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Original Issue

Snowplace like Home

Because bears are smart enough to sneak off under a snowbank to escape Wyoming's biting winters, the National Outdoor Leadership School in Lander has refined this behavior as part of its survival lessons. Students burrow into the lee side of a hill, cutting out cozy apartments like the one at right and on the following pages, where all decorating is done √† la shovel, and central heating comes from candles. Snow caves make for happy, if hardy, times,-outside temperatures are crackling cold, but inside it soars to a snug 25°. Inhabitants learn to bear it.

'build a palace—not a hole'

They skied down the slope toward Sinks Canyon, and an early winter sun, lighting the rugged Wyoming mountains of the Wind River Range, picked them out one by one. Finally it embraced them all—a dozen students, accompanied by Expedition Leader Andy Carson and Instructor Randy Cerf, just finishing up a two-week Leadership School expedition out of Lander. A hundred or so expeditions like this one, attracting 1,500 to 2,000 young people, are run by NOLS every year, each one a mini-course in living in the wilderness, or what is left of it. The fees vary with the expedition; the Wind River trip, for instance, costs $250. There are other winter courses in the remote areas of Yellowstone National Park, summer trips through Washington's North Cascades, climbs up Mount McKinley and an annual assault on the Grand Teton every January.

But the Wind River Range expedition is something special, for on it youngsters learn how to build and live in snow caves. Most of them start out having quite a lot to learn about practically everything. The majority have never been on skis, never carried full-size backpacks, never climbed a real mountain, and certainly never thought much about building snow caves—for which the soft, powdery Wyoming snow is admirably suited—at least not the way NOLS people think about snow caves. "We don't ask them to build itsy-bitsy holes they can crawl into," said George Hunker, one of the school's expedition leaders and a man who grows lyrical on the subject of snow construction. "We teach them how to build palaces. Snow has structural integrity, if you do the thing properly."

A proper snow cave begins with a doorway six to eight feet high, dug slightly uphill into a steep bank. The entrance must be domed, and shored up with snow arches to keep the cave from sinking. Farther back are the sleeping chambers, which must be higher than the entrance level. Otherwise wind and blowing snow can make things miserable inside. A NOLS cave is generally large enough for 10 people to move around in comfortably though not expansively. "Building the snow cave is the hardest work of the trip," said Hunker. "Snow is heavy, so it's a little like digging coal."

Before they start the cave project, the students have learned how to get around on skis, how to clothe themselves against outer cold and feed themselves properly for inner warmth. (Nibble, nibble, nibble on high-calorie foods.) They have learned how to avoid polluting streams, how to read maps and how to tell directions with or without a compass. They study the deadliest hazard of the winter mountains—the avalanche. Each student in turn is appointed leader for the day, making major decisions about campsites and the route that will take them there. They learn how to light, clean and repair their camp stoves. The aim of the school is to make a student self-sufficient and capable of taking other groups into the mountains. Members of the expedition watch and care for each other. "The strongest skier never goes faster than the slowest member," says Carson. A tired, winded student is taught rhythmic breathing, how to suit his pace to his heartbeat. "Sometimes we make only two miles the first day. But soon even the slowest member of the group is increasing his pace."

The sun grew brighter, and then they were there just above the canyon, their red parkas and wind pants strung out on the slope like a crimson necklace. Down below, they stowed their gear in a pickup truck and clambered into a secondhand school bus, ready for blueberry pancakes, scrambled eggs, sweet rolls and coffee. The snow caves had taken almost one full day to build. They had slept two nights in them, and spent a day climbing 12,734-foot Atlantic Peak. The mood was high exhilaration. Then Jim Hancock, of Cazenovia, N.Y., heard a bit of news that for the rest of the U.S. was already past history. "What?" he howled. "Minnesota lost?" It was enough to make him want to go right back up the mountain to the snow cave, where cold realities like Miami never intrude.