7th - 9th August 1999
As published in the "Australian Scout" magazine, October 1999. P. 2-7.
Written by Garry K. Smith
District Venturer Leader - West Newcastle District& Alpine Activities Instructor - Newcastle & Hunter Area.
Participants were:- David McLachlan, Justin Ryan, Glenn Platt, Michael Smith and Garry K. Smith.
Our group of experienced Scout Association Skiing Instructor and Party Leaders had planned to assist with instruction during an Association on snow beginners course, however several days before the scheduled date, the course was postponed due to lack of snow at the lower altitudes. Determined not to waste the weekend, plus the extra day (Monday) of annual leave our group had planned for, we set out to camp and ski over the Kosciusko Main Range which had a good snow cover. Weather forecast was for a cold front to hit the region, late on Sunday, thus bringing some fresh snow falls.
On Friday night the 6th August, my Toyota Camry wagon was loaded up in Newcastle and we headed south for three days of cross-country skiing on literally the top of Australia. Early Saturday morning our group purchased Crackenback Chairlift tickets and took the ride up to the Kosciusko Main Range. At the top the weather was rather miserable with low cloud often descending to cause white out conditions. This is when one cant see very far because the snow on the ground blends into the thick white mist (cloud). These conditions make it very difficult to ski, as one becomes totally disoriented by losing all sense of direction and gradients.
Two kilometres out from the chairlift top station, the weather quickly turned for the worst. The wind had picked up and visibility reduced to around 15 metres. A decision was made to head over to the nearby North Rams Head ridge. Here large boulders jut out from the steep hillside. High above the valley we picked a good snow drift and began digging in. David decided to set up his tent and began excavating a flat area into the deep snow drift behind a large boulder. The rest of us started on the construction of two snow caves next to each other in preference to setting up our tents. Construction progressed well, even though the wind had by now turned bitterly cold. Our homemade snow shovels were never idle as we excavated tonnes of snow from the holes. One trick learnt on a previous trip was to lay a ground sheet into the cave and just pile the excavated material onto it, then drag the load of tailings out. This method is very effective for quickly removing a huge quantity of snow. Because of constricted access, it is more efficient to pair off and work on duplicate snow caves rather than one large cave. It took each team approximately 4.5 hours of back breaking work, to hollow out each cave to approximately 3.5 x 2 x 1.5m high. The cave roofs had been domed to take away possible drip points if the snow should begin to melt during our occupation. As the final touches were being added to our living quarters, the snow had begun to fall outside. We also hollowed out an area approximately 1 metre cubed to house the packs. Our living areas were looking very cozy to say the least, thats if living in a freezer can be cozy.
Mind you, we were hopeful that the next day would be perfect weather for a fantastic ski across to Mt Kosciusko and other mountains along the range, since the cold front had struck a day early.
David had well and truly settled into his tent by now as the four of us began occupying the now completed snow caves. Those ground sheets now became the mat for the floor and on top were placed the Therm-A-Rest insulation mats, which I must say are worth their weight in gold. Our small stoves were soon blasting away in the cave entrances, cooking up hot drinks and meals. Fresh snow dug from the walls, was melted to top up water bottles. It is surprising how much snow must be melted, just to get one cup of water.
Candles were lit to add some atmosphere and save the batteries in our head lamps. The bright glow of the candles could easily be seen through the 1 metre thick wall which separated the two snow caves. It was an incredible sight with the living sculpture of light patterns dancing through the snow wall.
I should add a word of warning here that using stoves in a completely closed cave can significantly reduce the amount of oxygen in the cave air as well as introduce toxic fumes such as carbon monoxide.
Outside the wind was howling and snow blasted horizontally in whiteout conditions. Davids tunnel design snow tent was making very loud flapping sounds, despite being firmly anchored down. Inside the cave it was very peaceful out of the wind and driving snow. The temperature inside was a pleasant -1°C compared to the probable -25°C wind chill factor outside.
After such a strenuous day of digging everyone called it quits at around 7pm. I remember thinking that it was ridiculously early to go to bed, but I certainly took no persuasion to join the others in a few hours sleep. Somehow time seemed to fly by and I was awoken by Justin, flashing his torch around at 11pm. He had awoken after feeling very cold. I looked back toward the entrance to see a huge mound of snow at my feet and half our sleeping bags covered in a 10mm layer. The wind was howling outside and the wafting gusts brought snow right into our cave. From previous experience I would have thought our entrance tunnel was long enough for this not to happen. Anyway, Justin and I set about cutting blocks of snow from inside our cave and placing them in the entrance. When it was almost blocked, we crawled back into bed. Next morning after digging out the entrance, we learnt that Michael and Glenn had experienced the same trouble in their cave.
It was decided to excavate a tunnel between the two caves since the weather was absolutely miserable outside. The howling wind blew stinging snow and any attempt at a day of skiing was totally out of the question. The joining tunnel proved a very valuable addition, as food and other items could be passed back and forth between the four of us. I did feel sorry for David who elected to sit it out in his tent. The only trouble was that the constant snow fall meant he was spending a lot of time digging snow off the tent. The chill factor outside must have been at least -25°C and that meant he spent some time warming up, after each digging episode.
Meanwhile the day progressed with the group of us in the caves, cooking, sleeping, telling jokes and singing songs. Somebody forgot the cards!! The entrance tunnel kept filling up with fresh snow so there was the inevitable dig outs of the now remodeled entrances, designed to reduce the amount of snow ingress. On many occasions the cramped digging positions caused our fingers and toes to freeze to a non functioning numbness. They really hurt while being nursed back through the pain barrier to normality. This is one aspect of snow camping, which I dont think anyone could ever get use too.
Late in the afternoon I excavated the narrow passage to the surface for the last time. At the entrance, the driving snow was unbearable as it stung the exposed skin on my face. With effort I was able to shout to David (only about 4 metres away) that we would start packing up next morning at 7am, ready for the ski back to Crackenback Chairlift. David could just hear me and indicated he understood by sticking his hands with 7 out stretched fingers, through a small vent in the tent fly.
The conditions outside remained absolutely unbearable and that meant everyone was busting to go to the toilet. There was no choice left, we had to dig holes in the floor of the caves and fill them in afterwards.
Sunday night was again an early one to bed. Around 2:00am I awoke to find I was breathing a little more deeply than normal and had a slightly elevated pulse rate. Having had experienced fouls air in limestone caves, I knew that the atmosphere in the snow caves was not being replenished as fast as we were breathing it. But, I felt sure we had many more hours of air left as the porous snow does breath to a certain extent. I went back to sleep, only to be woken at 3:00am by the sound of digging in the entrance of the other cave. David had decided to dig in to see if we were OK. With the entrances totally covered over and my 2.1m long skis which stood upright between the original entrances now buried, he could only guess where to start digging. Two metres into the dig, he became desperate and fetched a stock from beside his tent, in order to probe the snow for a cavity. Luckily he was digging in the right place.
The stock soon broke through and came down next to Michael. I found out later that both Michael and Glenn had been laying awake, concerned with their heavier than normal breathing. They later confided that they felt relieved when the stock broke through and brought a rush of fresh air into the cave. At this stage the snow falls had increased the entrance passage depth from just 1 metre to an incredible 4 metres. Admittedly much of this was wind blown snow, but it just shows how much can be deposited in such a short time. When David found out that we were all OK, he headed back to his tent to warm up. I was certainly grateful that David had dug into us.
At the agreed wake-up time, the cave was still dark. The snow had once again completely covered up the entrances and was so thick that no daylight penetrated. Breakfast was cooked and everyone packed up. Then came the job of digging out. Glenn started on the entrance which David had opened at 3:00am. The snow was light and fluffy in that entrance. The excavated snow was stacked at the rear of the cave. It took up some considerable volume. At one stage Glenn was right up inside this small passage and came flying back down in a panic. He had almost broken through and a large portion of snow had fallen in, almost suffocating him in the passage. Glenn looked rather miserable covered from head to toe in a thick layer of fluffy snow. With a little remaining, Justin took over and broke through to the surface, only to be confronted by the still atrociously bad weather. The steep tunnel, now an estimated 5 metres deep was excavated large enough for our packs to be dragged out.
The others had left their skis standing upright around Davids tent. This meant that every time David cleared around his tent, their equipment was excavated. I had left my skis and stocks standing upright in the snow between the original two cave entrances. But, where were they now? A huge hole excavated over two metres deep finally located the ski tips. At this point we estimated, that in just 38 hours there had been over 3 metres of snow dumped on the cave entrances.
With all equipment now accounted for we loaded up and set off. The wind and driving snow made skiing extremely difficult and on many occasions out of control, as the wind just blew us along. Luckily we were going with the wind because even the quick glances into the wind to make sure our party was still together was very painful with the stinging snow hitting my face. The white out conditions did not help the situation and attribute to a number of nasty stacks.
A week later while I was sitting at home in the comfort of a warm fire and watching TV, the news announcer reported that 4 snow boarders were still missing in the same general area where we had survived in a snow cave for three days. They had set off across the Main Range on the same day and from the same starting point as our group. Official overnight temperatures for that week had hovered around -14°C, with a wind chill factor of -25°C.
If there is something to be learnt from our experiences in the mountains, it is surely to expect the worst conditions and Be Prepared.
For those concerned with the possibility of suffocation in snow caves, I have written the following information.
In limestone caves, I have been in atmospheres (foul air) measuring up to 6.5% carbon dioxide (CO2) and less than 13% oxygen. At this point my heart is racing at least twice the normal heart rate and breathing is extremely labored. (This is the same with other people who assisted me in the research). From researching medical literature I have found that CO2 becomes a sedative after about 7%. This will then numb the senses and make a person go to sleep. 10% CO2 will kill a person in about 3 minutes.
Despite being a little uncomfortable with breathing in the snow cave, early on the Monday morning, we could still light matches and candles, so the oxygen level was above 15%. We did not experience headaches or other signs which are associated with elevated CO2 concentrations above about 2%. So we still had plenty of breathable air left in the cave even if disregarding the limited replenishment of air through the porous snow.
While the CO2 level is rising in a cave, so is a person's heart rate. In fact after waking up on the first occasion, I could only manage a very light sleep after that time. I would imagine from my experimental work on \"Foul Air\", that I would not be able to sleep at all if the CO2 level was too high. The pounding of my heart and deep breathing would wake me out of the deepest sleep. In hind sight it has been suggested to me that a ski kept inside the cave could be used to punch holes through to the surface and allow fresh air in.