“I’ve been trying to work out what snow holing is,” texted my best friend, Tracy (safe in balmy Devon), “does it involve making an igloo and sleeping in it?!” Pretty much I replied, head in hands. “You nutter…… 😂❤x,” she signed off!
Tracy, and Wild Gump (my Dad) were the biggest proponents of this (ludicrous? foolhardy?) endeavour.
However I suspected it was a challenge too far when my little sister Joey, 10-years younger and a veteran Icelandic blizzard hiker, said she was ‘a little bit worried about me.’
I knew things were really bad when my middle sister, Janey, married to an ex-Para, said nothing. The Paras see, they know these things…
Hmm. So why was I doing this challenge?
Tracy said that having coped with my daughter’s cancer this would be a walk in the Cairngorms(!) and humour aside, family were tremendously supportive of my 44-year old peri-menopausal need to sleep in a freezing mountain hole with people I scarcely knew!
I and Caroline (diagnosed a year ago with rare Rhabdomyosarcoma but now in remission) were not so sure. We’d spent virtually the whole year together and not a single night apart. She’d conquered cancer so surely I could achieve this? And we can’t be together forever.
Caroline’s treatment had left me with a deep need to be dragged back into life. With little exercise and much of her recovery spent indoors I’d lost my mojo, self-esteem and a lot of confidence. Snow holing may not have been the preferred activity to rectify this but, with a John Muir quote in my head and not realising it was over Mother’s Day, I signed up.
So What is Snow Holing?
Snow holing is essentially a mountain survival technique whereby, on being stranded up a mountain without shelter (or on choosing to do so…), one digs a hole to sleep in.
⚠ Warning ⚠
You don’t go snow holing on a whim with a group of friends
A winter mountain snow holing expedition must be well organised with an experienced leader like our guide, the excellent Will Close-Ash of Mountain Energy. It’s not a standard Kids of the Wild family activity (though Mountain Energy do offer basic kids excursions).
Our group of 5 Rover Scouts (adult scouts – the kids can’t have all the fun!) included four experienced adults with a trainee and two qualified mountain rescuers and an ultra-marathon runner. I was wholeheartedly the group novice (a snow virgin they said!) having never hiked in winter conditions nor done a challenge hike for around 20 years.
Taking The High Road
Regardless of reasons or reservations, we met for the 4-hour journey to Loch Insch Outdoor Centre, our first port of call for a wee dram before bed. Over a hearty breakfast Will detailed the plan, the weather forecast (30-40 mph winds, snow after lunch) and the avalanche warnings for the area.
Wait, WHAT? Avalanche warnings? In Scotland? Scotland, UK??
Avalanche Of Emotions
Oh yes non-mountaineering people, there are many, many avalanches in the UK. At the time of writing, the Scottish Avalanche Information Service (SAIS) stats were: –
Last 48 hours 0
Last month 81
Last season 90
This season 179
The Scottish Highlands are no playground for the inexperienced especially at this time of year. Check the news for lost or injured mountaineers – bodies sometimes aren’t found for weeks or months despite rescue services’ best efforts. And 90% of avalanches are caused by the victim themselves…
Nerves suddenly tainted the excitement of our impending adventure; I needed to get back to my child in one piece! But you know what? I bet Caroline felt far worse every day of her treatment so fear wasn’t going to stop me, if my girl had got through what she had.
To The Mountain
It was an inauspicious start from Coire Cas car park, Cairngorm National Park, with biting wind, snow and (thankfully) low visibility (if I’d seen the ridge we ended up digging in at 3470 feet I’d likely have run away instantly!) From the outset we wore full kit including ski goggles, carrying crampons, helmets, ice axes, shovels and a saw in packs.
Not more than a few hundred metres up, my lack of fitness kicked in, with excrutiating muscle burn in both thighs and chest pain (unused to carrying a heavy pack). So soon? At the snow-plough station I told the group my doubts, thinking it better to bail out early and save someone returning me down the mountain later on. But nobody entertained me bailing, they just gave morale-boosting positivity, calorific fudge and a slower pace onwards.
Further on, James (the marathon runner) set off, stamping footprints for me to tread in – I had no energy to lift my feet and kick the snow away myself! Occasionally the spindrift was so bad I couldn’t see his footprints just a pace in front..
This was genuinely the hardest physical thing I have ever done in my life. Anything similar in the past was done with a much greater level of fitness, and winter mountaineering is a whole other thing anyway.
After 2.5 hours hard graft (and only 2.5km walked!) we arrived at the bottom of a ‘cliff’, setting up a temporary shelter to put on crampons. The relief from wind bombardment in that shelter was intense!
Will climbed higher to check for suitable digging snow while Karl (mountain rescue trainee) headed to the top to scout weather conditions. They didn’t moan about the cold while we were in the shelter at all..
High above us Will found an area of snow with depths of 2.5m down and backwards and the digging began. Well, after a 30 degree climb for a couple of hundred metres. The others climbed whilst I received winter skills training in crampon and ice axe use.
30 degree incline? Felt pretty sheer to me!
Time for me to head upwards and dig! No chance of walking flat-footed (‘duck’ or John Wayne-style) to avoid tripping or kicking yourself with your own spikes, the gradient required hybrid-style climbing (one foot John Wayne, the other front point) and then just front point (kicking into the snow with just the toe of the crampon to achieve grip – see above photos) and hauling on the ice ace for balance. Exciting but scary stuff for a novice.
Progress had been made at the snow hole site on two entrances. The wind was vicious and though it was no longer snowing the spindrift was severe, freezing and seriously affecting visibility. Thank goodness for ski goggles.
How To Dig A Snow Hole
Snow holing involves one person excavating ‘at the face’ while the rest remove the snow being dug out. In our case this also involved clearing the eternal spindrift build-up and digging a trench between the two entrances to link us at night.
There are various ‘designs.’ Our idea was to dig an entrance tunnel 2 or 3 metres into the snow and then excavate the side of the tunnel, creating a sleeping platform raised from the tunnel floor (so carbon dioxide sinks down overnight). We were digging two, to sleep three people each with hopefully a linking ‘window’ in the middle so we could talk to each other.
Digging for more than a few minutes is tiring and those clearing snow outside get cold. Continual swapping is required. For five and a half hours…
A snow hole should take 4 to 6 hours to complete but the snow pack was so solid that our progress was slow. After almost 6 hours one hole was half-finished and the other slightly more, with room for one person to sleep – mainly due to Ninette discovering a novel method of excavation by scouring snow with crampon spikes whilst lying on one’s back!!
A rock was uncovered in the sleeping area of one hole so digging had to re-start on the opposite side. There were seams of solid ice in the snow which even the saw struggled with. I spent a long time on my knees or sitting whilst digging (to protect my scoliosis) which made for the coldest bottom I have ever had!
Me at entrance showing crazy spindrift, Ninette in one tunnel, Karl at the other
We’d been on the mountain in trying conditions for nearly 9 hours with at least 3 more hours digging required to be anywhere near sleep-ready, longer if we stopped to eat. A team meeting was held and it was voted, reluctantly but sensibly, to retreat back to the hostel. Will calculated we’d moved around 8 tonnes of snow…!
We stocked up on snacks, donned duvet jackets for warmth, took one last look at the snow holes and headed out for an exhilarating retreat down the mountain; in the dark, backwards down the cliff on front point then sliding with ice-axe brakes and yomping down the track by the light of head torches in a howling storm (it transpired the winds were 50mph gusting to 70mph at the top with a wind chill factor of -15 to -20 degrees…)
The mountain was empty except for us. The snow gates were shut due to dangerous road conditions. There is no word to describe this day other than epic. An adventure of epic proportions.
We cooked our ration packs at the hostel at 10pm, grateful for having booked the extra night in case of need. And we slept like logs!
Retreating from the snow hole meant we were refreshed (though aching – nobody in this group was under 40!) and gave us the opportunity of a hike we wouldn’t otherwise have had. The morning weather was calm and clear, a sea-change from the previous day, so we headed back to Cairngorm in full winter kit but with decidedly lighter backpacks.
I confess to a brief couple of minutes crying in the car, remembering where we were last Mother’s Day with Caroline released from her first chemo round after 12 days in hospital. We’d taken kedgeree to the beach and she was doing cartwheels despite everything she’d been through. Once the tears were released I was fine for the rest of the day and the team, as before, were all the support I needed.
Yet again my fitness was an issue but a slow but sure ascent achieved my fourth Munro (mountains over 1000m, 3000ft high). There was mist and white-out near the summit, a stunning cloud inversion and glorious sunshine.
Whatever your beliefs there is something Godly and spiritual about the mountains. What a weekend!
- I can dig a snow hole without falling into a coma or slipping a disc
- Snow is cold…
- My body is stronger than I think
- I have deep anxiety re Caroline’s health and future
- Night time fears can be hard to conquer
- Mountains make everything better
- The urine of the dehydrated looks like Guinness!
- I rock!
People ask awkward questions like ‘what about going to the toilet in freezing snow in the middle of nowhere…?’ Well….you know what? You’ll just have to wait until next time to find out. Sign up to Kids of the Wild to make sure you don’t miss that little nugget!
What I will leave you with is this;
Wild Mums Rock!
If we desire to bring up our children in a world where they feel free and confident to explore, get dirty, have adventures, make mistakes, challenge themselves, endure, love the wild and learn to be wild well, heck, we’ve got to show them we are just a little bit wild too..
Let’s get out there, wild warrior women, and inspire our kids, (though right now I’m off to watch Mama Mia with my girl, who’d set up the pop-up tent in the lounge for a Mother’s Day homecoming party with flowers, cake, handmade cards and a present!). Love my wildling!
I am completely elated to have achieved this. Thanks to these fantastic people for getting me up and down a mountain twice in one weekend and also for sharing some of the photos for this post.
“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken over-civilised people are beginning to find that going to the mountains is going home.” – John Muir
Organise a snow holing weekend with Mountain Energy
Learn how to become a volunteer Mountain Rescue Team Member
Read more about Caroline’s cancer journey at Caroline’s Rainbow
Read Andy Kirkpatrick’s excellent article about UK snow holing