How to Build a Snow Cave

Reflections on loneliness and a lifetime of chronic pain

Charles Adams mushing near Denali, Alaska

Charles Adams mushing near Denali, Alaska

Contributor note: Oregon Humanities accepted this piece for publication in Beyond the Margins on May 11, 2023—just hours after my father passed away. He died peacefully in his sleep, next to the love of his life—his wife and my mother, Carol Mae Adams. His laughter was contagious, his warmth authentic, and his strength phenomenal. Charles Frederick Adams (July 17, 1947–May 11, 2023).


My father has strange ideas about what’s fun. He eats onions like apples and peppers so hot they momentarily close his throat. His favorite places in the world are the snowy mountains during winter months, when temperatures are so cold his pee freezes before it hits the ground. He's been that way since his boyhood in 1950s Prineville—rural, high-desert logging country in central Oregon. Growing up, he often read about mountain men. But on the tender cusp of adulthood, age twenty-two, he got hurt in a sawmill while loading some logs on a platform. Because accidents in logging are common, Dad knew that getting hurt wasn't a question of "if" but "when," "how," and "how badly." In his case, ruptured discs in his thoracic and lumbar spine. He wasn't alone in his injury, but chronic pain can be lonely. And after five decades? Chronic loneliness can be damaging. He can’t get out as often as he’d like or do what he loves. That’s why I’ve asked him to teach me how to build a snow cave. Because twenty years after his injury, that’s what he did: enrolled in the Northwest School of Survival and went to the mountains where he learned to build shelters and found his refuge.

First: Warm up to cold exposure, but know how to insulate yourself properly

I close my dad's spiral-bound pain diary, turn off my laptop, and head out without bothering to put on a jacket. I get in my Subaru, which doesn't have heat, and drive to my parents’ house. I could pay to fix the heater, but I’m convinced it's a luxury. A cloud of condensation dabbles across the windshield—part fog and part droplets. I merge onto I-5 headed south, now cold and wishing I had bothered with the jacket. I need to keep the defroster running to keep the windshield from fogging back up, but it only blows cold air. That makes it downright chilly on a 40-degree rainy day. My dad always insists 40 degrees Fahrenheit and wet is far colder than 20 degrees Fahrenheit and dry. It's bone cold. The kind of weather where cotton kills. Cotton is a poor wicking fabric that’s fine in dry conditions but inadequate in wet ones. It soaks up moisture and ceases to insulate you as its structure collapses under the weight of all the water entering its tiny air pockets. Snow caves provide great insulation compared to cotton.

I visit my parents about every other week. In the meantime, we connect on the phone and on Facetime. This past year, I started reading the pain diaries my father began to write in his attempt to cope with his chronic injuries and the half-dozen plus surgeries he had in his early twenties. My father’s rickety body, in 2023, presents shoulders sloped like a teeter-totter. Ultimately, the injuries to my dad's thoracic and lumbar spine weren't the primary source of his disability. It was a pre-surgery dye contrast medium, pantopaque, injected with a large needle into his spine for diagnostic imaging. Clinical use of pantopaque was discontinued in 1988 for its known side effects. When I think of it, I can feel the weight of all the protective lead jackets doctors have put on my dad over the years, as if they all covered me at once. How many of us have been hurt by things that were intended to help? Pantopaque has been associated with significant toxicity to the spinal cord, including adhesive arachnoiditis—a neuroinflammatory degenerative disease that entraps nerve roots, blocks spinal fluid flow, and is rare enough that my spell check didn’t recognize it. The result: disabling and incurable life-long pain.

Second: Find comfort and solace in silence 

Twenty minutes down I-5 south and I'm pulling up at my parents’ home in Portland. I forgot my gloves, and my fingertips have turned into little burning ice daggers. I question my ability to handle pain and cold. Opening the door to their home, I’m greeted by a husky voice and a dry cough. Nothing to worry about (particularly given all the other things to worry about). Just a lifetime of eating hot peppers and onions like apples. Now in his fifty-second year of chronic pain, we're swapping stories while mom keeps the coffee hot—and our facts mostly straight.

Behind my dad’s backlit, frizzy hair (or what’s left of it on the sides and the small tuft on top) are the pines and firs that make up what the people who sold us the place called a “dedicated greenway” out back—a strip of land where no one can ever lawfully take the pine trees down. The wind in those trees now transports my father to snow camping scenes. Closing his eyes, tuning into the trees, he imagines himself digging in snow like wet concrete. Other times, he closes them and sees the dogs out in front of him as he mushes. These moments of teleportation give him a temporary reprieve from the limitations and isolation of chronic pain. Closing his eyes is almost like being in a snow cave. “There it is, now we’re floating,” he tells me, describing the feeling of being transported. “On the rails of a dog sled, cruising across Yukon powder, smelling the cold, the dog, your own dewy and frosted face under a balaclava.” My favorite photo of my dad has his beard completely overgrown with ice, and I can hear the deafening silence of the open tundra behind him and feel the fullness of his heart.

In the early 1990s, my father's snow shoes crunched down on the snowpack at Bennett Pass on Oregon's Mount Hood for the first time. When he was sixteen, he had been an Eagle Scout and confident in his ability to camp in the snow. But he didn’t try winter camping again until after he became disabled. He swiftly learned that tents are noisy in the wind, that they "snow" inside when accidentally bumped, and that they’re no warmer than the outside air. "In short,” he told me, “miserable overnight habitation." At this time in the early 1990s and his mid-forties, what he was new to was venturing out alone, building his own shelter, and sleeping in in the snowy cocoon he'd made to help heal parts of himself. Bennett Pass was an early and continued site of his winter camping trips.

Building a shelter out of snow is a pretty ingenious way to make it through the winter. Cold as snow is, it provides marvelous insulation. The Arctic ringed seal, the Ussuri tube-nosed bat, ptarmigans, and a host of other creatures know this and take advantage of it. Humans figured it out too. It’s a critical adaptive survival trait when the world leaves you to the elements—be it a snow storm or bad weather inside your body. Somehow, my father never felt lonely in a snow cave, cocooned in his own hand-built evidence that we can, sometimes, beat death-of-the-spirit and not be bested by pain in life. Cultivating solitude is soul-nourishing in a world addled with loneliness and addiction.

Over the years, ingenuity is what saved my father. In the early 1970s, when the injury and surgeries were new and he couldn’t sit down for long, he created a custom-built monster of a Frankendesk on wheels. Pushing it around the University of California, Berkeley, he navigated law school. He and a mechanic retrofitted a UPS style step-van truck to have a standing seat so he could travel home from school on breaks (which he had to do a lot, since he took multiple hiatuses for surgery). He took the Bar exam standing up and lying down; and, just like that, he passed. Just like that! He carted around and unfolded a camping stove atop tables, plopped a plate on it, and ate standing up. He could eat with his friends, just like that. He's not a terribly social guy, but he intuited the importance of social connection. And then, he met my mom, got married, had two daughters, and some twenty years after the injury, began to learn to build and take refuge in snow caves.

Third: Gather up your goods and get prepared

I have many memories of my father going up to the mountain to build a snow cave from my pre-teen and teenage years. I’d find little squirrel-like stashes of peculiar things all over our house and wonder what they were for. A gallon-sized trash bag full of dryer lint for emergency kindling. Another gallon-sized trash bag of zip ties. A friend might let you down, I’ve since learned, but zip ties? Hardly ever. Like duct tape, they’re good for just about anything and there for you just about any time you need them. There were packs of emergency hand warmers. A shiny gold object packed in plastic about the size and shape of a thick piece of banana bread. His just-in-case emergency space blanket. Whistles. Flares. Pencils, because pens bleed in the elements. Use a pencil for your notes in your books and your logs and your journals, especially when in a drippy snow cave. He got a cell phone as an emergency line only. No such things really exists anymore. As I sit across the table from him now as I near forty, I put my phone down.

Below my dad's thermal REI shirt, I can make out his pain pump implant, just about the size and shape of a space blanket in its packaging and embedded under his skin. It’s used to deliver pain relief directly into his spinal cord and is one of his main alternatives to taking oral painkillers.

Fourth: Build your shelter, create your solitude, and cultivate your white space

My dad drills it in: “Use Ernest Wilkinson's technique, Joliene. His snow cave technique is simple, and won’t get you wet, miserable, and dead.” But this method is counterintuitive and not the way most people go about it. Essentially: don't start by digging in and up a hole sideways into a snow drift. Start dragging snow down from above you. Build a four-foot wall. Cut out blocks the width of the cave, from the front of the snow drift. Excavate. Dig a cold well and carve out benches on the sides for sleeping. When the work is completed, use the removed snow blocks to create a front wall.

Dad and I compare whose copy of Wilkinson’s Snow Caves for Fun and Survival is rattier, and mine, with the folded, coffee-stained corner, wins. I visited him the other week in an attempt to iron together whatever part of his soul and mine I can. I know my soul is going to leak like a bullet-riddled dam when he passes. I miss him terribly, and he's not even gone.

Fifth: Don't always build your shelter alone, and don't make it a hiding place from the world

Watching his resident nurse—my mom—help put on my dad’s support leggings, he emphasizes that the first step of building a snow cave is where many get it wrong. "Even your Eagle Scout husband probably learned to dig up into a snowbank. That way’ll get your knees wet and cold as you crawl in, snow down your neck as you skim the roof, and put a big pile of snow in front of the cave." My mother jerks at the hose around his left leg and insists on an answer to a logistical leg-wrapping question. Dad jokes, “My resident nurse is a mean but efficient nurse.” This, of course, is merely because she wants him to do something he doesn’t want to. Mom jokes, “His surliness is ever present.” Our laughs swirl across the table and ignite sparks in one another's eyes. My mom isn’t perfect, but in the way I’ve seen her deal with my dad’s pain and disability, I’m convinced she is part saint.

A week after this visit to my parents, April 2023, the sun sparkles hard off the snow, as my husband and I trudge along Bennett Pass for the first time seeking new paths and possibilities on old trails. Snow caves didn't save my dad’s life, and being outdoors isn’t a replacement for any kind of therapy or medical care. But learning to build a shelter, construct a place for solitude—well, we all need purpose, and we all need connection to ourselves and others. The silence of the snow cave we'd just built felt textured and thick in my ears, and I understood how a snow cave could enter the body this way and blanket the soul.

Sixth: Never stop seeking to create shelter

With chronic pain, like chronic loneliness, it’s not really the pain that kills you. It’s all the side effects and symptoms. Amongst its most deadly: long-term isolation, substance abuse, and the chronic stress signals sent to your body that pump through your sympathetic nervous system.

We’re catching up to our understanding of loneliness globally and in the Pacific Northwest. In 2017, the UK established a cabinet-level position, the Minister of Loneliness, to address the issue. This was before the pandemic began and added to isolation concerns. In 2016, author and illustrator Kristen Radke started working on Seek You: A Journey Through American Loneliness; when it was released in 2021, it instantly became popular, earning many accolades. In April 2020, on the cusp of the pandemic, Dr. Vivek H. Murthy published Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World. Radical System Art, a dance collective from Vancouver, B.C., spent much of 2022 and 2023 touring the world performing a piece created just before the COVID-19 pandemic to—you guessed it—address loneliness. In Japan, the phenomenon of hikikomori (referring to modern-day hermits or social recluses) has grown dramatically, and in February 2021, Japan created its own Minister of Loneliness position to address and alleviate social isolation. Headlines and articles insist that loneliness and isolation can age you faster than cigarettes and obesity, such is the toll on your heart and immune system. Although we’re more connected than ever through online media, we’re often connecting with each other less meaningfully. Social media can become its own antisocial behavior. As I type this draft, dad texts me an article. And another. And another.

My father had the dubious distinction of being amongst the first patients and alums of Oregon's first pain clinic, the Northwest Occupational Medicine Center at Emmanuel Hospital (now the Northwest Pain Clinic). In the waiting room and in treatment, he picked up on something—many patients were hiccupping. His doctor told him it was a symptom of opiate withdrawal.  While loneliness is often associated with older adults or people with conditions that keep them isolated, like chronic pain patients, youth are amongst the loneliest and most addicted in today's world—which several bleak statistics on Oregon today reflect. The Northwest Pain Clinic deviated from exclusively traditional Western medicine methods; pain treatment didn’t focus on painkillers but on biofeedback, acupuncture, and autogenic training. The goal for most chronic pain patients was not a cure or a quick fix but healing and management. My dad’s doctor told him: "This pain is with you every day, for the rest of your life." You ask my dad now, and he’ll tell you at first it wasn’t so easy, but now the pain is as much a part of him as his big toe.

When I step back and take the long view, I see that my dad is a healthy guy for someone wildly jacked up. He’ll never not be in pain. It often radiates out all along his nervous system, like the feeling you get when you hit your funny bone. We know pain or loneliness won’t kill on their own. But the impacts of them will. Yet we have a deceptively simple toolbox to help ourselves heal what we can't fully cure. Murthy lists four ways to insulate against loneliness: fifteen minutes a day with someone outside your home, give someone your full attention, serve others, and connect with yourself. On each count, a little bit goes a long way.

I toss two snow shovels in the back of my husband’s Subaru beside a cooler with lunch. We cue up the Dolly Parton. My husband hits the gas, and I fire off an “off to the races” text to my pops. As I Facetime my father from Bennett Pass, ready to show him the bench my husband and I have built, I see half my dad's face in view on the screen (as is usual when Facetiming either of my parents). But it's just enough to see his smile. The real kind, where your eyes crinkle. I can only hope my father’s life and the lessons in it can radiate out greater understanding of the importance of connection to the people we love, to what we love, and to our own selves—social connection, purpose, refuge within ourselves. What kept his spirit from becoming so pickled with resentment that he couldn’t stand life was a family he thought he’d never have, a career as an attorney, freedom and independence in being able to drive, renewed purpose in activities he thought he’d never try again, and sanctuary in shelter he built for himself, where he could go to remember who he was, is, and always has been.


Death and Dying, Family, Disability, Connection, Nature, Pain


1 comments have been posted.

What a wonderful tribute to your father and family Joliene. It is amazing what your father accomplished while enduring so much pain. I am drawn to the value that he placed in being in the natural world and actually pursuing the cold and creating his own shelter despite the discomfort. I am 70 years old and my body pain journey began just after high school with spinal arthritis. I decided I wanted to be a mountaineer and that became more important than being potentially crippled. I have used and abused my body in both work and in having fun to the tune of over 30 surgeries and almost as many cortisone shots to keep my joints moving. I think I would not have changed much in my life as I had a lot of adventures, am married to my beautiful wife of 45 years with kids and grandchildren and am looking forward to many more good times. A life of painful discomforts is not for the faint of heart and I believe that endured struggles provide an opportunity for us to become stronger. Thanks again for sharing your fathers life story. Each of us has a story to tell, hopefully of how we made the world a better place for those that we know and love.

Don | October 2023 | Oregon City

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