Snow place like home

PUBLISHED : Friday, 23 December, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 23 December, 2011, 12:00am


Snow is falling steadily onto the Coastal Mountains above Vancouver, and it's hard to believe that a building erected from that very material can possibly be transformed into a warm and comfortable bolt-hole for the night. But ever since I was a child, I've wanted to spend the night in an igloo, so where better to do it than the land where they were invented?

On a more practical note, I'm travelling in British Columbia for some back-country skiing. Knowing how to build an igloo could be a life-saving skill if the worst came to worst in the back of beyond.

Igloo meister Mike Harding is the head guide at Westcoast Adventures. Harding has been teaching people traditional ways of living and travelling in the back country for years. He and three fellow guides will be showing eight of us how to build an igloo, and we'll then spend the night in it.

But as Harding explains before we start, 'Unlike the Inuit, who cut the blocks for their igloos from virtually solid ice, in this part of Canada we have to compact the soft snow. That way, it doesn't break up when we make it into blocks.'

That means it's necessary to shuffle around in snowshoes for five minutes to harden the snow, and then wait a few more minutes for it to pack down.

While we're waiting, Harding demonstrates how to cut the igloo building blocks with a snow saw and then lay a sturdy wall that will eventually be transformed into our overnight accommodation. Then he suggests we make a start ourselves. 'You've got about 2?hours,' he says.

'What if we don't manage it in that time?' I ask.

'You'll be building in the dark - literally as well as metaphorically,' Harding replies.

I'm teamed with Ann Campbell, a Vancouver-based journalist, and we're assisted in our task by guide Corey Curtis to make sure we build something that actually resembles an igloo. More importantly, Curtis will ensure that it doesn't collapse on us during the night.

Curtis, who works as a musician in Vancouver when he's not playing Lego with snow, first makes us investigate what's beneath our chosen building plot with slender aluminium avalanche probes. This ensures it's a consistent depth and that there are no boulders or fallen trees a few inches beneath us.

Then I lie down while a circle is drawn around me. This is to ensure that the diameter of the igloo is big enough for the tallest resident, which is me. I really don't want to end up sleeping with my feet sticking out the end.

After this, the real work begins - cutting and laying blocks. These are initially excavated from inside the snow circle that marks out the diameter of our igloo-to-be. This, in effect, means you're digging down through your own floor. But this has the advantage that your building materials come literally from under your feet. Also, you don't have to construct as high a wall as if you built up from the surface.

The blocks are similar in size to a breeze block, and have to be cut with three bevelled edges which allows them to fit together side by side and on top of one another. Cutting blocks is surprisingly easy and, when you get it right, very satisfying. Scott Fraser, a fellow artisan working on the neighbouring igloo, likens it to 'playing a giant game of Tetris', where the trickiest part is having the confidence to tilt each layer at a shallow enough inward angle.

Gaps inevitably occur between the blocks, but they're easily plugged with loose snow. As the walls gradually increase in height an element of competition creeps in with each team surreptitiously glancing across at their neighbours to see who is making the best progress. Much to my surprise, Campbell and I are leading the field - mainly thanks to Curtis' help. As we're about to put the final blocks into place, I glance at my watch to see that we've been hard at it for exactly 2?hours.

I crawl into the finished igloo through the entrance pit, which we have dug lower than the floor to allow cold air to sink into it and keep the sleeping platform 'warmer'. I feel an enormous sense of satisfaction at a job well done.

Laying back on snug layers made up of tarpaulin, sheepskin, sleeping mat and ultra-warm five-season down sleeping bag, I can't help being impressed by our work. Late-afternoon light filters through the scores of blocks we've laid in myriad shades of blue, and I feel as if I'm in my own little ice palace.

Night falls, the snow stops, and clouds lift to review a magnificent panorama. The lights of Vancouver twinkle below, emphasising what a remarkable city this is. Where else could you build an igloo and then (in theory, at least) go out on the town nightclubbing?

Next to our igloos, we've also built the world's most open plan kitchen/dining room with walls, chairs and tables all made from snow. We're able to enjoy the view of Vancouver while dining. Steaming hot food, a few glasses of red wine and good company result in a surprisingly good night's sleep once we all retire to our igloos.

It feels quite cosy with night lights fluttering and reflecting off the walls. With a good sleeping bag and an insulated sleeping mat, you definitely won't be cold. I didn't even have any drips from the ceiling to contend with.

The following morning brings more unexpected rewards. When I emerge from the igloo I'm greeted by a sensational sunny view across Vancouver's various deep blue inlets as far south as the active volcano of 3,286-metre Mount Baker in Washington state.

Unfortunately, after breakfast we have to destroy our cosy little homes by jumping up and down on them. The igloo literally falls down with a big 'whump'. It's a shame to see all that hard work turned into a pile of snowy rubble. But at least I've finally achieved one childhood ambition.

Where to stay

If you're looking to stay somewhere a little more substantial, the luxurious Fairmont Hotel Vancouver is ideally located in the centre of town and features designer shops, a high-spec health club, indoor pool and the Absolute Spa. B&B from C$219 (HK$1,640).


Westcoast Adventures ( offer various igloo building options, from one-night 'build and stay' to luxury multiple-day trips, which also involve dog sledding and accommodation in high-end mountain lodges.