Surviving Quebec’s Hôtel de Glace

by Tammy Burns

The idea of winter camping has never appealed to me. I have friends who do it, who swear to me it’s enjoyable, but if I’m going to sleep in a sleeping bag, I prefer that the temperature be above the freezing mark.

And yet, when my (now ex) boyfriend suggested we spend a night at Quebec’s Hôtel de Glace, I thought it sounded brilliant (and no, that’s not why we’re now broken up). Sleeping in a tent in the snow equals cruel torture. But sleeping in an ice palace equals romantic adventure. Or at least, that’s what I thought.

The Hôtel de Glace is 20, 000 tonnes of snow and ice shaped into the most magical-looking building you have ever seen. Everything – and I mean everything – is carved from the elements. The chairs in the front lobby are made of snow and ice. The glasses at the hotel café are made of ice. The tables in the nightclub (yes, there’s a nightclub!) are made of ice. There are ice chandeliers hanging from the ceiling, snow carvings embedded in the walls and the constant crunch of footsteps on snow as people walk the halls. It’s breathtaking. And it’s cold. It’s oh so very cold.

By day, the hotel is open to the public and everyone is welcome to explore the café, the club, the chapel and the many themed rooms. But by night, rooms are assigned, the doors are closed and only the overnight guests remain inside. And that is when it hits you – you are about to spend the night sleeping inside a giant snow sculpture.

The hotel staff provide all guests with an Arctic sleeping bag and a lesson on how to prepare for a night in sub-zero temperatures. The rules are fairly straightforward: change your clothes – all your clothes – before bed, wear light polyester (not cotton, which traps moisture), don’t put your head inside your sleeping bag (which can cause ice to form on the inside of your bag) and, if you want an extra boost to your body temperature, take a dip in the hotel’s hot tub immediately before bed. We were assured that if we followed those rules, we’d have a pleasant, deep sleep.

That night, after several cocktails in the hotel bar, we followed the recommended procedure. We soaked in the tub. We changed into light, non-cotton pyjamas. We climbed onto the bed (thankfully, the bed frames are the only thing in the hotel not made of ice) and snuggled deep into our sleeping bags. Within a few minutes, I was actually warm. And despite the fact that our only door was a hanging curtain, the hotel was eerily quiet, the walls of snow creating a total cocoon of silence.

And then I woke up about an hour later with no feeling in my toes.

I whispered to my boyfriend in the dark. He was awake, too. “I can’t feel my nose, ” I think were his first words.

I wiggled around inside my bag, trying to generate some heat from movement. It worked, and I fell back asleep. For about 20 minutes. Wiggle, wiggle; sleep for another half an hour. This played out again and again in cycles until I eventually became hysterical with laughter, cackling into the darkness. “This is the worst (expletive) night of my life!” I cried.

At one point, I committed the ultimate sin while sleeping and tucked my face inside the bag. When I awoke, the inside lining was coated in a thick layer of ice where my breath had created moisture. I tried to shift in my sleeping bag so that the coating of ice wasn’t sitting on my neck. The numbness in my toes, meanwhile, had spread to my entire feet and I began to panic that I had frostbite. The night carried on.

Now, I should clarify that if we had wanted to, we could have abandoned the hotel and slept on the couch or floor in the nearby lodge, as some of the other guests did that night. But I’m nothing if not stubborn, and was determined to stick it out.

That being said, as soon as it was early enough to be considered morning, we scrambled out of our sleeping bags and into our snowsuits and boots, then dashed to the lodge. (Well, I tried to dash – it was more of a hobble given the lack of feeling in my feet.) Inside, we collapsed in front of a roaring fire and guzzled the hot chocolate provided by staff. We had survived. We had slept in a hotel made of ice in the middle of a cold, Canadian January. And if given the chance, we both agreed we would do it all over again.