Snowcave - Flattop Mountain

Rocky Mountain National Park

January 27 - 28, 2007

Dave Svilar, Jill, Ben and Shawna


Our group looks much happier in this photo - just before exiting the icy tomb.

I threw out the idea approximately a week early.  Jill pretended not to hear.  Shawna was even less enthused, "That' always something I've NOT wanted to do."

Ben and I needed the entire week to market our plan to the ladies.  It was Super Bowl season, and taking a play from the NFL's book, I figured if given long enough I could make anything sound fun (see 2 weeks hype before Super Bowl).  Personally, I was wallowing in some of the slowest and least fulfilling weeks of my "adult" life.  After filling my head with motivational books like "Rich Dad, Poor Dad" it seemed that I was on the cusp of forming my own multi-million dollar empire.  Midway through January I was hardly a young, dynamic entrepreneur on the upswing.  For the third time in my life I was watching my substantial savings account dwindle to nothing as I realized that having a business means you have to sell something - a pursuit I held just above eating my own feces.

Despite several recent ski outings I had a severe case of cabin fever.  After yet another case of verbal domestic abuse - a threat to dilute the orange juice if Jill didn't stop drinking the expensive Tropicana in the evenings (a sacred rule) - I proposed a trip within everyone's abilities that might challenge us all in some way.  By an hour that was too late on Saturday our marketing plan had miraculously worked and the four of us headed towards Rocky Mountain National Park.

My experience with snow caves was that there are slight discomforts along the way, but generally tended to be warmer than expected.  Looking back, it was hard for me to truly understand how apprehensive the girls were about the prospect of spending the night in a snowcave.  For Ben and me, the Subaru - loaded with skis and overnight gear - was heading toward a tame and fun adventure in the mountains.  As far as the girls were concerned the Subaru might as well have been heading off a cliff.  As we passed through Estes Park Jill made a rare and curious demand: "Stop the car now!  I need McDonalds."  I had never known Jill to eat McDonald's food, but according to her explanation she wanted to take the last opportunity to eat something warm.  She was so convinced that freezing to death in the snowcave was a likelihood that she had lowered her core body temperature by just the thought of it.

After yet another delay at the Bear Lake trailhead we finally donned our skis and began up the trail, shooting for somewhere below the nearby Flattop Mountain.  Besides fighting heavy overnight packs and an icy trail, the rest of our group had to fight their useless cross country skis.  We were spread out enough along the trail where I didn't hear any complaining, and just as things were looking bleak for snowcave digging we broke into an open, relatively flat area directly beneath Flattop.  The sun was already quite low, so we wasted little time choosing a site and beginning to excavate snow.

Another issue with finding a suitable location for a snow cave is... the snow.  Basically, it doesn't snow much in most areas of the Park, and where it does, it blows away in the nearly constant gape force winds typical of RMNP winters.  However, the snow does blow somewhere, and luckily we were able to find a snow drift that probably could have provided enough cave for a small army.  Unfortunately snow drifts tend to be composed of ultra-hard snow.  I was thankful for my Mark Twight workouts (, but after two hours of steady chipping and digging I needed a real woman to take over.  Shawna, who was a reluctant participant on the trip took over shoveling duties - excavating the rock-hard snow at an impressive clip.  Apparently this hard work was not that foreign to her, "This is just like shoveling bull manure on my father's ranch."

As Shawna made slicing and dicing rock-hard wind drifted snow look as easy as scooping a warm bull turd, Ben and I were relegated to feminine duties such as preparing cocoa and asking "when will it be done?"  Well after nightfall we finally were able to slide into the eerily steamy cave and wrap ourselves in our goose down bags.  Just after downing a large meal and a couple of chocolate bars and just before bedtime, I took a look at Jill who was staring at the ceiling of the cave with saucer eyes.  I checked her vital signs and concluded that she was still unsure whether surviving the night was a likely outcome.  Jill, whose body shivers at anything less than 80 F must have been wondering how the circumstances of her life had brought her to this place: voluntarily sleeping in an ice tomb in the middle of January at 10,000 feet. 

The morning brought a sense of achievement.  The only larger waste of human time than television is sleeping, so it's not every day that you awake with the feeling of monumental accomplishment.  Before lifting their heads from their pillows made of pine tree branches, both Jill and Shawna were able to say that they had survived a night in a snowcave.  While the female component reviled in their grand accomplishment, Ben and I began melting snow for breakfast - a task that rivals watching paint dry on the excite-o-meter.  As far as I could tell the only true benefit for being the first out of the tomb is staking claim to the prime pooping spot.  By the time Shawna emerged for her morning routine and inquired as to a safe place in which to conduct her business - Jill, Ben and I - shook our heads in unison and proclaimed "Not that way" while all pointing in opposite directions.

We spent the last part of the morning and early afternoon touring towards the last craggy point of interest that lies north of Hallet Peak - Notchtop - while enjoying the simple act of moving (being warm).  After filling in the entrance to our indestructable cave the group ski/walked back to the car.  Later that night, with the fears of perishing in the snowcave behind we soaked in the hot tub.  Which made us think, wouldn't it be nice if we could stay in a snowcave next to a hot spring? 


One of my favorite views in the park - above Bear Lake and looking into Glacier Gorge.  A rare RMNP site - snow on the trees!
Dave and Ben discuss the nuances of snowcave building while the girls dig.
The lump on the left is Shawna, while Ben peers out inside the misty bowels of the cave.  Our one amenity was the candle which provided needed ambience.
A soft glow emanates from our tomb before bedtime.  Outside temps dipped close to -15 F. 
An icy blast typical of RMNP gale force winds greeted Dave in the morning.  Photo by Ben
All my detractors take notice!  Dave labors over the stove preparing hot food and drinks for Jill while she "lounges" in the icy tomb.  Photos by Ben
The girls ski away from camp and towards Notchtop Mountain.
Darth Shawna was successful in keeping every piece of skin under wraps.
We skied to views of Notchtop's burly south face and turned back.
Notchtop with Dave to enhance the foreground.  Photo by Ben
It can be said that a true male model never really loses the flair.  Dave still looks good saddling a pack.  Photo by Ben

written February 2007

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