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Digging in for a safe night in the snow

I'm lying on my back inside a snow bank, shoveling out the ceiling of what is supposed to be a snow cave.

My construction partner, Christina Fritzinger, is optimistic we'll get the job done by our 3 p.m. deadline. I don't give us a snowball's chance in ... well, you know.

My arms feel like noodles after more than two hours of digging, and all we've produced is an entryway and a cavity that isn't big enough for a beagle to turn around in. My clothes are caked with snow and the shovel keeps glancing off thick veins of ice.

Fritzinger and I are part of a group of 20 students and instructors gathered near the Summit at Snoqualmie ski area for a lesson in snow survival and camping presented by the Tacoma Mountaineers. We've all pitched tents as a backup, but our goal is to spend the night in snow structures of our own making.

Frankly, it sounds grim.

To me, camping is like a garden party: If you have to pile on layers like a Michelin man, why bother?

In other words, I'm a headline in the making.

So it seemed like organizer Roger Ternes was speaking directly to me when he said: "Anyone who likes to get out in the winter should be aware of how to spend a night - usually unplanned - in the snow."

But I was shaken by this winter's litany of snowbound victims, from the three climbers who died on Mount Hood in December to San Francisco editor James Kim, who perished from hypothermia after his family was stranded on a logging road in Oregon. Hitting closest to home was the Seattle woman who lost her way while snowshoeing near Snoqualmie Pass and survived two nights.

I didn't tell my new friends in The Mountaineers, but I often snowshoe and cross-country ski alone. On most day-trips, I'm lucky if my pack contains three or four of the recommended "10 Essentials."

This trip was all about planning, with sleeping bags, camp stoves and even a Black Forest cherry cake in the shape of a mountain prepared by Ternes' wife, Maria. But the shelter-building skills we learned would be applicable if we were caught in the cold with little more than a pair of snowshoes and hiking poles, Ternes promised.

Shelter is key to winter survival, he stressed.

"The wind can zap another 10 to 20 degrees out of your body, and once you get wet, it's really hard to stay warm."

The temperature inside a snow cave is usually 15 to 20 degrees warmer than outside, which can make the difference between life and death.

The cave Fritzinger and I were bumbling our way through is a fairly complex operation, requiring shovels and - in our case - several hours of daylight. Other class members were tackling even more elaborate structures, including igloos and snow trenches - coffinlike rectangles cut into the snow with a snow saw, then capped with a peaked roof of snow blocks.

"Most people don't travel with a snow saw, so igloos and trenches are usually out of the question for an emergency shelter," Ternes said. Even without a shovel or saw, you can use your snowshoes, ski poles or branches to carve out a rudimentary cave or a slot in a snow bank with a bench to sit on. Lacking those, it's possible to kick out a depression in a snow bank.

"I once saw a guy dig a cave with an ice ax and his cooking pot," Ternes said.

Instructor Bob Hankinson demonstrated a quick-and-dirty approach, hopping into a tree well and excavating a narrow slot and bench just big enough for one person to sit in. He created a roof by anchoring one end of a tarp under a heavy layer of snow and tying the other to tree branches.

"I'm ready now for a 12-inch snowfall, and it was 10 minutes of work," he said.

Tree wells are natural shelters, because they're already out of the wind and partially sheltered by overhanging branches, Ternes pointed out. "That's where I would head first."

And after realizing the utility of a plastic tarp with a reflective surface on one side, I know I'll never venture out again without one. In addition to serving as a roof, door or windbreak, it can act as a blanket to conserve body heat and a signaling system to attract the attention of searchers.

Back at our would-be homestead, Fritzinger and I were struggling to break through ice layers, and puzzling over the cave's geometry. An ideal snow cave starts with an ideal site: a 30- to 40-degree slope, with snow deep enough to leave a roof at least one- to two-feet thick.

We had already dug a three-foot-long entryway into the slope, then started excavating up and back, to form the cavern.

Working in the small space we'd carved out was like wedging yourself beneath a sofa and trying to wield a shovel.

"You've got to put some hiney into it," said Fritzinger, a Georgia native who now lives in Tacoma.

Only when we hit softer layers of snow did I begin to think we might actually succeed.

While one person worked on enlarging the cave, the other stood outside and shoveled the tailings down the slope. As the space got bigger, the digging got easier.

Still, after more than four hours of work, it was clearly only big enough for one.

Determined to sleep in it, Fritzinger took over the finishing work: leveling the floor; smoothing out the domed ceiling to minimize water drips; using the hollow handle of her shovel to punch out an air hole in the dome. She tried to wedge a block of snow over the entryway, so the opening would be lower than the cave floor. The idea is to let cold air sink out of the cave, while warm air is trapped inside. But Fritzinger couldn't get the block to stay in place.

"It'll be easier the next time you build one," instructor Terry Bartlett said, comfortingly.

Aaah ... an igloo

To earn a sleeping spot, I switched to assistant igloo-builder.

Field-trip leader Dan Percival was already more than halfway done with his eight-foot-diameter snow dome. He put me to work humping 40-pound snow blocks from the "quarry" to the construction site, then handing them up as he stood inside the circle and tamped them into place.

For my labors - and because he's a nice guy - Percival let me join him for the night in his Taj Mahal.

With reflective tarps for ground cover, two sleeping pads, a down sleeping bag in a waterproof cover and hand-warmers tucked into my socks, I stayed cozy and dry while temperatures outside dipped below freezing.

In the morning, we all gathered at the communal kitchen to compare notes.

"I didn't get cold," Fritzinger reported. "It didn't drip - until the morning."

Other snow cavers said their ceilings were too low and sloping floors had them sliding around.

Jolene Taylor, of Tacoma, shrugged off an uncomfortable night spent in a snow trench. The roof was claustrophobically low and the trench was so narrow she got wet from being too close to the wall.

"I don't think it's something I'll do regularly," she said. "But now I know I can do it."