Navigations: The Snowcave

Read Mark Jenkins’s previous “Navigations” essays.

This is the way we imagined it, Mike and I. Our kids in the mountains together, just as we were when we were kids. We talked about it whenever we were too far from home, on expeditions, lying on our backs in the tent when we should have been letting our bodies sleep.

Justin refuses to wear his backpack on his shoulders. It’s heavy because he brought his dinosaur books. He lets the straps slip down to his elbows, binding his arms, so when he trips he falls face first. He doesn’t mind. It gives him a chance to examine the bugs on the snow. Addi has her teddy bear and two other stuffed animals who have names I don’t know in her pack, but wouldn’t consider endangering them with a fall. Addi and Justin are both in snow suits, knit caps that keep falling off, mittens already soaked. They’re skiing, slowly, across Lake Marie. They are both six years old, born a month apart. They are the same height.

They have the same red faces, the same easy laugh, the same unquenchable curiosity. Justin collects insects, Addi collects rocks.

It is June in Wyoming at 10,000 feet. The snow is eight feet deep, the lakes still frozen. We are skiing together to the snowcave. We’re going winter camping, an endeavor best done in summer—double the sunlight, triple the temperature. The snowcave is carved from the same drift Mike and I built caves in when we were boys. Of course it’s not the identical drift but a descendant. A deep, beautiful drift in a long line of deep, beautiful drifts. Hidden in the lee of a glacial erratic the size of an apartment building, it took us years to find it.

When we get to the snowcave Justin and Addi can’t get their skis off fast enough. They drop their packs and creep inside as if it were a tunnel into another world. The ceiling is over four feet high, which means they can stand up. They run their fingers along the chiseled walls and scuff the ice floor with their boots. Addi lies down, checking out the levelness of the sleeping platform. Justin discovers the air hole and sticks his arm up inside it. In the next two days the snowcave will be a secret hideout, a fortress, a bear’s den, a spaceship.

We were older when Mike and I built our first snowcave but the enchantment was the same. It was a fort to us too, a hand-hewn refuge in the wilderness. Over the course of two decades we built all kinds of snowcaves. Miserable holes no self-respecting marmot would inhabit, circular lairs with sensual candlelighting that inspired carnal speculations, burrows so far below the surface that snowmobiles roared over our roof without us knowing. One year, with the help of our younger brothers, we mined a cavern so expansive we played croquet. Upside down ice axes for mallets, bound wool socks for balls. Five days later the ceiling had sagged so far we had to use the ice axes as stanchions to hold it up.

When we were young and literal we believed winter camping was properly done in winter. Once, in high school, we set out in the dead of January in the coldest storm in a generation. Mike and I thought this good sport. In town it got down to 54 below zero. We were thousands of feet higher and the wind was furious. Maybe it got down to absolute zero. Who knows. We were having too good a time to notice, snug as bugs in a rug in our snowcave. We brought enough food for an expedition and decided to stay a few extra days. By the time we got back home our families—traditionally stoic and optimistic about our misadventures—were frightenedly mounting a rescue.

Not to romanticize snowcaves. They’re too hard to build correctly and take too much time and energy. Nine out of ten times a tent is better. But that’s not the point. Never was. We had tents even back then but what fun would that have been. A snowcave was the opportunity to build something. A chance to dig and crawl on your belly and get cold and wet. A chance to battle the elements, wield mortal weapons, prove how we could beat the odds no matter what they were. What more could Wyoming boys want?

At dusk, clouds fat as pregnant salmon swim through a darkling sky and Justin begins to howl. He cranes his head back and lets her rip. Addi joins in and they howl and then break into ordinary screaming. Trying to one up each other, they scream until their youthful throats grow rough. I don’t stop them. If you can’t scream your head off in the mountains, where can you? It’s something I learned from Mike. He didn’t worship mountains. Only people who’ve never spent much time in the mountains worship them. Like guys who never go on a date worship women. Live or work in the high country and you have to be more practical than that, otherwise you get killed.

When the moon slips out Addi and Justin insist on a ghost story. We are at the base of a black, thousand-foot wall of quartzite. It’s called the Diamond. Mike and I used to attempt to climb it every winter, never succeeding. The cornices on the ridge have been breaking off all day—rumbling down the couloirs leaving piles of debris that look small and benign until you ski up to them and discover the blocks are bigger than trucks. I tell them that actually avalanches are started by ghosts. You can’t see them, but they’re up there, jumping up and down on the cornices, laughing.

“How did they get up there?” asks Justin.

“They climbed,” I say.

“Ghosts are climbers,” states Addi, as if it were obvious.

“And skiers,” says Justin.

After kicking off a few avalanches the ghosts get the idea that it would be fun to slide down on one, so they do. They ride the avalanches like cowboys ride bulls. One arm waving in the air.

The ghosts slide right down the mountain into the lake, which is half-thawed.

“Right into the water!” shouts Justin, delighted.

“They like the cold because they don’t get cold,” explains Addi, “they’re ghosts.”

The story goes along, growing more and more complex, with lots of ad hoc events. It starts to get late.

At this point the ghosts discover two young snowcavers at the base of the mountain and naturally manage to lure them out into the dark. (Addi and Justin peer up at the dark massif overhead.) The ghosts want the two junior adventurers to come with them, into the everlasting unknown, but they are scared. They don’t want to go. The ghosts start to pull on the children.

“I’m tired,” says Addi.

“Me too,” adds Justin quickly.

They unanimously decide to scurry into the snowcave and scooch down into their sleeping bags.

Before crawling in for the night I force both of them to relieve themselves, but it doesn’t help. Too many cups of tomato soup and hot chocolate. Justin awakes at 2 am. To keep him from soiling or soaking his longjohns, I make him strip off his underwear and crawl bare-assed out of the snowcave. He stands in the snow, alone in the moonlight with the clouds flying by like ghosts. Shooting back inside he dives into his sleeping bag and is instantly returned to sleep. Addi wakes at 3 am and I make her do the same thing. Beyond the cave entrance I can see her squatting, staring warily up at the night sky.

In the morning I have a plan. I want us to climb Medicine Bow peak. I want them to want to climb Medicine Bow peak. They aren’t interested. They want to go sledding. I remove the duffel bags and nylon straps from the haul sleds and they revert back to what they were originally—5$ K-mart kid sleds. Justin and Addi make only a few runs before wandering off to a newly-exposed creek. The creek winds back and forth around drifts before disembouching into Lake Marie. The lake is entirely frozen except for a thin strip along the northern shore where this creek enters it. A scatter of angular rocks protrude from the glacial waters. It looks like a scene from the South Pole. We christen our discovery “Little Antarctica.”

Addi and Justin begin hopping stone to stone above the icy water, first tentatively, then with growing boldness. At first they pretend they are penguins. Then decide they don’t like penguins. “Penguins are birds that can’t fly,” says Justin. He says he would rather be an Alaskan wolf and Addi thinks she would rather be an Eskimo girl fishing through holes in the ice. They both instinctively throw rock after rock into the slice of open water, fascinated by the blueblack liquid. Water is magic to children, the only substance they encounter in life that can be played with endlessly and never broken. Water will always go back to being what it was before they dropped it or stepped on it.

The water, although frigid, is only several feet deep. I admonish them not to fall in, then tramp back up to the snowcave to do chores. That’s right. I leave two six years old on the edge of a freezing lake in the middle of the mountains, alone.

Still, I pop my head out of the snowcave to check on them more often than I should. They are a ways off. I observe that Addi has a bit more balance than Justin—but more telling, is fearful of getting wet. She bounds above the water with concentration and precision. Justin on the other hand revels in being off-balance. After watching him slip off the rocks several times, his legs sinking up to his thighs in the ice-cold water before he drags himself out, I realize he’s not slipping at all. He’s doing it intentionally, just to see what will happen. From this distance I can’t make out his mischievous grin, but I recognize it.

“Your muscles will freeze before you make it,” I say.

“Bet they won’t,” counters Mike.

“Freeze solid and you’ll sink like a rock.”

Mike scoffs.

“Wanna bet?”

“Burrito dinner.”

We shake on it. Mike strips in ten seconds and wades into Lake Marie bellowing homemade obscenities. When the water is up to his balls he dives in and begins swimming ferociously. The iceberg is floating in the middle of the lake, perhaps 200 yards from shore. The snow around the lake is still three feet deep. July in the mountains of Wyoming. He plows out to the iceberg like a seal in the Arctic ocean. Next thing I know he has hauled himself up onto the iceberg and is dancing around on top, barefoot and bucknaked. Then he dives off and swims briskly back to shore. When he comes out of the gelid water, stomping footprints in the snow, his body is a bluish pink. He tries to give me his I-told-you-so smirk but the muscles in his face won’t budge.

It is just after dawn. We are on our way to scale the Diamond. It takes Mike two full hours and 500 feet of climbing to warm up.
Mike was the only man I knew who was an honest-to-God empiricist. He insisted on trying everything himself, as if it were impossible to learn anything except through first-hand experience. We were both like this; it was the genesis of our friendship. We inspired each other. Acts of profound stupidity were commonplace. Knowledge was to be gained by trial-and-error—not by listening to somebody tell us how or why or when we should or could or shouldn’t or couldn’t. When it came to the outdoors, we rarely consulted books. We were hell bent on reinventing the wheel. We became self-taught outdoorsmen. We taught ourselves how to ski, how to climb, how to backpack, how to build snowcaves. And for that reason it took us a long time to get good. Without instructors you learn very slowly. You make a lot of mistakes. What you’re really learning is not the craft you’re practicing.

What are you learning?

You only realize it years afterward. Independence. Resourcefulness. Equanimity.

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Later in the day we follow coyote tracks across the flank of the mountain. They are at least twelve hours old but Addi and Justin don’t know that. The wily coyote could be behind the next boulder. They both want to know why all the trees are so short and look like flags, branches growing only on one side. I teach them the word krummholtz and try to explain the savagery of the wind, recounting another Mike-and-Mark adventure when both of us were right here, wearing huge winter climbing packs, and were lifted straight up off the ground.

Throughout the day I make them carry their own backpacks with their own waterbottles and snacks. I make them rub the snot off their faces with the back of their mittens. I show them how to wipe with snow instead of toilet paper which leads to a hair-and-all discussion of alpine scatology.

In the afternoon we build a snowman and have a snowball fight. By then their snowsuits are soaked through and they’re beginning to shiver. The wind has begun and bruised clouds are rolling overhead.

As I reload the sleds it begins to snow. We start the slow ski out to the car. Addi is the leader. She insists that her hands are not cold and that she doesn’t have to put her gloves back on. Fine. Justin insists that his head is not cold and that he doesn’t have to wear his wool cap. Fine.

We contour around the open water and head out over the frozen lake. As we shuffle along I try to get Justin to pull his pack up onto his shoulders but he insists on letting it fall down to his elbows and bang him on the back of the legs. For a moment I almost get angry. Then, suddenly, I laugh out loud. I throw my head back and look up into the moving sky and laugh. Justin skis up beside me.

“Watcha doing?”

I look over my shoulder at our ski tracks cutting onto the lake. I look ahead at Addi heading into the trackless snow. Justin is only six. I could make something up, but I don’t.

“This is where we spread your Dad’s ashes. Do you remember?”

Justin is excited. “We’re skiing on my Dad ashes?”

I nod.

Somehow this seems wonderful to Justin, as if he were once again riding on Mike’s shoulders.

* * *

Mike Moe, Dan Moe, Sharon Kava and Brad Humphrey died on an expedition to the Arctic on 1 September 1995.

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