Tom Ross: You could be building your own quinzhee |

Tom Ross: You could be building your own quinzhee

When winter won't let up, think like an Athabascan

Colorado Mountain College mathematics professor Stephen Craig signifies his approval of a well-built igloo with a smile Monday morning. Assistant coordinator of student life Shawndra Winter admires the igloo she helped build.
Tom Ross

When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. When January gives you unceasing snow and dreary skies, make yourself a quinzhee, like any self-respecting Athabascan might.

That’s what some of the students in professor Stephen Craig’s Engineering Projects class did Monday morning at Colorado Mountain College.

The Athabascans are a diverse group of Native American tribes linked more by linguistics than geography. The Apache and Navajo tribes in Arizona speak languages related to Athabascan, as do native peoples in central Alaska, near Fairbanks.

When it comes to lodges made of snow, however, Athabascan implies a dwelling that is much easier to build than the technically challenging igloos favored by the Inuit people of Canada. The igloo requires rigid slabs of wind-driven snow, but the quinzhee can be made by anyone with a shovel or snowshoes, and access to the fluffy kind of snow found in Routt County.

The efforts of Craig’s students and a group of highly motivated faculty members illustrated the relative engineering strengths of different styles of snow shelters.

Craig is a professor of mathematics, but has taken a role in establishing the young engineering department on the Alpine Campus of CMC.

After acquiring approval for high-achieving students to transfer credits to the University of Colorado in December 2005, the engineering program welcomed 14 students in fall 2006 and 21 in fall 2007 (that number has since stabilized at 18), Craig said.

Craig’s Engineering Projects class fits in with a national trend, he said. Universities are trying to get students hooked early in their academic careers on the excitement of real world applications.

“Engineering departments are trying to do this more and more because they find there’s a lot of burnout in the pure theory courses,” Craig said.

What can engineering students learn by playing in Steamboat’s deep snow? There are lessons about the structural integrity of domed structures, crystalline theory and thermodynamics – lessons the Athabascans were pretty familiar with.

Student Brandon Payne of Alabama and colleagues Zeke Henry and Byron Radcliff, both of Steamboat, figured out pretty quickly they weren’t going to build an Inuit-style igloo in the fluff they encountered on the college soccer field.

“The snow is a little too powdery,” Payne said.

Instead, the trio excavated a snow cave in a huge mound of snow left at the edge of a parking lot by snowplows.

Professor Craig was in a group of faculty and staff members who succeeded in building an honest-to-goodness igloo. They were clever enough to use slabs of snow, compacted by snowplows, and they brought in a ringer.

Along with fellow math professors Steve Delong, Alex Krolik, student life coordinator Linda Pruitt, assistant coordinator of student life Shawndra Winter and professor of resort management Terry Hunter, Craig had a secret weapon in professor of recreation John Saunders.

Qualified to teach the building of snow shelters, Saunders helped the faculty team build a freestanding igloo. Craig pointed out how the carefully beveled snow blocks in the igloo support one another by “propagating the forces outward.” Spoken like a true engineer.

Saunders agrees, however, that in the backcountry around Steamboat, an Athabascan quinzhee is much more practical. And that was the challenge taken up by Marty Cowell of Steamboat, Tyler Stevens of Basalt, Spencer Brugger of Barre, Vt., and Chelsea Suazo of Aurora.

In the courtyard of Hill Hall, they piled up a large snow mound and allowed it to sit undisturbed for several hours while the crystals in the snow solidified, a process engineers call sintering.

While it sits in a mound, the powdery snow is transformed into a harder mass almost like concrete, Stevens said.

When the simple snow mound was ready to become a quinzhee, the students dug a low opening and began the laborious task of removing most of the snow. They took care to leave the walls about a foot thick. The result was a cavernous sleeping area big enough for three or four people.

“You can go in there if you want,” Cowell said. “We’ve got candles and even prayer flags.”

Nice touch, Marty.

Cowell, Stevens, Brugger and Suazo buffed out their quinzhee with a bench.

If you grow bored sitting around the house tonight, you might undertake an Athabascan quinzhee of your own. Here’s a tip from me: be certain to bore a pair of 2-inch ventilation holes at either end of your quinzhee before you go to sleep for the night.

– To reach Tom Ross, call 871-4205

or e-mail

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