Words by Samuel Mcmahon
Pictures by Melody Sky
“Hi! So, I just bought an igloo builder off the internet!”
This was how our igloo adventure began, with a hurried call from Ed Leigh (Ski Sunday presenter and UK professional snowboarding loudmouth). A plan formed to film the last part of a freeriding documentary I’d been working on with a crew of our choosing, building and living in our own igloos above 3000m.
Backcountry snowboarding is one thing, riding spring powder down the back of Verbier’s Mont Fort with a 40kg pack on your back is another. Even at the end of a winter schlepping around the Alps with a massive camera bag, it’s still a struggle traversing down from the lift to get to the point where the real work starts: a four hour skin up, complete with the same luggage. We have to carry in everything we needed for the three-day mission: food, kitchen equipment and sleeping kit, as well as all the trappings of us media sherpas.
However, splitboarding with a giant rucksack turns out to be much the same as without – hard work but ultimately enjoyable. The turns have been most definitely earned as we start our final descent to the campsite we’d picked out in advance.
It turns out that the best way to build an igloo, rather than cutting out blocks like Pingu, is to use the contraption we’ve brought with us. The igloo builder is an open-sided bucket on a long stick, which you anchor into the snow via a stake on the other end. You fill the bucket with snow, stamp it down, slide the bucket round in an arc and repeat the process, spiraling an igloo into existence. We’d all seen Ed and Johno’s (Verity?) timelapse of them building one in the garden and they’d confidently told us it would take no more than an hour and a half to assemble our main pod that would sleep three, then an hour each for the smaller ‘two bed’ bunkers. With great ceremony the igloo builder is assembled, an area stamped out and the first bucket filled.
We slide the gadget round and all awkwardly watch as the first block crumbled in situ. We try again, only for the second to blow away in front of our eyes, causing Ed to utter the immortal line, “This has never happened before…” Much like building a snowman or shaping a snowball, your building material needs to be wet, and what we hadn’t counted on was that at 3000m, the snow is much colder and drier than in Ed’s garden. Luckily, there is a nearby south-facing bank that, having been sat in the sun all day, is just sticky enough to work, but with the extra work fetching the snow rather than just digging it up now required, our dreams of a relatively easy build are now shattered.
Three. And a half. Hours. That’s how long the first igloo takes to build. And with night fast approaching and there being nowhere near enough space for all eight of us in the first pod, we have to make an immediate start on the second. Though we plump for a smaller diameter, by this point the clouds have turned into full on blizzard with plummeting temperatures, meaning we now have to dig down and ‘mine’ for snow still wet enough. Every time we ‘strike gold’ the snow freezes and dries out within minutes.
It is down to a solidarity and fortitude in the group – without a single complaint – that sees us safely, finally, with roofs over our heads. Exhausted, five of us climb into the slightly bigger pod, leaving the others to fend for themselves. After a full hour of maneuvering and taking turns to unpack our sleeping gear (imagine a group of oil tankers trying to turn round in a duck pond) we finally make it into what only just passes as ‘bed’, only for the wind to change direction and start blowing snow in through the door. Too tired to do more than throw a couple of bags in the hole to block it, we turn in and hibernate, hoping things will be different when we wake up.
And are they. A 5am start yields the most beautiful alpenglow on the distant peaks, surely the most scenic start to a day’s riding you could imagine. Not to mention a decent heap of fresh snow from the now vanished storm, our igloos have become mere lumps in an otherwise untouched landscape, and in the pre-dawn light we can now see the terrain around us, ripe for the taking.
The days have a steady pace to them: get up super early, hike a ridge or feature in time for the sun to hit it, film a line or two, back down for a boil-in-the-bag breakfast. Then it’s time to relax and do some camp work like drying out gear on washing lines made from splitboards and avalanche probes, washing cutlery in the snow or patching up the igloos.
Then after the mid-morning break it’s back to riding. The four riders – Ed Leigh, Neil McNair, Johno Verity and Lewis Sonvico – head back up to various North-facing lines and let rip for the afternoon. The amount of footage we’re logging is pretty impressive, especially as three of them are in their 40s. There’s a drive amongst the group to get stuff done, and not necessarily just for the cameras. Everyone is obviously having a blast, perhaps spurred on by the adventure of what we’re doing. Or, as Ed puts it, “You’ll never find a group of people as stoked as a bunch of old men clinging onto their last days.”
Then as evening sets in, it’s time for another high calorie boil-in-the bag meal (we have to eat around 3000 calories a day due to the cold and splitboarding). They’re actually pretty tasty, though stronger flavours seep into your sweat exactly twelve hours after consumption, causing the strange waft of sweet and sour to hit you as you hike a line the next day. The end result is pretty intense too, and we haven’t got nearly enough toilet paper.
After dinner it’s time to drink whiskey and watch the sun slowly set over the Swiss Alps before retiring to bed as the cold quickly seeps in. Johno and I share a pod nine feet in diameter, roomy it ain’t but by the end it feels like home, albeit a chilly one. Even with an insulated mat and down sleeping bag I still need a puffy jacket liner to keep warm, and the bottom of my bag is filled with boot liners, socks, gloves (these freeze too!) – basically anything damp, which makes for a less-than-comfy bed. Still, sleep arrives quickly and deeply, and by the end of our stay I’m as attached to our igloo village as I’ve been to any flat or holiday home.
The end comes far too fast, but we don’t leave camp until the crew has ticked off the last few pockets, Lewis shutting the zone down with a perfect mid-line method, stomped with his trademark effortlessness. By the time we ride down en-masse, mega packs re-shouldered, the terrain around us is a panorama of scarred track after track, evidence of a one-of-a-kind experience. A band of riders all hailing from the UK and spanning almost the complete history of British freeriding – it’s a great feeling to be part of a group with an infatuation for snowboarding that spans decades.
Like all the very best trips, it ends with a jolting return to reality, a realisation that normal life isn’t as simple as what you’ve just experienced.
A huge thank you to AlpKit, whose great down jackets, sleeping bags and generosity literally kept us alive. Also to Babette and Paul at the Prafleurie Cabin for help with logistics. And finally to Ed Leigh for the inspiration and invitation to his Igloo Adventure.
This article appeared in the winter 2016/17 issue of Morzine Source Magazine