How to build a crystal palace

When John Lee signed up for an igloo camping trip in the Canadian wilderness, he had no idea of the pain - or the exhilaration - that lay in store
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The Independent Travel

It's the low, snuffling growls that bring my uneasy dreams of a grizzly bear attack crashing into reality. But, jerking open my eyes, I find I'm lying in a sleeping bag under a bumpy ceiling of snow, complete with a backache that would make a tree-planter proud. A painful roll to either side explains the growling: dual snorers assault my eardrums with a cacophonous grunting that would rattle the window panes, were there any. It's time to step outside.

It's the low, snuffling growls that bring my uneasy dreams of a grizzly bear attack crashing into reality. But, jerking open my eyes, I find I'm lying in a sleeping bag under a bumpy ceiling of snow, complete with a backache that would make a tree-planter proud. A painful roll to either side explains the growling: dual snorers assault my eardrums with a cacophonous grunting that would rattle the window panes, were there any. It's time to step outside.

Although it's a crisp, dead-of-winter night in the majestic mountains of British Columbia, this forested plateau a few hours from Vancouver is illuminated by a nearly full moon. Deciduous trees and skeletal bushes are heavy with snow and there's the kind of thick silence rarely encountered in the city. I pan around and face two alien bumps in the otherwise untouched powder. The igloos we spent several hours and buckets of sweat building are miraculously still standing.

Skiing, snowboarding and snowshoeing are second nature in BC, where driving from downtown Vancouver to white-tipped peak can take less than an hour. Igloo camping, while not yet a common pastime, is quickly catching on as a challenging way to interact with this backyard wonderland. When an unfamiliar sense of adventure temporarily overpowered my misgivings, I had agreed to join some friends for their annual overnight expedition.

After an early morning drive in two cars to Squamish, a small logging town north-east of Vancouver, the six of us gathered bleary-eyed at the foot of Round Mountain in Garibaldi Provincial Park. Although the roads were relatively clear, the hiking trail ahead of us was thick with several feet of snow. It was time to gear up.

While many British Columbians have a not-so-secret addiction to shopping for outdoor equipment (a brief survey of friends revealed kayaks, a tent-to-head ratio of three to one and wet-weather outfits that cost more than my regular wardrobe) my own winter wear amounted to just one oversized woollen hat. For this trip, I was transformed into a walking jumble sale of borrowed alpine gear.

While my fellow igloo-builders sported their coordinated fleeces and Gore-Tex gloves, I stood around looking goofy in red trousers, white rubber boots and a hand-me-down blue jacket. After fumbling with the straps on my rented snowshoes, I hoisted on a borrowed backpack stuffed with 50lb of essentials.

We were hauling enough gear to cover any eventuality in a region where overnight temperatures often fall to -20C. Our equipment included winter sleeping bags, head-mounted torches and emergency tents. Each hiker also carried a snow shovel, a probe to gauge the snow depth and an electronic transceiver that picks up signals from anyone unfortunate enough to be buried under an avalanche.

The hike was a tough two-hour upward trek through dense, snow-covered forest. Since it was a warm, blue-skied day, most of us were sweating within minutes and we quickly removed our hats and jackets. Water stops were frequent, particularly where a clearing revealed a spectacular view of the vast valley below. While a few settlements dotted the valley floor, it was mostly undeveloped land, punctuated by forests and river deltas as far as the eye could see.

After an hour, it was time to stop for lunch. My pockets were stuffed with chocolate and trail mix for snacking, but the shared meal was a gourmet affair of foil-wrapped chicken breasts, brie sandwiches and home-baked cookies. Each of us also carried several litres of bottled water -- munching on handfuls of snow is not advisable for long periods since it dries the mouth, although it melts down well for a passable cup of tea. Wine and beer, decanted into plastic bottles, also added to the weight of our packs.

When we finally reached our plateau in a clearing at around 5,000ft, my legs were starting to buckle. But after painfully peeling off my backpack, I was told we had to start building immediately: there were only a few sunlight hours left and resting now would mean working in the dark later.

Quickly dividing into two groups, we started stamping down the snow in two wide circular areas, using our snowshoes to good effect. The plan was to build two three-man igloos facing one another, divided by a trench that would serve as a makeshift open-air kitchen. With the sun still beating down, we began digging in each of our circles to a depth of around four feet, using shovels and machetes to remove the packed snow in rough, rectangular blocks. These blocks, each about the size of two large shoe boxes, were stacked haphazardly until there were enough to start building. As two of my team remained in the pit to begin construction, I continued digging in the kitchen trench. Slicing the blocks was easy and there was a satisfying "whump" each time the machete freed one from the rest of the snow. The problem for someone like me, who has the upper-body strength of a desk-bound librarian, was the lifting.

Determined not to make excuses - despite burning legs, shaking arms and a spine that hurt well beyond my natural threshold of pain - I cut, lifted and stacked more than 100 blocks over the course of the afternoon, earning the nickname "block god" from one of the team.

These blocks were used to construct igloos that only faintly resembled the perfect domes of childhood cartoons. Tilted and stacked in a spiralling, inward curve, they pushed together to support one another like a keystone arch. Gaps in the igloo wall were smoothed over with handfuls of snow, and the entrance, rather than being on the surface, was a short U-shaped tunnel dug under the snow to prevent the wind from whistling in.

As each dome rose and began closing at an apex of around six feet, my feelings of physical exhaustion were slowly replaced by a sense of accomplishment in the making. And with the sun starting to sink, and hot drinks regularly supplied from two small camp stoves, I was enjoying the work. Cross-country skiers shuffled by and many stopped to check us out: igloo-camping can still raise an eyebrow or two. Curious whisky jacks (a kleptmanic species of bird, also known as the Canada jay) dropped in, although they were more interested in our snacks than our building prowess.

After five hours, the final blocks were carefully manoeuvred into place and we stood back to admire our handiwork, discovering that the two igloos had turned out quite differently. While one was an almost perfect dome, the other was longer, resembling half an egg turned on its side. Debate about the merits of each construction quickly degenerated into a snowball fight, although the palpable sense of after-work relief was dented when we realised we hadn't finished the kitchen.

Using the trench I had excavated for the building blocks, we haphazardly dug out some seats and shelves from the snow. Rough steps were quickly cut and the trench was adapted so that each igloo opened into it. Rehydrated pasta, celebratory alcohol and back-slapping took over the rest of the day as we idolised our igloos, stretched sore muscles and cracked our spines back into shape. We built a fire in the kitchen from branches cut nearby and sank into relaxation mode. By 9.30pm, in the kind of inky darkness city-dwellers rarely encounter and with the combination of red wine and cheap beer starting to kick in, it was time for bed. I ducked and slid through the U-bend entrance and crawled into one of the three sleeping bags lining the floor. Warmed by candles and sheltered from the cold, it was cosy inside. The ceiling looked like poorly-laid crazy paving: the smoothing and shaping had removed any signs of the straight-edged blocks I'd cut. After a fitful night of sleep, during which I was serenaded by my snoring companions, the morning arrived too early.

Waking to the dawn sun brightly illuminating the inside of the igloo was a moment of euphoria. The slightest movement after that, however, was a moment of intense pain as my body took great pleasure in reminding me of what I'd put it through the day before. I stiffly pulled on my boots and rubbed the sleep from my eyes - further evidence of yesterday's sweaty exertion - before sliding painfully through the entrance.

After packing up our gear and drinking some strong, gritty coffee, we wrecked the igloos in a matter of minutes with well-aimed kicks. This is important to prevent anyone from tumbling into the pit or reusing a dangerously old structure. With no reason to stick around, we quickly pulled on our packs and started to leave.

The sunny descent, with much lighter loads and downhill momentum, was swift and enjoyable. We veered off the path to test our snowshoes in drifts up to 10ft deep, barrelling down the steepest hills at great speed. Although talk was of the next trip, my thoughts were of a hot bath and a soft bed. But before returning to the city, we made a 9.30am pub stop to finally resolve the argument of who had built the best igloo. A pint of cold beer and a greasy, deep-fried breakfast had never tasted so good.

SURVIVAL KIT

GETTING THERE

Canadian Affair(020-7616 9184; www.canadianaffair.com) and Zoom (0870 240 0055; www.flyzoom.com) fly from Gatwick to Vancouver; Zoom also flies from Glasgow. Air Canada (0870 524 7226; www.aircanada.ca) and British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) fly daily from Heathrow. From other UK airports, the best deals are likely to be with Lufthansa, which is quoting around £370 through discount agents for departures in January.

GETTING PREPARED

Some winter backpacking experience is recommended and good boots, jackets and gloves are essential. Snowshoes, probes and winter sleeping bags can be rented from outdoor stores such as Mountain Equipment Co-op (001 604 709 6241; www.mec.ca). Canada West Mountain School (001 604 878 7007; www.themountainschool.com) offers guided winter camping tours in BC, along with courses in igloo and snow-shelter building.Prices for guided tours start at around C$200 (£85) per person.

MORE INFORMATION

Tourism BC (0906 871 5000; www.hellobc.com)

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