Is Skye's Cuillin Ridge on your bucket list? If so, you're in luck! Get 20% our guidebook to this iconic route and other scrambling guidebooks in our range - use code CUILLINRIDGE at checkout. Offer ends 30th April.
The Ice Cave

Kev Reynolds and the ice cave

Kev Reynolds was working in the Engadine Valley in the Alps, working, skiing and marvelling at the winter wonderland, when his boss decided to put his youthful energy to good use and build an ice cave. Illustrations by Clare Crooke.

It was mid-winter when I first went to work in the Alps, and I’d never seen snow like it. Snow covered everything; it hung in great baskets from the larch trees, lay heavy on rooftops, tipped in wave-like drifts over the edge of frozen rivers.

Everything outdoors was white; pure white. It was the purest white you could imagine, and it scrunched and squeaked underfoot when you walked on it.

I’d walk on it at night when my day’s work was done. I’d wander alone through the woods, my beard frozen into a block of ice within moments of stepping outside; the hairs inside my nostrils turning white and brittle like twigs, and when I stood still there was an almost complete absence of sound.

Living at 1800 metres in the Engadine Valley, I grew used to seeing half a metre of snow fall overnight. This was Switzerland and the buses and trains still ran on time. What’s more, after a big dump of snow neighbourhood peaks grew to Himalayan proportions. Who could complain at that?

There are four large lakes spread along the valley between Maloja and St Moritz, but you wouldn’t know it. Snow-carpeted ice concealed any still water, while mountains rose another 1500 metres or more on either side. The air was still, the sun shone and frosted diamonds sparkled wherever you looked. Some days it was so bright your eyes hurt even behind dark glasses. But it was a wonderland, and I couldn’t believe my luck in being there for the whole winter.

Mesmerised by its beauty

Born in the valley and having lived all his life there, you’d have thought my boss might be somewhat blasé about all this snow and its effect on the landscape; perhaps grumpy about winter and looking forward to summer. Not so. He was as mesmerised by its beauty as I was, and we’d often stand side by side at the kitchen door first thing in the morning, breathing the ice-tinged air deep into our lungs and sighing with the magic that filled every view.

I worked from about 7am until mid-day, then again in the evening from five until eight or nine. Most afternoons I’d be out skiing. I had second-hand skis that had seen better days, with bindings that would only hold my climbing boots after I’d cut a chunk of leather from their heels.

I couldn’t afford proper ski boots or up-to-date skis. So what! If I could get from the top of the mountain to the bottom without breaking a leg, as far as I was concerned fashion didn’t count for much.

My boss was a loveable rogue who took advantage of my youthful energy and disappeared whenever there was something physical that needed to be done. Except, that is, when he wanted to build an ice cave. That’s when he thought we’d make a good team.

Not far up valley there was a ski jump. They’d built one there for the 1948 Winter Olympics, and every year since they’d held a major competition using the latest incarnation of that original structure. It stood in a large clearing in the woods, so what could be a bit of an eyesore in summer was mostly hidden from view. In winter it sort of belonged. A bit like the ski tows and drag lifts on the hillsides that you’d overlook until the snow had gone and you then realised what ugly intrusions they were.

Ski jump competitors must have a death wish. I thought I had a head for heights, for rock climbing didn’t faze me, but when I climbed to the top of the launch-pad to have a look, my heart went into my mouth. Ski down that? No way!

The ice axe

They needed a large and fairly level area on which to land and come to a halt or they’d plough into the spectators, so a couple of days before the competition was due to take place, a snow-plough came to push back the excess snow into a closely-packed wall which quickly turned to ice.

As a sideline Noldi, my boss, served refreshments at such events: Frankfurters and either sauerkraut or a squirt of extra-strong mustard; and gluehwein to wash it down and add to the fire in your belly. This year he thought it would be good to have his refreshment stand inside a cave carved out of the ice wall. "It will attract more customers," he suggested. "You agree? Then let’s make one – you and me. Okay?"

So we hiked upvalley carrying snow shovels and pickaxes, and after he’d outlined the cave’s location and marked its height and width, we began to hack away at the wall, tossing head-sized lumps of closely-packed snow-ice to one side.

The Ice Cave

Despite the temperature hovering somewhere around freezing, the hard physical effort soon had us both sweating, and after an hour or so of this my hands were growing blisters, my back ached and I was down to my shirt sleeves; yet still we had a way to go.

A German couple arrived. You could tell they were wealthy by the confident manner with which they approached. The crisp winter air was saturated by the smell of her perfume and his expensive aftershave lotion; fragrances so powerful they swamped the labourer’s sweat that dripped from my forehead and stained my shirt. It was obvious they had money by the clothes they wore: long fur coats, calf-length fur-lined boots and fur-trimmed Cossack hats. They could have been characters from Dr Zhivago.

They stood a few paces from us, speaking to one another in soft cultured voices. Then the man called out to ask what we were doing.

Noldi stopped for a moment, leaned on his snow shovel and blew out his cheeks.

"My friend here," he nodded towards me, "my friend parked his car here a couple of days ago, and it’s been buried by the snow plough. We have to find it so he can go home! We’ve been digging all day, and still no sign of it."

"Mein Gott"’ (or something like that), said the German. "That is terrible."

Then he opened up his leather shoulder bag, took out an expensive-looking cine camera, and began to film us at work. Noldi grinned and whispered, "Can you imagine the commentary when he plays it back to his friends back home in Dresden?"

To read more articles like this get our newsletter

Sign up for 20% off your next purchase and to be the first to hear about exclusive competitions, special offers, and news from Cicerone.