The air cooled even before the sun set, and with the light slowly peeling away from what had been a brilliant blue sky, the children slowed, as well.
The seven Steamboat Springs Middle School students bundled up and hunkered down for a night high on Rabbit Ears Pass.
Matt Tredway braced himself for what he said every year is the best part of the Everything Outdoor Steamboat backcountry camping trip.
“It’s a nice sunny spring day this year when we’re doing this, but it could be 15 below and blowing snow and one of these igloos would feel exactly the same as it does when it’s nice out,” Tredway said. “That’s the big surprise to these guys, that it’s infinitely more comfortable than they think it would be.”
Five miles away, Steamboat Springs put on its finest — or, at least as far as the clothes were concerned, strangest — performance, saying farewell to the 2009-10 ski season on the slopes of Mount Werner. But tucked in front of a stand of trees in Hogan Park, the middle-schoolers spent April 11 toiling.
The hardest part of building an igloo to spend the night in, they all agreed, is the digging. And it has been ever since Tredway started leading classes up there eight years ago.
“It was a lot of hard work — a lot of digging,” Steamboat Springs Middle School seventh-grader Aaron Vandergraaff said. “It’s hard moving the blocks of ice, too.”
They started with a flat patch of snow, unremarkable along the Hogan Park Trail except for its location butted up against a stand of trees.
Then they dug and dug and dug. They carved out the still-deep snow from the formerly flat patch of meadow into ice blocks.
The ice blocks were then built into a pair of igloos, slowly assembled round and round until the final piece was slipped into place on the top.
Some students cut the blocks from the snow while others packed the already assembled structures with more snow to act as mortar.
“It’s definitely a lot of work,” eighth-grader Marley Loomis said. “But it’s definitely worth it. Everyone has a job, and everyone can yell at each other and throw snow in your face.
“It takes a lot of people. We definitely wouldn’t have gotten done if everyone wasn’t helping.”
Later, the students put the final touches on their shelters, hacking away at the snow inside the cone-shaped igloos to prepare a flat place to spend the night. Finally, they laid down sleeping pads and sleeping bags, preparing for what they suddenly realized wouldn’t be so cold a night.
“I thought it would just be like sleeping outside,” seventh-grader Spencer Petersen said. “Now I’m excited.”
That flash of light, the “Hey, this isn’t so bad” moment, is what inspires Tredway and keeps him leading the trips. It’s more than a journey of self-discovery, however. It’s a lesson about important backcountry survival techniques. The skills taught may pay off in another camping trip in a week or may not pay off in 10 years.
They’re still important skills to develop, Tredway said.
“It is critical. Someone can get on a snowmobile that’s big and powerful and fast and can be an hour’s walk away from a road in five minutes,” he said. “That things breaks down and this is a good skill for these kids to have. They need to know, ‘I can build a structure. I’m OK. I’ve done it before.’
“There is a lot here that can transfer over even to some pretty big-time mountaineering stuff.”
The night passed and the team spent the next morning snowshoeing in the area before finally packing out.
The experience had just the affect Tredway had hoped for.
“People think that winter is so formidable and so oppressive. Truth is, this is the best time of year to get out,” he said. “There are no mosquitoes or flies. There is no dirt, and there aren’t any tourists around. We have this place to ourselves.”