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Quinzhee -  2017 - Gary Waidson - Ravenlore

I had a little work up in Edinburgh recently so I ring-fenced a couple of days beforehand for a bit of a landscape photography tour into the highlands.

As luck would have it I got hit by snow and I took the opportunity to try building a quinzhee for the first time while the light conditions were rather too poor for photography.

I knew a flatish little camping spot that was not too boggy, near the river, that I thought would be suitable for my purposes.

A good friend once suggested that you could swim across Rannoch Moor in the summer and skate across in the winter. I think that is perhaps only a slight exaggeration and on this occasion although the snow was about 6 to 8 inches deep, the mire underneath was not frozen.

My snowshoes proved very useful for access as they spread my weight across the soggy bits as well as the snow and I set off with a cheap snow shovel that I normally keep in the van for emergencies.

For those that may not be familiar with the idea, the basic principle of building a quinzhee (sometimes spelled as quinzee) is to make an artificial mound of snow and then burrow into it to make a small snow shelter.

It has the big advantage that it is not too dependent on the snow conditions because as the snow is piled up it tends to compact and consolidate in much the same way as a snowball is formed.

Basic sleeping arrangements in a quinzhee -  2017 - Gary Waidson - Ravenlore

With the increase in snowy conditions we have enjoyed in recent years I have been giving a deal of thought to the purchase of a decent snow shovel and this project gave me a few very useful pointers towards what I would consider such a good design.

For surface digging and removing loose snow from the interior a long handle is most desirable. For packing, scraping and trimming a shorter handle is best while for working right inside it is best to be able to remove the handle altogether and work with just the shovel blade.

For  working on the inside of the roof a curved shovel would be best but for scooping good chunks of snow for building the pile a flatter shape works well.

I must admit that for the internal work I think my Snowclaw would have been ideal but regrettably, due to an unfortunate oversight, it was resting comfortably in a bag I had left at home.

Although I had vast acres of snow to work with I resolved to work within a close area partly to reduce the work but also to practice building with minimal amounts of snow.

I started with a pile of about 6 feet diameter and about 3.5 feet high rather more sugar loaf shaped rather than a simple hemispherical dome.

A fry up in the snow by my quinzhee -  2017 - Gary Waidson - Ravenlore

As I dug into the side facing away from the wind I then hefted the spoil toward the far end and used that to lengthen the mound as I dug towards it. The resulting cavity was about 7 feet long and between 3.5 to 2.5 feet wide. At its greatest height the roof was about 3 foot from the ground but sloped down slightly toward the entrance and more so towards the far end.

One thing that was rapidly apparent was that it was much more efficient for shelter than a tent in such conditions, in fact it soon became quite cosy inside while the wind outside remained quite aggressive.

It is very important to smooth the internal roof into a curve to prevent drip points as the cavity warms up due to body heat. This is where I really missed my Snoclaw which being easy to handle in a tight space, curved and flexible would lend itself extremely well to this task.

Many sources suggest poking short twigs through from the outside of the mound as a guide to the wall thickness.

While I can see some advantages to this idea it was actually quite easy to judge when the wall was getting a bit thin as a distinct bluish light could be seen filtering thought the snow when the thickness was down to about 4 or 5 inches. I tended to repack a bit of loose snow back into such sections but I suspect there was actually sufficient wall thickness in most of these cases had I just left them as they were. 

The total construction time was about two hours and as I had discovered a pre-existing fire circle close to the entrance I used a small fire tray between the stones and a couple of fire logs to boil up some water fry up a bit of grub.

I had a synthetic sleeping bag with a home made Ventile cover for sleeping in but only a standard air/foam mat, never the less, I knew I could always retreat to the permanent sleeping arrangements in my van a short distance away if necessary.

It was quite predictably the mat which turned out to be the weak point in the system but this was sort of remedied with the addition of the folding foam mat from the back of my mountain pack. Serviceable but not exactly luxurious, it certainly firmed up my decision to invest in a Down mat before next year.

On the subject of lessons learned I would have to add that we should never under estimate the light levels and their impact upon our eyes in snow conditions.

About halfway through the construction I could feel my eyes becoming quite uncomfortable and I had to return to my stash of kit in the van for a pair of snow goggles. If asked I would have described the conditions as low cloud but had neglected to consider that the altitude I was at meant that the cloud layer was not actually very thick.

By morning the dome of the quinzhee had flattened out somewhat but it still afforded sufficient room to wriggle in and out of my sleeping arrangements. I suspect having the fire so close to the entrance affected the structures longevity to some extent but it did make for an interesting photograph.

Altogether a very instructive and valuable exercise, one I would highly recommend to anyone.

Northern Lights over Camp Quinzhee -  2017 - Gary Waidson - Ravenlore

For more information about Quinzhees take a look at my trip to Norway in 2012.

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