It’s 10am and I am on a Swiss mountain holding a saw. My mission is to help build an igloo by 5pm, sleep in it and – most importantly – wake up next morning. It is the fourth annual Igloo Festival in the ski resort of in Adelboden, and teams of enthusiasts and novices gather at an altitude of 2,000m on the Engstligenalp plateau to spend their Saturday competing to see who can build the best igloo. Engstligenalp is the perfect location, since it’s large enough to accommodate hundreds of igloos, if need be, and one of the few places that can guarantee an abundance of snow in March.
While fancy igloos have become popular as overnight options in ski resorts, the Igloo Festival is a chance to build and sleep in the real deal (unless you can rustle up a glass-roofed designer igloo with fur bedding in eight hours). Anyone can participate and there’s no limit on team numbers … but the igloo has to be big enough to sleep the entire team. The well-heated Berghotel is within trudging distance for showering, storing luggage and, if your igloo-building skills prove inadequate, for sleeping.
The ideal for the Igloo Festival came from its former sponsor, outdoor clothing firm Transa. In 2012, it attempted to set a Guinness world record in igloo building: 200 igloos with 400 participants. It only managed 60 igloos and 125 participants, but everyone had such a good time that the festival simply continued.
There’s already a circle of fledgling igloos when our five-strong team arrive at 10am, and experts and volunteers from The Alpine School, clothing specialist Sherpa Outdoor and the tourism office dart around offering guidance. An igloo with worryingly neat bricks is being built next to our spot by a father-and-son team. Bruno Schaub from the tourist office translates: “He’s here because he wants to have a good time with his son.”
The participants are mainly Swiss, though British, French, Italian and German teams have taken part. Many have built igloos before. A love of outdoor activities and the desire to do something different are common themes in today’s igloo village.
To begin, we draw a circle on the ground using a stick and string as a giant compass. Sawing into the snow, we cut 20cm-thick bricks about the size of an A3 sheet, and place them in a circle, leaning slightly inwards.
Rachel Rosser, events executive for the Ski Club of Great Britain, and Bruno saw the tops off the bricks on a diagonal so that the bricks will stack in a spiral.
While we pack snow into the cracks, Bruno places the bricks until he has built himself into the igloo.
Now the job is to dig an entrance (or, for Bruno, an exit). An igloo’s entrance has to sit below the sleeping platform so the cold air sinks and the space stays cosy.
In an attempt to earn “creativity points” we make a snowman head for the top of the igloo, with oranges for eyes, a pear nose and a Twix mouth. But thing go awry: Rachel loses her grip and drops the head on the igloo, which leaves a gaping hole in the side. After howling and rending our garments, we manage to repair it before the 5pm deadline.
Night falls, and we gather around the igloo bar, a small wall of snow bricks in the centre of the circle of igloos. Participants are served a nightcap of glühwein (mulled wine), and as we drink we guess which igloo will snag the prizes: Sherpa Outdoor outfits, ski passes, bottles of wine, dinner in the Fondue Igloo and tickets to the Adelboden Adventure Park. Most bet on the preposterously huge double igloo with an adjoining corridor, built by a team celebrating a birthday, but I’m rooting for the one made to look like a giant turtle.
With trepidation, Rachel and I (the only two to brave a night in our igloo) get ready for “bed”. I’m by the wall that we had to rebuild after “Head Gate”. It’s caving in and looks like it would collapse if a pigeon landed on it. I give it a test poke – it’s frozen solid.
Our hooded sleeping bags have a fleece bag, a synthetic down sack and a plastic outer layer. I zip up, hood up, and wriggle in. Rachel’s bleatings about the cold are muffled, but her snoring soon comes loud and clear. I feel like I’m cowering in a snowman’s armpit. I’m not sleeping; I’m playing dead.
Sealed inside the sleeping bag, I find my oxygen supply runs out fast. I start panting and get a headache, and figure that poking my head out for a few gulps of the thin alpine air are worth a blast of cold. And a blast is what I get: our slapdash packing left cracks between some of the bricks and the wind is blowing through. Then claustrophobia kicks in. The once blue-and-sparkly igloo ceiling is now grey and black and closing in. The wind gusts through the cracks. I wipe snowflakes off my cheek.
At 3:54am, I nudge the other body bag, “Rachel. It’s snowing on my face.”
“Yeah, I can’t stop shivering,” she says through chattering teeth, “can we leave?”
We pull on our boots and layers and headtorches, before fireman-crawling through the tunnel into -20C windchill. We make the 15-minute walk back to Berghotel, but don’t have the heart to crash into the dorm and wake our teammates for the sake of two hours’ sleep, so we settle ourselves the empty hotel bar, take dark-eyed selfies for posterity, and wait for the sun to come up. We may as well get an incredible sunrise out of this.
At 6:40am that’s just what we get. We stand by the ski lift as it delivers early morning skiers, our bloodshot eyes widening at the blue mist over the village below, the fading crescent moon, and the red skies rising over the mountains. Worth five hours trying to sleep in a windy freezer? Absolutely.
At breakfast with our well-rested teammates, we’re sleep-deprived and thawing out slower than a turkey in a fridge, but our spirits are high. At 9am, we’re awarded 14th place out of 22. The turtle igloo comes second, pipped at the post by the double with the corridor. No matter: plans for next year’s well-packed igloo, with infinity pool, are already in place.
• The trip was provided by Switzerland Tourism (myswitzerland.com) and Adelboden-Frutigen Tourism (adelboden.ch). The Igloo Festival takes place on a Saturday in mid-March every year, 9am-5pm. Packages cost from £59 (self-catering), including lift pass to Engstligenalp, welcome pack, instructions, equipment and nightcap. The £100 Luxury option adds lunch, dinner and breakfast in the nearby BergHotel, but your bed is in your igloo