Snow Caves at Stevens Pass
March 27-28, 1999

After our aborted attempt on Mt. Higgins, we headed south, and then east to Stevens Pass. Snow conditions here looked much more favorable for our purposes, and grumbling about how warm the trucks were, and how cold it was outside, we threw all our outdoor gear back on and headed up the trail towards Heather Ridge. We didn't have far to go (which was good, because it was already 2:30!) before we found an ideal slope - trees at the top to help anchor the snow, and trees near the bottom to provide a little windblock.

After a little coaching from the instructors (Mark and Brad), we set to hollowing out what would be our home for the night. First we carved a door into the side of the snow slope, then, as it got larger, we started disappearing into the snow to hollow out the cave from the inside. Since I'm quite a bit larger than my two partners for this outing, Heather and Kurt, they became the inside workers, while I tried to keep our snow tunnel clear of all the snow they were shoveling out. They were both quite exuberant shovelers, and more than once I'd hear this muffled voice from deep in the snow bank "Clear the tunnel, Matt!" I had to call the instructors over to help me catch up a time or two, but eventually our "snow palace" was excavated. It had taken almost two hours, but we could have easily slept all five of us on the platform we had cleared. As it was, Mark and Brad had dug their own cave, so we used the extra space to haul our packs up with us, and spread our gear around.

It was after 5:00 by this time, so we wasted very little time getting our sleeping quarters set up, and instead hurried back outside to fire up stoves and start heating water for dinner and for drinking, and that wonderful luxury, a hot water bottle for the sleeping bag! Soon after dinner was over, Heather and Kurt headed up into the cave to get some sleep. Mark, Brad and I sat around, talking about what else we'd be covering in the class, climbs we'd done and would like to do, and just the general stuff you talk about after dinner on a cold March night in the snowy mountains. There was almost a full moon that night, and it was casting a bright light down on us. There was also a thin cloud cover, and somewhere along the line, the clouds starting dropping some snow flakes, but the moon was bright enough, and the clouds thin enough, that the bright moonlight lit up each snow crystal on its way down - beautiful!

We saw a mysterious light appear across the highway, high on a ridgetop above the ski resort at Stevens Pass. It eventually started moving along the ridge and disappeared to the other side. Maybe it was a groomer, or maybe just a sno-cat - who knows. My feet started getting pretty cold, so I decided to call it a night as well, and climbed up our snow slide onto our sleeping platform. The platform we cleared was probably 7' x 10', and maybe 4' high - plenty of room to get the sleeping bag and bivy sack rolled out, and get out of my wet clothes and into the sleeping bar with the hot water bottle. Although I slept on two foam pads, I still woke several times during the night, and didn't feel too warm - never really cold, but definitely not toasty either. Maybe I was too cold when I went to bed.

The first thing I noticed when I woke up in the morning was that the roof of our cave was significantly closer to my face than it had been when I went to bed. After looking around a little I was able to find a large crack system in the ceiling of our cave, and I could see where the snow was starting to settle down towards us. I mentioned this to Heather and Mark, and that provided some great motivation to get packed up and out of the cave quickly Sunday morning! Although it was cold and snowing outside, we all quickly started breakfast and talked about what we'd do for the day. Although the students were all for packing up and heading home, the instructors with their iron fists demanded that we stay and work on the skills we were supposed to practice. Fortunately, the weather broke, and soon we were basking under sunshine and blue skies! The temperatures were still pretty chilly, but with sunshine you can tolerate almost anything!

the first order of business was to collapse the snow caves - this proved much easier than I was hoping. Kurt gingerly stepped out onto the roof of our cave, positioned himself close to where we thought the fracture line in the ceiling was and gave a little hop - he immediately collapsed right through into the cave - yikes! A couple more jumps to collapse a bit more of the structure, and then some shovel work, and all that was left was a large hole in the snow, instead of a covered space for snow shoers or skiers to fall into.

After our deconstructing job, we proceeded on to snow anchors and snow belaying. The snow didn't lend itself greatly to anchors, but we managed to set some bomber deadman anchors, even though our vertically placed pickets were fairly easy to pull out. After anchor practice, we loaded everything up in our packs and headed back to the cars. We dropped most of our gear off there, and grabbed just what we needed to practice crevasse rescue. The huge piles of snow the plows had been piling up at the end of the parking lot provided us with an adequate simulation of a crevasse lip, and each of the students took a turn at being the fallen climber, the middle man on the rope, and the non-fallen end climber on the rope. Things didn't go as smoothly as they could have and we all agreed that a little more review on future outings would probably be in order. After grabbing a quick bite to eat, we headed over to a (mostly) vacant parking lot and had a chance to practice avalanche transceiver location. This was the first time I had had a chance to play with avalanche transceivers, and I became a quick convert to the induction line method of location, as long as I had a transceiver that provided me with a visual indication of signal strength. I tried the grid search method of location, and just never quite got the hang of it, although after I was done I shadowed one of the instructors around as he did the same thing, and I was able to hear what he was trying to describe for me to listen to. It helped a bunch to actually listen to the signal he was listening to, and watch what he was doing. I'm pretty sure I could do a better job now, but I still really like the induction line location method.

Just as we were finishing up our final exercise, we were inundated with basic students coming down off the ridge above us. They had been up there all day practicing ice axe arrest, basic snow anchors and roped travel. After stopping to chat with some of the other Boealps members who were helping out with teaching the basic class this year (I'll be back next year!), we headed back to our trucks, and then back down off the pass and home.

Instructors: Mark Hicks, Brad Walker Students: Heather Naughton, Kurt Nelson, Matt Robertson

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