Snow shelter design and construction

Me with the MIT arch we built at 14,500ft on Mt McKinley

For me mechanical design and fabrication isn't confined to the machine shop. My goal as a mechanical engineer is to develop technology that improves your life. At 14,500ft high on a glacier on the side of Alaska's Mt McKinley (Denali) "improving your life" means being sheltered from storms. But you've got to do it with style. Above and below are images from several snow shelters I helped design and fabricate on our 2010 Denali Expedition.

These snow shelters protected us from not only wind but also the blazing high-altitude sun. I cut these snow blocks from a little quarry next to our camp using a special snow saw. We had to be careful where we dug because we didn't want to cut into a crevasse. The combination of heavy year-round snow and persistent winds makes the snow very firm high up on Denali. There are few places in the East Coast with similar snow.

To give our snow shelter some style I decided that we needed to make an arch. After we cut the blocks three of us held the top three blocks and carefully put them in place. We carved an "MIT" in the top block to mark our territory. With such thin air it was exhausting work for a "rest day." Click here to read more about out 2010 Denali Expedition.

Snow shelters at 14,500ft (left) and 11,600ft (right) on Denali.

In these two snow shelters (above) we didn't have to pile up any snow and could instead burrow straight into a large snowdrift. We slept peacefully inside while a blizzard (right) raged throughout the night. The thick snow insulation makes snow shelters surprisingly warm--once we measured the outside air temp to be -6F while inside it was a nice and toasty 58F (below).

A video I made describing how to build a Quinzhee-type snow shelter...

Besides digging a hole in a snowdrift or building a full-fledged igloo there's one other type of snow shelter we commonly build: the quinzee. For a quinzee you just pile up a bunch of snow, compact it with your body, then wait a few hours for the snow to set. While you're waiting you grab a bunch of twigs of length 8-12" an poke them in radially around your snow pile. When it's time to excavate out the inside of the shelter you'll know to stop digging when you reach a stick. After about 5 hours of labor, voila you have yourself a quinzee.

Left: a porcupine quinzee. Right: 57.7F inside the quinzee, -6.0F outside. Inside my sleeping bag it was 94F, creating a 100F spread between my sleeping bag and the outside air

L-R: My brother Eric, friend Spencer, and me.

Growing up in Berea, Kentucky your learn to take advantage of limited building materials and narrow weather windows. When snow falls you might have one or two days to utilize it before it melts. Usually our house had the last snow in town because we tirelessly harvested all the snow from across the yard and deposited it into one central location, where we created a snow masterpiece, like the one above.

Here, we created in igloo from about two inches of wet snow. We built a snowman first to serve as the central support, then slowly built up the walls block-by-block. The trash can served to keep the entrance open.

Left: Eric, Spencer, and me working on another snow masterpiece: "Bob Frost." Right: me with our snow-block quarry at 14,500ft on Denali. The snow saw made the work much easier.

Left: me in a snow cave on the side of Mt Washington. Right: inside a spacious four-person quinzee in the Whites.

A nice cozy snow shelter deep in the woods

Left: a red Jello "stained-glass" window. Idea courtesy of Dan Walker.