-west wind began to blow, whipping up spindrift. The igloos grew and soon the tops were closed and doors dug, deep doors below floor level. The spindrift still blew in so the openings needed blocking with groundsheets, Iceboxes and packs.

Igloo building after dark

In our igloo Mike and I lay in our sleeping bags talking about long walks, outdoor writing and writers, conservation and more. All seemed warm and comfortable. Finally we decided it was time for sleep. I had almost dozed off when I felt spindrift on my face. I could feel wind lifting the foot of my sleeping bag too. Puzzled I switched on my headlamp. There was a hole in the wall next to the door, a hole that was growing rapidly. As it did more and more spindrift rushed in, covering our gear. Staying here was clearly not a good idea. Important decisions needed to be made and made quickly as the situation was rapidly worsening.

When something like this happens companions are important and I couldn’t have had a better one, Mike being Mike Cawthorne, author of Hell of a Journey, an account of a winter walk over all the 1,000 metre peaks in the Highlands, and a very experienced hill walker. We very quickly agreed on a plan. Get dressed, pack up, dig around for buried gear, then see if the next door igloo was still in one piece. If it was we’d crawl in, if not we’d have to descend. The next period of time – half an hour, an hour, longer, I really don’t know – was frantic yet controlled. Emptying snow out of boots, prising frozen clothing apart and shaking off the snow, shivering as the spindrift inside melted then, when dressed, fumbling with wet gloves at half-buried gear and stuffing it into packs any way possible. And all the time the hole in the wall grew and more spindrift poured in and the wind roared.

Finally we were ready to leave, which was done more easily through the wall than the door. Outside in the blackness the wind nearly knocked me over (the Cairngorm Weather Station recorded a gust of 98mph that night). I staggered over to the other igloo, which looked intact. Shoving the door aside I crawled in and woke the others. Again, your companions are important at times like this. Andy and Roy didn’t hesitate but immediately began to make room and to work out how four of us could squeeze inside and lie down.

Soon we were organised if cramped and could try and get a few hours sleep. My sleeping bag was damp but not so wet that it didn’t keep me warm, though I did keep my down jacket on (and was pleased it was one with the new water-resistant down – although quite wet this kept most of its thickness and warmth). Mike’s sleeping bag had suffered more and he had a few chilly hours.

Come daylight and we could see small holes in this igloo, holes that were slowly growing. There was a slight sag in the wall just above Mike’s head too. Venturing outside we were startled to see that there had been a big thaw. We’d be carrying the skis down.

1.30 pm, February 2nd.

The same view, 11.15 am, February 3rd

Almost half the abandoned igloo had collapsed. The remaining section was surprisingly hard. We reckoned the thaw and the abrasion of wind-blown spindrift on the igloos, whose blocks had not had time to set up hard and ice up, were the cause of the problems.

The abandoned igloo in the morning

After a hot drink we packed up, wanting to get out of this igloo before it too became uninhabitable, and walked back down to Glen Feshie, glad that we’d stayed on that side of the hill as we were now quite tired. The wind eased, rain fell and in the glen it didn’t feel like winter. We drove to Aviemore and settled into the Active Cafaidh for a very welcome and excellent late breakfast. 

The igloos in the morning

Every outdoor trip teaches something, though it can be hard to work out just what that is. There was no doubt in this case though. If there’s likely to be a thaw don’t rely on an igloo for shelter.

The thaw lasted less than 24 hours. Now the snow has returned and everything is white again.


  1. Wow! A riveting story. I'm glad you came through it OK. Sometimes an exciting winter adventure can quickly turn nasty.

    By the way, do you carry a tent for back up if conditions aren't quite right for igloo building? I guess most tents would not have fared very well anyway in storm blown spindrift.

    Dave Porter

    1. I had a Trailstar with me and we all had bivy bags. Pitching the Trailstar would have been difficult but we could have used it for a very low shelter.

  2. Wow! That is what you call Epic! Incredible comparison photos showing the thaw.

  3. What an adventure! But it really could have turned out bad. Good to know you guys are ok after everything.

  4. Envious of all that snow but not the rude awakening in the night