ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK— It’s 9 degrees at Ed Huesers’ favorite place in the world – a glacier-smoothed granite knob in the midst of higher peaks.
Above, wind flings banners of white powder off the stark summit of Longs Peak to catch the final blush of sunset. Below, in the shadows, wind clatters ice crystals over the crust of blue snow piled 3 feet deep. A storm is on the way.
There is only one swatch of light – a buttery rectangle glowing from the door of Huesers’ latest creation.
Inside, the short, spry 60-year-old with a long, gray wizard’s beard sits in the cozy glow of a butane lantern, eating a fresh green salad and a few slices of aged Dutch gouda.
He smiles in satisfaction.
It’s so warm in the snow dome that steam rises from the knees of his snow pants.
This is the art of the igloo.
Huesers, a plastic-mold maker who lives in Lyons, is better known in snow circles as “Igloo Ed,” the Lower 48’s igloo expert. He and his partner, Guy Menge, are inventors of the Icebox, a contraption that can make a perfectly sculpted igloo with any kind of snow.
But that is just part of what makes Huesers Igloo Ed. He has spent years designing the best techniques, and has built igloos in Rockefeller Center, Central Park and countless winter expos across the country.
He’s a one-man igloo-pedia, answering countless questions on the Web from would-be builders.
He likes winter camping in Rocky Mountain National Park so much that he limits himself to day hikes during the summer, because the rangers let hikers spend only seven nights a year camping in the backcountry, and Igloo Ed would rather spend them all in an igloo.
Ask how it all got started and he pauses, sighs and says, “Oh, that was a lot of igloos ago.”
Instinct suggests that an igloo would be a terrible place to spend the night. After all, snow is cold, so it would be logical that an igloo is cold, too. But when it comes to winter camping, a house of snow may be the warmest option out there.
Even tightly packed snow is full of air. The trapped air is a great insulator. The molecular structure of snow makes it hard for the temperature inside an igloo to rise much above freezing, (40 degrees is the high end) but it keeps it from falling much below, too. And on a night when it’s 9 degrees and falling, that starts to seem pretty warm.
“Plus, it’s quiet. You don’t get the wind shaking your tent all night,” Huesers said. “It can last a long time if you build it in the right place. And you don’t have to worry about tracking snow inside – it’s made of snow!”
Igloos have been used for centuries by the Inuit tribes of Canada and Alaska.
Some of the largest, used for community feasts, had five rooms and housed 20 people.
“But for the most part, they were just temporary hunting shelters,” Huesers said.
His interest in them goes back to 1975, when he moved to Colorado from North Dakota and immediately fell in love with Rocky Mountain National Park. Years of experimenting with winter camping taught him that a snow cave was warmer, quieter and sturdier than a tent, but because snow caves can be built only in very deep drifts, his choice of sites was limited.
That’s where the idea of an igloo came along. He soon discovered that building igloos is not easy. Inuit traditionally sawed blocks from hard snow and stacked them like bricks, but snow in the Rockies is often too powdery.
Huesers thoughts went right away to his work as a moldmaker. He knew from working with snow caves that, at the molecular level, even the driest powder snow has a thin layer on the surface of each crystal where the water molecules are liquid. Press together the snow lightly and the liquid moves, letting the solid crystals join, forming a strong bond.
“It’s amazing,” he said. “You wouldn’t think powder would make very strong blocks. But once an igloo is done, a man can stand on the roof.”
All Huesers had to do to make igloo-building easy was build the right mold. After a few failed designs, he and his partner introduced the Icebox igloo-building tool in 1998. Since then they’ve sold more than 8,000.
Minnesota is a big buyer. So is Montana, but for some reason, the biggest buyer is Austria.
“I guess they just like building igloos there,” Huesers said.
New take on an old form
Earlier in the day, when Huesers arrived at his favorite place in the world, he pulled out an Icebox.
The 4.5-pound device looks a bit like an mailbox that’s been hit by a plow. A plastic box, but missing two sides, is connected to a long pole. One end of the pole is staked in the center on a flat area of snow, then the igloo-builder works in a circle, filling the box at the other end of the pole with snow, gently packing it, and sliding the box over to make the next snow block. The blocks rise in a coil, angling in until there is just a tiny hole in the roof to fill.
“It takes longer than setting up a tent,” Huesers said as he shoveled sugary powder into the form. “But it lasts a lot longer, too. I’ll be able to come up here and use this for weeks. If we built it in the right spot, in the trees, out of the sun and wind, it could last all winter.”
Huesers’ record for building an igloo is just over an hour. But with a novice helper packing the form, and Huesers shoveling snow and stopping to tell off-color jokes about polar bears, building a 9-foot igloo took four hours.
Huesers built the igloo on a slope, so he could tunnel in a door from below, trapping warm air in the dome. He used a shovel to sculpt elevated sleeping shelves and a cooking area. It had comfort and features that few tents could match. He spread out tarps and pads on the cold snow, and lit a tiny butane lamp.
Almost instantly, the domed room warmed to a relatively balmy 38 degrees. The light of the lantern twinkled on the icy walls. The allure was clear: Here was a house built from little more than ingenuity and water that would disappear in a month or two but for now was solid and warm.
“You don’t have to build many of these,” Huesers said as he unrolled his sleeping bag, “to figure out that they’re pretty cool.”
A form that allows anyone to make a perfectly shaped, strong igloo, even in powdery snow. The Icebox takes practice though. Expect your first few igloos to be a real challenge.
Find out more: grandshelters.com
Igloo or quinzhee?
There is a difference. An igloo is built of snow blocks. A quinzhee is built from hollowing out a packed pile of snow.
The alps boast several Iglu Dorfs, where tourists can stay in igloos complete with hot tubs, honeymoon suites and fondue.
Most Icebox customers buy them for weekend camping, but one recent customer who works at a pricey ski resort told Ed Huesers he planned to live in an igloo in the woods all winter to save on rent.
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