Most tales of harrowing outdoor adventures tell stories of resiliency, of greatness, of redemption. Conversely, outdoor adventures often become theaters of the absurd. But these stories, featuring naivete, neglect, outright stupidity, and, of course, self-imposed suffering, aren’t typically told in the pages of glossy adventure magazines. In our summer 2021 issue, senior editor Nikki Forrester beautifully penned an homage to the joys of heading out with a 40-pound backpack to suffer in the wet, wild weather of the West Virginia woods. This inspired me to revisit a wintry sufferfest of my own that took place way back in 2011, in a snowcave on the summit of the Allegheny Front.
Ten years ago, I was into climbing. Like, really into climbing. So much so that my best friend and climbing partner Eric and I decided that we should know how to build an emergency snowcave in preparation for big alpine mountaineering trips we never ended up taking. Avid readers of mountaineering books, we studied several methods and decided on one we thought would work in West Virginia. Instead of testing this completely unpracticed skill in a backyard like normal people, we figured the best way to make sure we could do it was to actually go do it and see if we could survive for a night or two. We’d need at least four feet of snow to build the structure to spec. But living in Morgantown at the time, we knew there was no way we’d get the chance in those low, warm elevations. We zeroed in on the obvious answer: where better than the snowy plains atop the Dolly Sods Wilderness—the highest plateau east of the Mississippi?
Knowing the gate was closed and that we’d have to hoof it up Forest Road 19 from the Red Creek Trailhead, we rented snowshoes and trekking poles—postholing in deep snow with backpacks would ruin us in a mile or less. We packed light, taking a folding saw to cut blocks of compressed snow for the cave, a tarp to place over cut spruce boughs, twenty-degree sleeping bags, thin foam pads, a campstove to boil snow for drinking water, and a light tent in case there wasn’t enough snow to build the cave. Food was simple—nothing but coffee, bars, jerky, and butter to melt in hot chocolate before going to sleep (having some excess fat calories to burn during sleep helps maintain body temperature).
The drive on Laneville Road to the trailhead was exciting enough. Eric’s Jeep Wrangler rumbled and crunched through a foot of snow along the windy backroad that looked like it hadn’t been plowed in weeks. We parked in early afternoon and suited up. At the base of the mountain, it was a balmy 20 degrees Fahrenheit. Some 2,500 feet up on the summit plains, air temps were closer to zero; the forecasted 30-mph sustained winds created wind chills in the minus-15 range. We both wore thick snowpants and three-layer winter coats over base and mid layers. Frostbite can damage exposed skin in a matter of minutes at these extremes. We donned hats, goggles, and full-face masks—no skin would be exposed to the elements.
We strapped on our snowshoes, shouldered our packs, and began the arduous four-mile journey up FR19. The snow at the gate was two-feet-deep; we knew it would be two or three times as much up top—our target depth for the snowcave. As we fell into a plodding rhythm, the cloudy afternoon faded into steely, monochromatic gray tones. The snowy forest road reflected enough ambient light that we were able to trudge well into the darkness and save our headlamp batteries. Breathing heavily into the facemask while looking through tinted goggles, I felt like a cosmonaut floating across the surface of a frozen world in a malleable spacesuit.
I felt like a cosmonaut floating across the surface of a frozen world in a malleable spacesuit.
The zen-like calm was broken when I had to stop and pee. I finally turned on my headlamp, completely shocked to see a wall of snowflakes flying at my face. Eric’s black silhouette suddenly disappeared beyond the illuminated blur of snow; I yelled for him to turn on his torch. He paused as if he had hit a wall; an excited shriek accompanied the halt. We had been plodding along for what felt like hours, blissfully unaware of the blizzard that now engulfed our icy world.
Let it be known that I love snow. Now in my mid-thirties, snow still brings the same pure, unadulterated joy as the days of my childhood. Whether it be flakes falling from the sky or even just a forecast calling for a big dump, snow equals happiness in my world. To be in this setting, with my best bud, completely engulfed in a swirling blizzard, was simply wonderful.
But the excitement transmuted into anxiety—we needed to make camp, and fast. There was no way we could build a snowcave this late in the evening. Fortunately, we were close to the picnic area about a half-mile from the top of the mountain and the intersection with Forest Road 75. Thankfully we had our tent—at least we didn’t skimp on this crucial piece of gear. The blizzard intensified as we dug through four feet of snow on the leeward side of a picnic table. Eric set up the tent while I got to work cutting blocks of compacted snow atop the tables. The snow was just hard enough to hold form, allowing us to build a roofless igloo that served as a wind block.
We did the best we could to brush the caked snow off our bodies and packs and collapsed inside the tent, too tired to eat after unrolling the tarp and our sleeping bags. Our sleeping pads were only an inch thick; we knew this would be a cold night—contact with cold ground sucks away body heat as efficiently as metal cooling fins on an electric motor.
Although the blizzard had stopped and the sun was up, we woke in darkness. Heavy snow covered our tent—we estimated another two feet fell after we hit the frozen hay. We knocked snow off the tent and opened the fly, peering over the roofless igloo walls at a magical scene. The blazing sun hung in a bluebird sky, illuminating the smooth, undulating surface of fresh snow like a trove of precious gemstones.
We sat speechless, awe-struck at the beauty wrought by the previous night’s fury. Those bouts of suffering in frozen darkness were well worth the snow-induced euphoria that suddenly pulsated through my tingling nerves. That bliss, as it often does, soon faded when Eric got out of his sleeping bag and noticed that his big toe was quite numb and had turned a disconcerting shade of blue. It could have been from sleeping on snowy ground with no pad, or perhaps the small hole we discovered in the lining of his boot. He massaged some life back into the toe and dipped it into hot water while I broke down the tent and packed our bags. We gnawed through some rock-hard energy bars and sipped steaming coffee, content with the morning’s comparably pleasant weather conditions.
Those bouts of suffering in frozen darkness were well worth the snow-induced euphoria that suddenly pulsated through my tingling nerves.
Four feet of snow had become six overnight; a few snowdrifts on the uphill side of FR19 reached 10 feet in depth. We pondered digging into one to create a shelter, but the fresh powder collapsed inward like dry sand as we tried to burrow—we pushed on with our plan to make a proper snowcave by nightfall.
Upon reaching FR75, we dropped our packs and snowshoed to the edge of the Allegheny Front, taking in the spectacular view to the east. Here on the ancient spine of the Alleghenies, one can view a terrestrial diorama unlike any other. Some 3,000 feet below, the Potomac Valley is dotted by the quarzitic fins of the River Knobs, which are framed by the towering cliffs of North Fork Mountain; the ridge-and-valley systems then stretch as far as the eye can see to the Blue Ridge in Virginia. These superimposed layers of Appalachia appear stolid and timeless despite their relentless fluctuation and geologic fragility.
In the presence of such a grandiose tableau, I embraced a sense of what I like to call sublime insignificance. In these moments of astonishment, the physical self seems to melt away. Cold extremities, burning lungs, sore muscles—all of these maladies temporarily cease as the dopaminergic and serotonergic systems in the brain do their glorious work.
After the high, it was time to get low and do what we trudged all the way up this mountain to do—build our snow cave. The design was simple: stamp out an eight-by-ten-foot rectangle in an open area with a depth of at least four feet using snowshoes. This serves as the source of compacted snow for sawn roof blocks and as the superstructure under which the sleeping area is dug. Next, a bisecting trench is dug lengthwise down the middle of the compacted area, all the way to the ground and wide enough to stand in so rectangular roof blocks can be cut from either side and placed atop the trench. When the roof is in place, the sleeping compartments are built by digging out the bottom of the trench on both sides to create an upside-down T shape.
While Eric worked on digging out the sleeping quarters, I used the saw to collect spruce boughs for added insulation under the tarp—there would be no sleeping on frozen ground this night. As I gathered our natural sleeping pads, the sun disappeared. Dolly Sods is notorious for rapidly changing weather conditions, and this day was no exception. The crystal-clear skies and calm beauty from just minutes ago were swept away by low clouds, high winds, and, once again, blizzard conditions. Day instantly became night, and a wave of anxiety passed over me like the clouds that now whizzed overhead. Did we start building the snowcave too late?
I brought the bounty of branches to the site; Eric was furiously digging to make progress so that we could at least take shelter inside the structure as we finished our work. But it wasn’t deep enough yet for us both to be inside, so we traded shifts digging while the other person caught their breath and stood, unprotected, in the storm. We were playing a dangerous game—dig for too long and get sweaty but stop for too long and freeze. I finished a digging shift and stood in the raw conditions. The incessant gusts of wind sounded like fleets of freight trains and swirls of heavy snow hit my body like sheets of frozen rain.
Cold air pierced my lungs as I slammed my forehead into the icy shelf just inches above my shivering body. Would hikers eventually stumble upon our frigid bodies in the spring thaw?
The day’s bliss had quickly faded into another bout of suffering and a sense of panic crept into my bones. My mind raced with negative outcomes: we were woefully unprepared, and these conditions were just too much. Had the adventure suddenly become dangerous? I calmed my breathing just as Eric signaled that we dug the cave out enough to call it complete. We crawled inside the small space, set up our tarp-and-bough floor, unrolled our bags, and placed our packs in the entrance to block the door and seal in our ambient body heat. We made our jaws sore with another round of frozen energy bars and jerky; desert was melted cubes of butter in hot chocolate. Relieved and exhausted, we crawled into our bags, shuffled like worms into our respective sleeping compartments, and immediately crashed.
This is where things really went wrong. We both broke heavy sweats while digging out the snowcave, and both neglected to bring a second set of base layers. Our damp clothes made our sleeping bags soggy, which significantly reduced their R-value, or the ability to prevent heat exchange through a barrier. The snowcave’s relatively balmy temperature of around 40 degrees Fahrenheit became a dangerous situation—a person who stops moving in wet clothes can become hypothermic at just 50 degrees.
This is when a chemiluminescent spark flashed through my brain, jolting me awake from a shallow slumber. Thick, cold air pierced my lungs as I attempted to sit up and slammed my forehead into the icy shelf just inches above my shivering body. My hands and feet were numb; I fought off an upwelling of panic upon realizing I could wiggle them. The wind was still whipping outside; I wondered if the cave might collapse under the weight of new snow. I felt as if I was in a frozen coffin, a la Ötzi the Ice Man. Would hikers eventually stumble upon our frigid bodies in the spring thaw?
I had no idea how long I had been asleep or what time it was, but that no longer mattered. I was one muscle twitch away from bundling up, packing up, and hiking all the way back down to the Jeep—at least the steady slog would ramp up my body heat and keep the blood flowing. I turned on my headlamp to find Eric completely still; panic came back as I waited with bated breath to get a visual sign of his. I finally saw a cloud of condensation emanate from his nose, let out a sigh, and decided to wait out the night. I wriggled out of my bag and put on my damp mid layer jacket, thinking it would be better than nothing. I woke Eric, and through chattering teeth encouraged him to do the same. I crawled back into my bag, closed my eyes, and hoped things would be better the next time they opened.
Fortunately, they were. I woke to see cracks of sun around our snow-covered backpacks; a calm silence meant the wind had stopped. The blizzard had passed. We donned our snowpants and coats, now stiff as boards, and jammed our feet into frozen boots. Upon exiting the snowcave, I couldn’t help but notice that I had almost no sense of awe—the previous day’s beauty had faded into a harsh, dreary, and unwelcoming landscape. I wanted to get the hell out of there.
The deep chill that penetrated the core of my being didn’t loosen its grip for several miles. Every bend on the mountain road yielded another stretch just like the one before it; the final mile felt like ten. With the gate in sight, we passed a couple who had just begun their ascent on cross-country skis. Brimming with energy, the woman smiled, and the man shouted, “Beautiful day for a ski, eh?” The best I could do was muster a dry smile, offer a perfunctory nod, and eek out, “Uuugh.”
We hugged the Jeep, giving the inanimate lump of steel the same level of love that a parent bestows upon its precious child. We knew the heater didn’t work well, but that didn’t matter. An endless breakfast at Denny’s was only 30 miles away.
Most adventure stories are about resiliency, greatness, and redemption. A decade has passed since our snowcave trip on the top of Dolly Sods, and I’ve wanted to go back for redemption ever since. There’s just something about doing something miserable, again. Perhaps it’s because I’m writing this while sitting in a comfy chair, with dry clothes, inside my heated home. Perhaps it’s because our brains are pretty damn good at remembering the fun parts and burying the bad ever deeper in the subconscious. Or maybe, given our relatively boring and secure day-to-day lives, we simply like to suffer in a masochistic attempt to feel alive. Whatever the reasoning, I think I’ll give it another go this winter. But this time, I’ll bring that extra base layer.
Dylan Jones encourages you to go build your snowcave somewhere this winter (but will not be held legally responsible for your decision to do so). What could go wrong?!