Forget snowmen. Build a “quigloo.” You’ll need to invest some time and some sweat, and it can’t be done without a bunch of friends willing to help, but the ultimate snow creation is your reward. The quigloo is the hybrid child of a “quinzhee” (a snow shelter made by hollowing out a mound of snow) and the iconic igloo, which in technical terms is a shelter created from blocks of hardened snow or ice. The quinzhee genes are strongest in the quigloo, as the majority of the shelter is created quinzhee-style, while a single block of hardened snow closes off a hole in the very top of the roof. The result of this mash-up is one of the most reliable and effective snow shelter designs.
STAGE 1: Throw the pile.
Goal: A dense, volcano-shaped mound of snow as big as possible.
Tools: A pair of skis and boots, as many full-size shovels as you can find, as many people to use those shovels as you can gather. Speakers and a good playlist are critical; refreshments for your group are highly recommended.
Method: Select a site near as much available snow as possible. Building on the side of a gradual hill is ideal but flat ground will work fine. Begin piling snow. Once the mound has reached a few feet in height, designate a “packer.” This person puts on skis, side-steps up to the top of the pile, and begins to stomp around, packing the snow down toward the ground. The rest of the group tosses snow at the packer’s feet from all sides—this is where having a lot of people really counts. It may seem like the packer is knocking down your group’s progress, but this is how your pile reaches the desired density and diameter. Once your pile is as high as you can get it, your packer slides on down. Have everyone in your group whack the pile all over with the backs of their shovels to further compress the outer layer. Meanwhile, the packer compresses a small, flat mound of snow you’ve made off to the side, which will later be cut into the capstone block.
Goal: Structural rigidity.
Tools: Eight or more straight, narrow stick-like objects such as ski poles or thin dead branches, and patience.
Method: Neaten up the pile and smooth its surface. Before you retreat indoors, insert each of your sticks, ski poles, or other quills a foot and a half into the pile. Each should be lodged perpendicular to the pile’s side at its point of entry. If by the end your pile looks a bit like a poorly-done child’s drawing of a porcupine, you’ve likely got it right. Doing this will help with the deceivingly challenging task of gauging wall thickness in the final stage of construction. Now let the pile sit undisturbed for at least a few hours—overnight is strongly preferable—so that the snow crystals can bond. Letting the snow “set” (sometimes called “sintering”) creates a firmer, more cohesive pile that is less likely to collapse during the final step.
Goal: An interior as spacious as the size of your pile will allow—made without compromising strong (i.e. even and thick) sidewalls.
Tools: Two small shovels with short shafts (backcountry “avi shovels” are perfect). Good snow pants and a waterproof shell with a hood are strongly recommended for tunneling.
Method: A designated mole begins excavating from ground level with a small shovel, creating the quigloo’s entrance while tunneling inward. The lower down and more constricted you can make the entrance, the harder it is for ambient body heat to escape once the quigloo is inhabited. If your pile is on a slope, this means you should dig the entrance at the lowest point. As the mole moves deeper into the pile, it is helpful to have someone stand at the entrance to help clear out the debris. Excess snow should not be tossed back on top of the pile. The mole will tire quickly, and it is best to work in shifts.
A “skydiver” uses the other small shovel to begin tunneling down from the very top of the pile. (To build a quinzhee, simply forgo this step and the creation of a capstone block). Eventually the skydiver and mole will meet in a celebratory and emotional moment, and from there, a single shoveler—eventually two, if both can fit—will hollow out the interior. One person can now cut the capstone block with a ski or shovel from where snow was packed earlier and place it on top of the quigloo, covering the skydiver’s entry. While waiting for their turn to burrow, others will clear away the excavated snow as it is dug out, perhaps using it to build a wind-guard wall that curves around the entrance. Take extreme care to ensure the wall’s consistent thickness, as a single careless swipe of the shovel can compromise the whole endeavor. Perform additional depth probing with an extra quill if necessary. Once the interior has been fully dug out, pack down a layer of snow to create a level floor, remove the quills, and furnish the interior with foam sleeping pads, blankets, and any other decorative touches.
Any freestanding snow shelter will begin to sag with age, but building your quigloo in a consistently shaded area will improve its longevity. Well-built structures have been known to last well over a month. Overnighting in the shelter requires the use of a substantial sleeping pad to insulate from below as well as a waterproof barrier, such as a tarp or a tent footprint, placed underneath. Camping stoves should not be used inside the quigloo due to the significant risk of carbon monoxide poisoning. When excavating very large piles, some advocate for the use of avalanche beacons and/or an avalanche probe kept on hand (each of which requires proper training to use) in the event of an accidental collapse.