Mountain Rescue: Building snow shelters to save your life
A couple weekends ago, Grand County Search and Rescue and Routt County Search and Rescue teamed up to search for an overdue snowmobiler near Rabbit Ears Pass. The subject had called his buddy around 1 p.m., stating that he was stuck. When the subject never showed up at the trailhead, the reporting party called 911. It was 6:30 p.m., snowing hard, and the avalanche danger was “considerable” according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.
Field teams from both SAR teams performed a trail search from opposite sides of the trail system, meeting in the middle near Buffalo Pass, stopping along the way to call out and look for clues like smoke or light from a fire. No off-trail searching was done because of the avalanche danger. The search was suspended after midnight when all searchers were out of the field.
The subject was found early the next morning, alive and well, by other snowmobilers. Fliers had been distributed at the trailheads to inform the public.
After the fact, our Incident Commander had an opportunity to chat with the man, who was a Steamboat resident. He stated that after spending hours trying to dig out his snow machine he realized that he needed to do something to survive the night. He was wet from sweat and snow, and too tired to gather firewood. He built a snow shelter and crawled in, staying there for the night.
When people get lost or stranded outdoors in the winter they usually don’t die from lack of food or water, it’s the cold that kills them. To prevent death from hypothermia, you need to take action to stay warm.
If you have the ability and energy to build a fire, you’re golden. I have written a previous article on firebuilding, one important aspect is that you need to have enough wood to keep the fire going all night.
Building some sort of shelter is a key survival tactic. In the winter, building a snow shelter is the obvious solution. A well built snow shelter will help keep you warm by keeping the wind off, but also because the snowpack is warmer than the outside air. The temperature inside a snow cave will be around 32 degrees even on a sub zero night. Having a shovel is helpful, but a hand dug shelter will work. You could also use skis, snowboards, snowshoes or helmets to dig.
There are several types of snow shelter that you might consider. The easiest to construct is a simple snow trench. Dig the trench as deep as possible, maybe even to ground. If the snow is shallow you could pile up some snow around the trench to help keep the wind out. If possible, use something to make a roof — skis, poles, branches. This is where a tarp would be invaluable.
Another snow shelter to consider is burrowing in under a bushy evergreen. The tree provides a roof and the snow provides the walls. You might have to deal with the lower tree branches that will end up inside your shelter.
If the snow conditions are right you could build a snow cave. The snow needs to be somewhat consolidated and relatively deep. A snowdrift may be the perfect spot for a snow cave. Start low and angle the entrance upwards to trap the warm air. Keep the interior small and the walls and roof at least 12 inches thick. Poke a small vent hole or two in the top, especially if you plan to light a candle or use a stove in the cave. Carbon monoxide buildup can be fatal. Be aware that a snow cave can collapse if not properly built or if someone were to walk over it.
The last type of snow shelter I would like to discuss is a quinzhee. A quinzhee is basically a pile of snow that has been hollowed out and makes sense when there isn’t deep, consolidated snow for a cave. It takes a lot of time and energy to build a quinzhee because you have to pile up snow six to 10 feet high and eight to 10 feet around and then let the snow set up before digging out the interior. Leave a platform to sit or lay on. Quinzhees are also susceptible to collapse and should have vent holes for circulation.
If you are holed up in a snow shelter make sure you leave some sort of signal or sign outside so that rescuers can find you without walking over your shelter.
A snow shelter can save your life, but it really takes some practice to build one correctly. Like firebuilding, you should practice building shelters and have the right tools in your kit so that in an emergency you have the ability to survive.
Greg Foley is a member of Grand County Search and Rescue and has been a mountain rescue volunteer for 38 years. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. The GCSAR website can be found at grandcountySAR.com.
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