As you hike up towards Mystery Peak on Mount Seymour, there is a place on the trail to veer off and take in the view. On this particular Saturday, as far as the eye could see, there was the city, the inlet and Vancouver Island all basking in the sun. A welcome break from weeks of rain, it was the perfect day for a hike.
Amongst the group of casual snowshoers or the adventurous few going into the backcountry on split skis (skis that can be snapped together to make a snowboard), there was one large group that stood out from the rest. Carrying backpacks, shovels and rolled up mats on the side of their packs, there was more to this group than a day’s outing into the wild.
For UBC’s Varsity Outdoor Club (VOC), it was the first big trip of 2017. Around 50 students made the journey by car or bus to get up Seymour and hike to that point beside Mystery Peak, intending to continue out into the snow-covered forest for one of the VOC's most popular events of the year: snow cave building and an overnight backcountry trip.
After a quick break, the group ventured back out onto the trail and disappeared down the last slope into the wintery terrain. As onlookers watched from the boundary of Mount Seymour resort, the group trailed off one by one deeper into the backcountry and into the Mount Seymour provincial park.
In the 12 hours they spent away from the lights and noise of Mt. Seymour resort, those 50 students created around 15 snow caves to sleep in. The exercise was a chance to not only have fun with a larger group of students than usual — as most VOC trips tend to involve only a handful of people — but also a chance to learn a unique emergency shelter technique for particularly cold weather.
In a nutshell, the shelters require three main things: a shovel, waterproof clothing and two metres of snow on a hilly slope outside of avalanche terrain. A partner is also preferred.
As explained by club vice president and social coordinator Byron Wilson, you essentially dig down and then across to build a small entrance way. From there, you dig up slightly and carve out the main room of the shelter — a dome shaped structure that is a little like an igloo.
The first person digs out the cave, pushing out the excess snow towards the entrance for their teammate to remove until the shelter is fully cleared and ready for some wintery camping.
“It is not something you would build very often — there are a lot easier things, a lot quicker things in terms of making an emergency shelter,” said Wilson. “The snow cave is great when the elements are not very fitting for the amount of warmth you have.”
According to Wilson, the shelters can maintain a heat of about -5C in -20C weather. In the cold, that kind of a drastic temperature difference would be welcomed.
Although this may sound daunting, all levels and abilities of outdoorsman were in attendance that weekend, from first-timers to backcountry experts and club alumni. As Wilson explained, there were even some students there from Colombia seeing snow for the first time.
“Everyone was well-prepared. [I] can’t think of anything that held people back other than their own inhibitions [or] if they got scared away and didn’t come out [for the trip],” said Wilson.
It was only the rare few who didn’t pack enough waterproof clothing that learned a tough lesson about keeping warm while making their snow caves.
What happens if someone didn’t have the essential gear for this kind of trip? Well, you rent them from the club.
“The whole point of the club — our mission statement — is to encourage self-propelled adventures in the backcountry,” said Wilson. “In that regard, we have gear which we rent out for free.”
The club offers equipment from backpacks, to backcountry skis, to a canoe. Anything you need to enjoy the British Columbia outdoors, they can supply or will try to get their hands on for you. Requests can be made by members for anything that is not currently on their racks.
What’s more, should the club not have the gear you need for an imminent trip, there are always people willing to share. “We’re very much a community in giving out gear, so if the club doesn’t rent the stuff then usually you can ask other people,” said Wilson.
With all this in mind, the trip was a huge success.
“Yeah, I would do it again — it was really fun. It was a lot more of a party than most trips I go on,” said Wilson. “One of the people skied up three times and he brought a backpack full of speakers. We had lights everywhere and we were dancing.”
And trips like the snow cave building weekend aren’t the only types of events VOC puts on. From smaller group hikes, to snowshoeing, to bicycle touring and climbing, there are options for every type of outdoorsman. With around 700 student club members — and as the biggest club on campus — there are always like-minded club members looking for new people to experience the outdoors with.
“The club is so big and there’s so many interested people, that you just have to post on the club [page] saying I’m looking for people to go [on this trip] on this weekend … and a lot of people will show up if you have an interesting idea,” said Wilson.
“Everyone is welcome [in the VOC]. The only commonality between the people is that they accept all walks of life.”
If you are interested in snow cave building, or if it's bicycling and hiking that tickle your fancy, there is room for everyone and all interests in the club.
Just don’t forget to pack extra waterproof gear for the snowy trips.