Icy burrow

Luce had never before slept in a snow cave. This accidental fact seemed entirely natural to me, since Luce is after all a research fellow who spends most of his hours squinting through a microscope, and the rest at a clapboard house in suburban Connecticut, where the snow is rarely deep enough for a cottontail rabbit -- let alone an aging six-foot, six-inch scholar -- to burrow into it and go to sleep. Yet it was a point of minor but abiding frustration to Luce. He had climbed mountains, descended canyons, floated rivers, but never -- small thing -- slept a night in a snow cave. For a variety of reasons, including healthy curiosity and incipient asceticism, it was getting him down. And so, from the very first evening I met Luce, at a wedding in Tulsa where the groom persisted in introducing me libelously as "the one from Montana who lives in an ice cave" ("Do you really?" "Not in the summer.") The onus was heavy on me to rescue Luce from this deprivation.

I had actually sworn off snow caves myself after a particularly annoying slush-cave experience on a solo ski trip taken up the Lochsa River slightly too late one March; retired my folding shovel; and bought a decent winter tent. But for such a fine eager adventurous friend as Luce, I was willing to violate my resolutions. I told him to make his plane reservation for the first week in February, when we could count on cold temperatures, deep drifts, firm cornices, and a full moon.

A full moon is a great asset on any snow- camping trip, a practical asset as well as an aesthetic one (whether or not you have been sensible enough to provide yourself with a tent), because when a full moon shines on an open mountainside covered with snow, the effect is a magical lambency, like lingering summer twilight. The frozen meadows and windblown white knobs glow with the luminosity of an oilskin lampshade. Forget flashlights, forget lanterns -- ski wide-eyed at midnight along roller coaster ridges without snapping a switch: moonlight like nowhere else ever. I took Luce snow-spelunking into the Highland Mountains the night of February's full moon, on the theory that this trip might need all the assets that could be assembled.

Luce on a pair of cross-country skis is roughly as graceful as Willie Stargell might be on disco skates, but we reached the ridgetop I had in mind by late afternoon, before he was more than mildly self-defeated. Along the ridge line was a stiff cornice blown up and packed solid by winds from the southwest, with a face like a seven-foot Hawaiian wave breaking to leeward. We stamped down enough snow to form a sturdy platform where we could stand and cook without sinking in to our ships, and then I began digging.

I cut a door, scooping out impacted scallops of snow. After a half hour I was on my knees, extending a corridor back into the cornice. After an hour I was on my back like a hard-rock miner, six feet in, under 500 pounds of snow, carving a narrow tubelike bedroom perpendicularly off to the left, then another to the right, spacious enough for the rangy body of Luce, this particular cave taking the shape of a lopsided T. Then concave ceilings were shaved out above, to supply archlike roof support when the interior surface froze rock-icy with condensation. Meanwhile Luce hauled out the loose snow in a plastic bucket on the end of a cord and cheered encouragement at my feet:

"Quammen, it's a wonderful cave. It's wonderful."

"You want to dig for a while?"

"No, I'm watching. I'm learning."

Then a small hemispherical ledge was scooped out of one wall, to hold a candle that would serve as bedside light. Then finally an air hole was driven down from above with a ski pole. By this time the sun had set, the night chill was flowing in like a heavy tide, and I remembered part of what I dislike about snow caves: building one makes you very tired and very wet. But Luce was right: as two-man caves go, this one was the Ritz.

We had a tetrazzini and two rounds of cocoa, and then skied up the bridge line to stand for a half hour gazing up at the moon and down at the lights of Butte. By night, in winter, from a healthy distance, bowled around on all sides by the Highlands, even Butte is beautiful.

Immune to claustrophobia, tucked snugly into his icy tube and swaddled with three pounds of goose down, Luce slept the innocent sleep of a Fudgesicle. He woke with a stiff neck, a lightly bruised hip, a sleeping bag covered with frost , and an odd grin that he couldn't quite control. He had what he had wanted.

Outside the sky was a wild unsmudged blue and the snow was gleaning like polished chrome. We skied down off the ridge that morning, careening along a glazed trail, but before we were even out of the woods, Luce was talking as though one night in a snow cave -- small thing -- might somehow have changed his life. I don't claim to know how; somehow. When I put him back on the plane, he was talking about forsaking New Haven, peeling his eye away from the microscope, moving himself to Montana.

"You could specialize in frostbite."

"I'm serious."

"It's a fine idea, Luce. I'm a ll for it," I said genuinely. "I'll buy you a tent."

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