A chemiluminescent spark flashes through my neurons, jolting me awake from my shallow slumber. Cold air pierces my lungs as I shoot up and simultaneously slam my forehead into the icy shelf just inches above my shivering body. My hands and feet are numb, and I fight off panic as I try to figure out if I can actually move my frozen digits.
I have no idea how long I’ve been asleep or what time it is (10 pm? 5 am?). It’s the second (and final) night of a winter camping adventure to survive in a self-built snow cave, but in my current frigid state, I consider bundling up, packing up, and giving up, even though it’s the final stretch. At least the six-mile slog back to the Jeep at the bottom of the mountain would produce some body heat, and I had enough remaining food to keep me going.
I switch my headlamp on and rotate like a rotisserie in my bag to see my climbing partner, Eric, completely still—in a deep sleep, in fact, his breath forming small clouds of condensation. I calm my thoughts, collect my conscience, and decide to wait out the night, motivated by the thought of morning sun warming my frozen face.
An Intense Situation
Contrary to the popular beliefs of some who reside west of the Mississippi, Appalachian winters can deliver up some mighty harsh conditions, and some of West Virginia’s most rugged regions provide ideal training grounds for more ambitious alpine adventures.
So it was several years ago in the middle of a snowy January that Eric and I set off to the high plains of West Virginia’s Dolly Sods Wilderness to hone our skills at building emergency lodging on mountaineering expeditions. Our mission was simple: drive to the gate at the bottom of the Allegheny Front, snowshoe six relentless miles and 1,500 feet to the summit plains, and construct a snow cave where we’d spend two nights. We purposefully packed light to encourage completion of the cave: 20-degree bags, thin accordion foam pads, and, as an emergency backup, a three-season tent. To complete our mission, we brought a small hand saw to cut ice blocks and a five-by-seven ground tarp for flooring.
With a late afternoon start, we strapped on our snowshoes, shouldered our packs, and began the long journey up Forest Road 19. The snow at the trailhead was two feet deep; we knew it would be significantly deeper at the summit. The cloudy evening faded into a slate gray night, but the snow-covered road provided enough ambient light to trudge on without headlamps. With tinted goggles, a facemask, and no exposed skin, I felt like an astronaut floating across the surface of a frozen exoplanet in a malleable spacesuit. Our rhythmic pace led to a zen-like calm—until I decided to finally switch on my headlamp.
I was shocked to see a wall of fat snowflakes flying at my face. I yelled to Eric, whose silhouette had suddenly disappeared behind the illuminated blur of blowing snow, to turn on his headlamp. His surprised shout echoed my astonishment. We had been plodding through darkness for more than an hour, blissfully unaware of the blizzard through which we hiked.
We needed to make camp immediately—there was no way we’d be building the snow cave in this storm. We arrived at the picnic area a few miles shy of the summit meadows and got to work. The wind whipped ferociously as we dug through three feet of snow on the leeward side of a picnic table. Eric set up the tent as I compacted snow atop the picnic tables and sawed it into blocks. We stacked them around the tent to create a roofless igloo that would serve as a windshield.
We woke the next morning in a dark tent covered and surrounded by heavy snow. We knocked enough off to open the door, peering over the igloo walls to discover a magical scene. Bluebird skies and a brilliant sun illuminated the surface flakes of the freshly fallen snow like a hoard of precious gemstones. But our astonishment soon faded when Eric realized his big toe was completely numb and a disconcerting shade of blue—a hole in the toe of his boot was the culprit. He massaged some life back into the toe and heated water in which to dip his digits while I broke down camp.
With some tingles in his toe, breakfast in our bellies, and a renewed resolve, we set off to find the site for our next snow cave—this one, hopefully, minus the tent. Three feet of snow had become five overnight, and snowdrifts on the uphill banks of the road surpassed 10 feet. We considered digging into one for our shelter, but the previous night’s fresh powder collapsed when we tried to burrow into the more compacted center of the drift.
We snowshoed a few miles to the first of many overlooks on this portion of the Allegheny Front and surveyed the landscape to the east. From the summit of this massive ridge escarpment, one can see a geologic diorama unlike anywhere else in Appalachia. More than 2,500 feet below the Front, the valley of the North Fork of the South Branch Potomac River is dotted by the stony fins of the River Knobs. This bucolic valley is framed by the miles-long cliffline of North Fork Mountain; North Fork is superimposed against the backdrop of the ridge-and-valley systems that extend all the way into Virginia.
Caving into the Night
It was high noon and time to do what we trudged all the way up this damn mountain to do—build the snow cave. We started by stomping out an 8-by-10-foot area in an open meadow covered in about four feet of snow. This compacted rectangle of snow serves as the source of sawn roof blocks and as the superstructure under which sleeping compartments are dug. This step is ideally completed under strong sunshine, as the sun compacts the surface snow and raises the moisture content.
Next we dug a trench lengthwise down the middle of the trampled area wide enough to stand in, allowing us to cut rectangular blocks from either side that would become the roof over the trench. Once the roof was in place, we dug out from the bottom of the trench to create a sort of upside-down T shape—these would become our sleeping compartments. While Eric worked on digging out our quarters, I cut boughs from nearby red spruce trees for additional insulation under our foam pads. The incessant wind gusts sounded like jumbo jets passing overhead, and the snow picked up again. As the sun dipped below treeline, I worried that we had started building too late.
A few hours later, the snow cave finally complete and darkness fully upon us, we crawled inside, unrolled our bags, and placed our packs in the entrances to seal the cave and contain as much ambient heat as possible. Exhausted, we scarfed down some rock-hard energy bars, drank hot water with melted cubes of butter, and passed out. This, however, is where things went wrong—we had worked up quite a good sweat during the construction phase and didn’t bring extra base layers. Our wet clothes quickly turned the snow cave’s relatively balmy temperature of around 40 degrees into a dangerous sleeping situation—a person who stops moving in damp clothes can become hypothermic at just 50 degrees.
And that’s precisely when I was jolted awake and smashed my head into the icy roof of the cave. I wiggled out of my bag, quaking as I made the executive decision to put on my damp midlayer jacket. I woke Eric, teeth chattering as I advised him to do the same, and crawled back into my bag. I closed my eyes, hoping that the next time I opened them, things would be better.
Thankfully, they were. I woke peacefully to see sunlight around the silhouette of my backpack—the night was over. Exhausted but exhilarated, we donned our stiff snow pants, jammed our feet into frozen boots, and packed up our bags. The Jeep was only six miles away; Denny’s was only 30 miles from there.
The deep cold that penetrated the very core of my being started to thaw after the first few miles. As we trudged back down Forest Road 19, any evidence of our prior passage had been erased by the storm. The previous day’s wintery beauty had faded into a dreary landscape that felt harsh, unwelcoming, and endless. Every turn on the snowy road yielded yet another stretch just like the one before it; the final three miles felt like 30.
About a mile from the trailhead, we passed a couple who had just begun their ascent of the mountain on cross-country skis, clad in daypacks and brimming with energy. The woman smiled at us; the man shouted, “Hey guys, how’s it going? Beautiful day for a ski, right?” The best I could do was muster a dry smile and mutter, “Yeeerp.”
Written by Dylan Jones for Matcha in partnership with RootsRated.