I once had a dog called Teallach, (the softest long-haired Alsatian you could ever meet) hefinished his Munros in 1985 and he had only twelve left for his second time around, when he unfortunately passed away. He had a life of adventures he loved winter where he knew when the snow was coming as his coat changed. He was pretty hard core but what a companion, he was so loyal and easy going and he never let me down.
I spent many years snow-holing over 30 winters mainly in the Cairngorms it was the thing to do in the 70/80/90/2000 ‘s and still part of the syllabus of Mountain Training programmes. As RAF Mountain Rescue we would have an annual winter course which was 14 days winter mountaineering in Scotland. It was a great experience with a unique one to one ratio of pupil and instructor. The six teams and two overseas teams at one time would send pupils and instructors and over 40 plus would attend. The experience of pupils would be varied and some of the pupils had never worn crampons or ice axes? This was their first taste of winter but we were very lucky to have some extremely talented instructors. The course would be based at the superb Grantown On Spey Centre home of the RAF PTI cadre who took leave and left us to their incredible facilities. Their bosses though wondered what they would come back to!
The first day started with a few lectures then off we went with huge bags to do winter skills then walk up on to the Cairngorm plateau to snow hole. Sounds easy but it is not, big bags are hard work and the arctic plateau in February is not the place to make mistakes. We always did a bit on skills and headed up to get sorted and pick a good site. I had a secret weapon my dog Teallach who joined in the fun but was aware all the time where we were. The troops always enjoyed the experience but that was because most had no clue of the dangers. The snow hole sites are usually the lee slopes high up and sheltered and can be very busy in winter. After the usual hard work and a hole can be built in 2 hours. It is hard work and you have to make sure all your kit is well-marked and away from all the snow you are moving. Big shovels and decent saws can make the job easier. If organised you can soon you can be sorted and have a great night. We usually went out for a night navigating exercise on the plateau a very interesting adventure and a key skill. We always mark your snow hole with an avalanche pole or ski pole at night with a light as I once was making a brew when crashing through my roof came a well-known Glenmore Lodge instructor much to our amusement. His name held for my book! A candle and a spacious hole makes living and cooking easier and is also a guide to how much air is available for breathing. My dog Teallach was even better than a canary in a mine as soon as the entrance started to block he was out clearing the entrance. You have to keep checking that you have fresh air in the snow hole at all times. I have so many stories of epics it is no wonder I never slept in a snow hole I was always prepared for the unexpected. During the night on many occasions the wind would move the snow and we would have to get out and dig ourselves out!
One night on the Cairngorm Plateau after the usual few drams in our snow – hole, we all drifted back to our own holes. Just as we were falling asleep, I heard a noise outside and thinking that it was a raid on our whisky store, sent Teallach out to chase them off. Even though Teallach was a big softy, in the dark and around the snow hole, he must have looked fearsome. Imagine my consternation the following morning, when I went out and found two climbers curled up and shivering. They had left their sacks below Hells Lum Crag and the weather had changed drastically and could not find them. They had staggered back onto the plateau and were in a bad way. They had seen our light and they thought they were safe, only to be met by a huge dog, who would not let them in the snow hole. I brought them in, gave them a brew and walked them off in the morning, meeting Cairngorm MRT, who was coming to look for our “lost” friends. (Another confession) I was reminded of this story by a photo I put up on socail media.
Be aware of what is happening outside! in the weather not easy when in the shelter of the snow hole. Wind changes all the time and the entrance can get easily blocked. Get ready inside if its blowing heavily as when you get out life can get difficult!
Check the weather forecast and be aware that snow will move during the night in the form of spindrift and can easily block an entrance. Put all Gear not being used in a safe place away from where you are digging, mark it as it could be covered by snow fairly quickly. Wear as little as possible when digging it is hard work. Try to keep dry as possible. Use good shovels and kit.
Check that there is enough snow to dig a snow-hole if planning to stay a night! Use an avalanche pole to check depth and mark roof! The bigger the better, if in a big group link snow holes. Make the ceilings as smooth as possible to stop drips. A gortex Bivy bag will keep you dry inside your sleeping bag and good sleeping insulation is very important! Remember when cooking you need air make sure the snow hole is well ventilated at all times! Link snow holes by a rope that way you will ensure that if you have to move out quickly you can reach the other snow holes.
When inside the snow hole it is easy to forget where you are remember the wind and temperature are static inside and a big storm could be brewing outside. If going out wear your kit. One of ours went out in inner boots and could not get back in. THE SNOW HAD FROZEN AND WAS TOO STEEP TO GET IN WITHOUT BOOTS AND AN AXE! Only the dogs barking woke us, he was lucky. He was an officer so maybe that explains it. Worth carrying a pee bottle to save you going out at night! Always tell someone you are going out, if you have to! Leave nothing outside apart from Skis bring everything in and be ready to move in the event of a problem! Have all your kit really handy right beside you.
There are many more tips.
I have not snow holed for a long time and may do it again before I get to old? I have been involved in some massive searches one where we searched the snow hole sites looking for two pals. The holes were covered under 20 feet of snow and we had to dig them out just to find the roof. It is amazing how wild and deep the snow can be in these sites after a hard winter. It has been a while since we had a hard winter but they may be back so be careful.
Missing the old dog.