Mission Marmot: Winter Survival

Published By Mobeen Mazhar

Author: Kamal Haider

Winter Survival: How it all began?

It was a fine day of October 2017, when we (Imran Haider Thaheem, Ahmed Mujtaba and Kamal Haider) took a decision to launch a mountaineering training-cum-learning system from a proper platform. The objective was very clear to convey an awareness program. Our expectation was that people may come forward and promote tourism as well. And this time, we planned a winter survival expedition with a few nights without a tent, porter and guide in Kaghan valley.

Ahmed and I have already spent open nights in mountainous wilderness, but we never documented it. Therefore, we thought to make a possible documentary coverage. Purpose was that the difference between winter survival and winter expedition could also be established. It was going to be a hard target so we initially decided to do it with five permanent members, including my son Ahmed Kamal, who could not join us due to his upcoming school exam.

Why Mission Marmot?

The idea was visualized by a mammal ‘Marmot’ which lives in mountainous wilderness at between 800 meters to 3,200 meters. It is a social animal and inhabits plain grassland, including cultivated field borders. It hibernates for more than half the year and prepares for a colony under the land where it stays the whole winter in a covered snow cave. Mission Marmot was the right choice as we had to stay under the basic survival standard operating procedure of Marmot.

Day to Day Activities

winter survival: Team on Day 1

Team ready for the learning adventure Credits: Koh Pema

Day 1:

Finally, Lahore-based team members Ahmed Mujtaba, Umair Saqi, Muhammad Zahid and I began traveling to Mansehra in a private van. Since the driver was already coming from another trip he could not manage traveling time accurately and we ended up reaching Mansehra in late morning. Our immediate move from Mansehra with our old vehicle’s owner Shah Hussain was for Shogran. When snow appears, the driver fixes metal chains over wheel tyres for smooth running on snow covered road. We did the same with ours. We faced traffic on this narrow road due to holiday rush. Our jeep was also stuck a couple of times, so we were again late.

We tried to get a quick start in Shogran, but a local policeman spotted us and began inquiring us about our plan. We were standing out from rest of the holiday crowd due to our getup, the survival gear and our big rucksacks along with other things and that had made them suspicious. The man after talking with us for a while arranged our meeting with his senior. The senior official straightway rebuffed the idea of us spending the night at Siri Paya due to heavy snow and the presence of wild animals in the area. After much argument, at last, he talked with D.P.O Mansehra over the phone.

“Sir, they are trained people from Lahore who want to camp in Sari-Paya only.”

When he said the word ONLY, a smile appeared on my face because the man had no idea about what we were going to do in that only night. Anyway, the D.P.O. granted us the permission on undertaking basis. I immediately wrote an undertaking on a plain paper that all upcoming hurdles, all liabilities and responsibilities would be upon our shoulders in case things went wrong. Wisely, I did not disclose our real plan to spend the night without a tent otherwise we’d be going back to Lahore from there.

This was another loss of time in a day. Once the trek commenced, we felt more tired due to trail breaking in deep snow with 18 to 20 kg average weight on our shoulders. It had been snowing continuously for past one week and a lot of snow blocked our path. But, it was a good sign for what we had in our minds.

It was now 5 o’clock. The sun was going down fast and we were still far away from Siri. So, we thought it was the right time to start preparing a shelter before the frosty winds took away our precious body heat. Generally, 08 to 10 feet of snow is sufficient for making a snow cave, whereas we had 5 feet of snow. Ahmed told us that depth of snow is less for a proper cave. The lack of time was also a valid issue as we required at least 3 to 4 hours to prepare four persons’ snow cave. So, he proposed to make an open snow TUB (basin) instead. We agreed.

Breaking Trail

On way to Siri Credits: Koh Pema

After a deep observation, we marked a specific place. Marking of excavation place is an important job. Hard work can be wasted if stones, rocks, roots or bushes may appear from inside the snow. We carried three shovels and ice-axes. Ahmed had made one of the shovels with his own expertise. He took a removable, folding aluminum handle-grip from a spare imported school bag and fixed it with an S.S. Plate, already developed into a shovel shape. One can turn the folding handles easily and the sharp side edges of the shovel help while digging inside the cave. Lovely innovation by Ahmed.

Digging in the snow is quite hard. We understood that’d not be an easy and quick task to dig 4 to 5 feet of snow. Secondly, the flow of extra sweat courtesy the hard labour could be harmful to health in windy conditions, so before starting our dig, we removed our clothing layers because we didn’t want to get too sweaty before settling into a new snowy home.

We started to dig a narrow slot just up to our shoulder width. We tried to excavate till the end of the land to know about the depth of snow conditions. After 5 feet of digging, the naked land appeared. It meant that we had to formulate the base at least 4.5 feet so that we may sit in the snow tub comfortably preparing the food and eating as well. After making an entrance, we moved towards front side gradually. Later, we worked on the right and left walls. It was digging into a square shape.

After a short while, the sun went down with a promise of coming back again the next morning. What we had achieved so far was a tough job done quite well, but the surrounding darkness now made it look all dreadful. We decided to face the ongoing situation with a comfortable body language. The LED torch was displayed over our foreheads. The fear was soon gone. A slight snow fall was going on as we worked. Luckily, it was not hard otherwise it could have got much difficult to dig the hard snow with the kind of ice-axe we had.

Finally, the team succeeded and now we had a snow tub after two hours and forty five minutes of hardwork.

What we had built was an ‘emergency exposed shelter’ due to our precious loss of time. Snow blocks could also be used to cover the open roof whereas we covered ours with a waterproof sheet for wind and snowfall protection.

Digging in process

Digging in process Credits: Koh Pema

It was now time to go inside to get relief from the outside chilled atmosphere. Umair and Zahid immediately put all their luggage on sleeping mattresses. The thermal sleeping mattress maintains insulating layers between you and the ground while sleeping/sitting to keep the frozen earth at bay. Seemingly, snow is cold to touch, but it is the natural most insulating material in these micro climates which makes it very effective at containing heat in a walled space as piled up snow acts as a wind breaker. Therefore, the inside temperature was normal as compared to the outside area.

This type of shelter is a lot better than sleeping totally exposed. The chilled wind can drop the temperature by 20 to 30 degrees (or more). However, we kept ourselves in a proper clothing layer with an additional down jacket+down hood and sat really close to each other in this snowy shelter to make use of the body heat.

Umair took the responsibility of dinner as usual. After a short while, the blue fire with the butane gas cartridge (Coleman brand) was flaming over a little stove. The butane gas is not frozen as LPG is at high altitude. It works even below -30 degrees easily. We carried home-made cooked food and wanted to eat badly. But Umair decided to produce drinking water first because the whole process takes time. One can use ready to eat food without big fire. Fire saving is more important. You cannot survive without fire in the winter wilderness. He started to produce water with soft snow, which was extracted from inside the snow as it is comparatively better than upper side.

After dinner, we enjoyed a plate of delicious ‘Petha Halwa’ purchased from ‘Butt Sweets’. Before going to snowy bed, all spare food was buried in the snow to keep ourselves away from the reach of wildlife like fox, wolf or even leopard as their sense of smell is very strong. The entrance was also covered with rucksacks and we also fixed a light on the roof side so that wildlife would not come near our snowy residence.

Winter and extreme cold present exceptional survival challenges

After dinner, we had a lot of conversation on winter survival challenges. Taking a bit of time to learn things like how to put an effort in snow, what to do if you are stuck, how to make trail-breaking in deep snow and how to build shelter so these valuable skills can save your life through basic survival kit in cold wilderness. Therefore, a night stay in a room below -25 degree Celsius and a night stay in the wilderness, even at around 0 degree Celsius temperature cannot be compared with each other.

In the end, we agreed that practice makes perfect. Sometimes, the specific checklist cannot be very helpful because we will never actually remember it in the real situation. So, this type of exercise is the best step to take because we can make better decisions no matter what scenario we face later on our adventures.

Almost every winter survival tip builds upon these concepts other than skills. Exposure, wind and water are the major winter dangers. Exposed skin rushes heat loss, especially through wind and water on your skin makes you feel colder. So, proper clothing holds your body heat and layers give you better control over regulating body heat. This is why clothing layers are so important, even the removal of wet clothing is also important at the end of the trek. Our team carried the best package like base layer thermal suits, Parka suits, fleece & polyester T-shirt, down jacket with hood, down trousers, thermal or fleece trousers, down sleeping bags with outer waterproof shells, waterproof shoes & gloves, gaiter, balaclava, fleece caps, and all of this was packed in a polyethylene bag in our rucksacks.

Zahid interrupted again and questioned about Hypothermia, Frostbite and Dehydration during conversations. It was a good question because these are also the real competitor other than exposure, wind and water during winter survival. As Hypothermia is about our internal temperature dropping (below 95F) which causes our vital systems to shut down because your body loses heat faster than it is producing. My lecture was quite fascinating to Ahmed and he agreed as well.

Whereas, frostbite is most likely to happen in body parts that are the furthest away from your heart, like fingers, toes, cheeks, ears and nose, which disturbs your external cells when the skin or body tissue is damaged from freezing temperatures, especially if you get chilled from sweat, rain, or submersion in cold water. I once had a little complaint about frostbite issue in my toes. Doctors highlighted this fact while getting a digital X-ray in Bajwa Hospital, Shahdrah.

The lecture was quite fascinating to Ahmed. He closed this long due discussion by saying that winter survival is much easier when you are ready beforehand to take on the challenge. Even a bit of preparation ahead of time makes a world of difference later. Normally, you can dominate that impulse with your willpower too.

My team members were almost asleep by now but I was lying on the ground of snow basin and was wondering if lying in a cold grave would be similar to this.

Almost done

Almost done with digging Credits: Koh Pema

Day 02:

On the next day, we woke up late. We did not face any hurdles throughout the night, but we remembered hearing movement of an unknown animal. After breakfast, we saw footprints of a leopard approaching our snowy abode. Perhaps the beast turned away into bushes after spotting the torchlight.

After breakfast, Umair started to melt the snow for drinking water. Usually, we avoid eating snow during winter expeditions as you can lose a lot of core heat by melting snow inside your body while fever and cough issues can affect your throats severely.

Now was the time to go further. We did not destroy our snow made home. Simply, we lifted our rucksacks and started to walk gently. The depth of snow had much increased. We had to make a new passage through trail-breaking as nobody passed over it before us. Resultantly, full force was generating while trail breaking with heavy loads. Secondly, the snow was not in a well composed condition. When we put foot step on fellow footprint, the built foot step would not stay properly on the base and our foot went into the deep snow again. So, trail breaking was not being helpful.

To make another shelter, it was necessary to stop trekking until 3pm. This time, we marked the area by measuring with a waterproof sheet. We repeated the same exercise as last time. But now the snow tub was much better than the last shelter.

After two hours of struggling, it was almost ready to stay. When we tried to compact the snow on the ground through our walk, it was not compact as the snow was like sand. I suggested to leave it open for a short period and amazingly the loose snow got compact through chilled air, directly. We settled into this snow container and managed all luggage according to space capacity.

I checked my socks because wet socks steal heat faster than dry socks. The socks were still not wet due to the use of Gore-Tex shoes made by Scarpa. But I changed mine with a fresh pair so I could wear the old socks the following morning.

The cooking seat was once again occupied by Umair. The flame was sparkling in a few minutes. It was a small flame itself, but the inside area was now getting warm. A mug of coffee/tea each of us would be enough to improve the inside temperature by a few degrees.

Cozy home in snow

Cozy home in snow Credits: Koh Pema

Day 03:

Today, we had to prepare a proper cave. A snow cave is also a shelter constructed in snow by certain animals, winter recreational enthusiasts and winter survivors because, snow is the best insulator and provides protection from wind and low temperatures. In fact, this technique could save your life if you are caught up in the mountains or mostly required while summiting a peak or when you are unable to get back down at campsite due to uncertain reasons like bad weather and time lapse factors. Ahmed had already prepared a cave at 5,850m during summit of Kohsar-Gang Peak in Shighar valley even he spent that night without a sleeping bag.

We had not set a particular destination in this expedition, only a sufficient depth (06 to 12 feet) of snow was required where we may dig a cave, amicably. Ahmed and I searched required place and we soon found another quarry near the last snow tub with adequate snow depth. So there was no need to move upward to Paya side. The digging started, but after a little effort, some bushes appeared. We left this place and moved on a little ahead. I stopped at another suitable place. I decided that regardless of construction type, we must consolidate the snow so that it retains its structure strongly. Therefore, we had to start from this place as there was also deep snow in a domed shape. And it was a good decision.

We were doing this work just near Siri as we wanted to avoid a long walk for Paya. We tried to differentiate between the winter expedition and winter survival through this strategy. For example, if we scale Makra Peak then it was a winter expedition not winter survival.

You must have plenty of drinking water while digging the cave. Our trained Zahid started to melt the snow over the mini stove. The melted water is bitter. Anyhow, snow caves are rather different from snow tubs. Digging a cave can be physically demanding. In perfect conditions with good snow, you may need three to four hours to complete a cave for 2 or 3 people. Ahmed fixed 3 hours. So, I set a strategy to take in a mini group of diggers that each member would work for 10 minute intervals inside the cave, while the other member will help remove excess snow outside the cave. Zahid would also prepare warm soups.

Luckily, the weather was cloudy, otherwise ultra-heat could severely disturb us and pace of work as well. Ahmed took the first step with a shovel and started digging slightly upwards into the slope. Aside from an ingress hole, he tried to keep the space as enclosed as possible to retain the body heat while sleeping. This is a simple way of preparation and effective for smaller spaces. Ahmed also suggested developing the roof in a domed shape to prevent dripping on the occupants and not much wider inside. While, digging the roof from inside was a sensitive act because a slight wrong cut or unnecessary weight or force may disfigure the thickness of the roof. We had to take care. Surprisingly, all members did this art of ancient Mughal’s works, fantastically.

We made an entrance up to our shoulder size in width as it led directly into the main chamber of the cave. The tunnel entrance was a little below the main space to retain warm air too. But the removal of spare snow from inside to outside the cave was another a high pressure work. Ahmed brilliantly prepared a sledge with sleeping mattress. The sledge works by transporting loads upon the snow, ice or bare ground sufficiently as it takes less force. This was a good way of transporting spare snow from inside the cave. Zahid happily offered his service as the drive to sledge.

Finally, just in two hours, the cave was now ready to get a warm benefit of calm sleep. A properly made snow cave can be 0 degree Celsius (32 degree Fahrenheit) or warmer inside, even when outside temperatures are -40 degree Celsius (-40 degree Fahrenheit). There is a general perception, unless you can see your breath, your snow shelter is too warm, and you should cool it down to prevent the snow from melting and dripping particularly if you have to spend more days.

However, this is thought to result in reduced air ventilation through the snow cave walls and roof, and thus increased risk of suffocation. Meanwhile, the entrance may be partially blocked with chunks of snow or luggage/rucksacks to deflect wind and retain heat. Ahmed appeared to have an idea and he placed a trekking pole up from the cave out through the roof.

No doubt, it was also a practice based mission to enhance the confidence and skill level for upcoming formal expeditions. For this type of excursion, we also assume you have the right gear and organization.

Keeping in view of all these challenges, Alhamdulillah! The Koh – Pemaa team successfully completed awareness plan. And now it was the right time to make a U Turn for back-to-home.

Ahmed and Kamal

Ahmed and Kamal satisfied with learning experience Credits: Koh Pema


Kamal Haider

Being a mountaineer, adventurer and explorer, Kamal has been trying to underline the soft image of Pakistan. His expeditions, photography and travelogues for cover vast experience of 20 years. His main objective is to promote the natural and cultural beauty of Pakistan. He loves to share his knowledge and experience with youngsters.


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