Daring Deeds - real stories, expeditions, road trips and adventure
29, Sep, 2016
Heading into Alpine backcountry with an Icebox Igloo maker
Ed Leigh driven by a vision of building a Igloo village from which to enjoy a Alpine backcountry touring trip... He takes up his story.
"I am celebrated amongst my family and friends for my ill fated ideas. I own a library of idiotic stories, from cutting the seat belts out of my mums car to use as footstraps on my skateboard to alleviate speed wobble, then dousing the wheels in petrol and daring my brother to shoot me with his airgun during my descent. Right through to hosting an awards ceremony as the Lovebot, an obsolete 70’s sex robot who was made from so much tin foil that the microphone shorted and electrocuted me.
So it was with great joy in 2008 on a trip to Patagonia that I thought I had discovered a kindred spirit in our guide, Ben who proudly announced that he was the owner of an Icebox Igloo maker, he then promptly produced a flimsy plastic box. It sounded and looked ridiculous, but he assured us it guaranteed an impossibly perfect Igloo no matter what the snow conditions.
Unlike my well intentioned but ultimately flawed exploits the Igloo maker proved itself a brilliant idea. Despite poor quality melt freeze snow it created a laughably perfect igloo that slept 4 people with ease in plus 0˚C temperatures while the mercury plummeted outside.
That experience planted a seed with me that took 8 years to germinate. Over the last 6 years I have been a part of other peoples winter camping expeditions to extreme environments Svalbard, Alaska, New Zealand were all epic trips, where I also saw the limitations of tents in freezing environments.
At the same time having been led on so many trips and gathered so much experience I wanted to test my skills by building my own adventure. My dream was to assemble a group of friends for a late season backcountry touring trip. Having based myself in the Swiss Alps for the winter I was able to scope locations and in early March found the perfect spot, a NW facing bowl at 2800m with varied terrain, safe run out zones and a raised flat area for building Igloos.
The first person I recruited was Neil McNair, a mate who is always up for an adventure but most importantly is also a guide equipped with a serious and analytical mind. He would be the antidote to my dangerous poison of blind optimism.
Alongside Neil and I we added another 6 people, it may sound like a lot but this was the point of the adventure. If you are a small group of 3 or 4 the Igloo maker weighs the same as a tent and takes fives times as long to erect. But once you have more than 6 people, the equation swings in favour of the Igloos, you are saving the weight of 2 or 3 tents and yes the time to build the Igloos is still there but they have consistent internal temperatures of 1 to 2 degrees and they don’t flap or make noise in the wind.
So in mid April 8 of us struck out from the top of the Mont Fort peak in Verbier with only the flimsy plastic box to provide shelter. I was quietly terrified that despite a lot of practice in the garden, the Igloo Maker would join skateboard footstraps and the Lovebot on my epitaph as proof of the moron who had found his way 6ft under. Slightly more worrying was the fact that 7 other people, one of them my wife had also bought into my enthusiasm.
We started the tour in glorious sunshine and spirits were high as we made out way up the Rosa Blanche Glacier, but a niggling knee injury for one member of the group saw us lose time and the end of the tour was clipped by the storm that we had seen in the forecast but had planned to build the Igloos in rather than slog through.
At 3pm, a couple of hours behind schedule we had picked our spot and started to construct the first igloo and to my horror the bricks were disintegrating as soon as we removed the former. The top layer of snow was very cold and light and 20cm below, sculking like a coffin was a rotten layer of frozen rain. Confronted with two emotions: A desperate, creeping fear and confusion. I opted for the more upbeat confusion and it was met by problem solving nouse by the crew.
They set about digging test pits on every aspect and very quickly discovered thick wet snow on a southerly facing slope. In filthy conditions it took 2 and a half hours to build the big 11 foot diameter and another 2 for the 9 footer. At 8 O’clock everyone was cold, wet and tired, outside the blizzard was really starting to enjoy itself but inside, the igloos were warm and dry.
It wasn’t the ideal start to the trip, I had planned to have 3 igloos up at this point, but rather than push everyone unnecessarily, in horrible conditions for what amounted to the luxury of a little more space we opted instead to play high altitude sardines and stay nice and warm.
Over night the storm laid down more than 30cm’s of new snow and as forecast when we woke at 5.30 the skies were clear and a freeriders paradise had revealed itself to the crew. We spent the next three days exploring the ridges and peaks of our own private bowl, daytime temperatures were well into the teens, at nights clear skies would allow the warmth of the day to escape leaving sub zero temperatures to stand guard.
All the time the Igloos stood firm, the inventors of the Igloo IceBox Maker Ed Huesers and Greg Menge are clever men, the adjustable pole that maintains the horizontal radius and vertical arc of the brick former is designed to create a Catanery Curve otherwise know as the Flying Buttress the strongest support that has been in use since the dawn of modern architecture. My fear that the South facing walls would melt in the afternoon heat was ungrounded, unfortunately it took one of the crew riding into the Igloo and punching a manhole sized hole in it to find out. I shall save his blushes by not naming him here.
After 4 days we rode out to the valley floor and I was in no doubt the trip had been an overwhelming success. The Igloos proved they are capable of withstanding an incredible range of conditions, saved us more than 15kg in tent weight and gave us warm, silent shelter at high altitude. With more confidence I have already picked out a more remote spot for next winter where I’m hoping to build a village, watch this space…"
So who is Ed? Ed Leigh is a journalist and broadcaster who specialises in covering action sports.
Having been born into a sailing family where travel and adventure were compulsory subjects, it was no surprise when he left home at 17 to work seasonally between the ocean and the mountains. A talent for sliding sideways saw him eek out a living as a professional snowboarder for 5 years before a knee injury steered him into journalism. A stint as the Editor of the institution that is White Lines Magazine saw him become the voice of a sport that was being projected into the mainstream. TV work followed and in 2006 he was honoured to bring the snowboarding to life at the Olympics in Turin. He is now one half of BBC2’s Ski Sunday presenting team during the winter and Red Bull TV’s equivalent of Clare Balding the rest of the year. Ed lives with his wife and 2 children in the Swiss Alps and will slip off for an adventure whenever possible, be it 20 minutes or 20 days
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