The Snow Tourist by Charlie English | Book Review

I didn’t know what to expect when I picked up a popular science book about snow, especially when its tagline is ‘A search for the world’s purest, deepest snowfall’. I thought The Snow Tourist by Charlie English, a book exploring the places in the world with the most snowfall, could be quite intriguing. On reading it, I feel like this book was mis-advertised though. It wasn’t intriguing… it was much better than that. Charlie English effectively conveys an intense curiosity and obsession with snow that goes much farther than merely looking for the deepest snow. Snow is explored in the context of art, folklore, science and as a way of life. This book far surpassed my expectations. I still learnt about so many fascinating things even though my career is in the study of ice and snow. Literally anyone can pick up this book and find out something interesting about snow.

The Snow Tourist by Charlie English book cover (source: Book Depository)The Snow Tourist begins with author Charlie English declaring his ambitious adventure – to travel to some of the coldest places and see the best snow over the world. I felt uncertain about this endeavour at first – what constitutes the ‘best’ snow? how will the author steer away from being dry and repetitive when describing each region? is there enough to explore and discuss in relation to snow?

Over the course of each chapter, a new theme relating to snow is introduced with each region that he is exploring. He examines the portrayal of snow in art whilst he is in Vienna, for example. Stories of catastrophic avalanches and fatal snow storms are illustrated in East Sussex and New York (yes, there was actually an avalanche in East Sussex in 1836). The pioneers of skiing are reviewed in the Alps.

The tagline of the book (‘A search for the world’s purest, deepest snowfall’) somewhat misrepresents what English’s adventure amounts to. He’s not merely looking for the ‘best’ snow, instead examining snow from a variety of different perspectives that range from scientific to cultural to historic to artist and beyond. It is only in the Chapter 9 (whilst visiting Rainer, Seattle and Glacier) that English addresses the search for the deepest, ‘best’ snow. There are so many interesting aspects of snow to read about before and after that. Here are a couple of things I found fascinating to read about:

  1. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was partly inspired by her travels to Chamonix when she was just 19 years old.
  2. The first ski race across Greenland (a 220km race from coast to coast) was in 1884 (see image and caption for more info).
  3. Yuki-onna is the Japanese snow spirit that allegedly appears during heavy blizzards as a young woman with pale skin and dressed in a pure white kimono. She sometimes appears with a baby in her arms, which she asks travellers to hold for her. On taking the baby, they find that it is actually a lump of hard ice that freezes them to death.
  4. Monet was invited to Norway, where he painted many snowy landscapes. He would often sit outside and paint in temperatures as low as -30 degrees (Celsius) with icicles hanging off his beard.
  5. Given a microscope and a camera in the 1880s, a young Wilson Bentley spent most of his life photographing snowflakes up close. Whilst his family and neighbours thought he was mad, Bentley sparked massive interest among the scientific community and was generally regarded as the most dedicated observer of snow in history (see here for more on the life and works of Wilson Bentley)

To round off the book, English includes a Snow Handbook that summarises a lot of his interests surrounding snow that are discussed previously and also includes more detail such as how to build an igloo, a list of fiction books that include snow, and the legend of the abominable snowman.

Nordenskiöld's second Greenland exhibition in 1883 (source: Redbull Nordenskiöldsloppet)

A picture from Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld’s second Greenland expedition in 1883. During this trip, two of the expedition members explored the ice sheet’s inner regions which were unknown at the time. On returning, no one believed that they had skied the 460-kilometre round trip though. To prove that is was possible, Nordenskiöld announced a 24-hour ski race across the interior of Greenland in the following year. On 3rd April 1884, 18 skiers took part in the race and the winner crossed the finish line in 21 hours and 22 minutes, restoring Nordenskiöld’s good reputation. This race is still held today, aptly named Nordenskiöldsloppet. The total distance of the race (220 kilometres) makes it the world’s longest cross-country ski competition (source: Redbull Nordenskiöldsloppet).

Also in this is ten facts about glaciers. Now, this might be my only critique of the book – it needed more focus on glaciers. I understand that this is the bias opinion of a glaciologist, but hear me out. Glaciers and ice are an essential aspect when writing a book that is broadly exploring snow – how snow transforms into ice, how ice moves, where snow/ice is stored in the world etc. etc. By including glaciers, English could have visited many other places (such as Antarctica, Greenland, Svalbard or Iceland) to explain the scientific and cultural aspects of glaciology. Ten facts about glaciers barely scratches the surface. And in some instances, the facts are poorly explained, such as fact #9: ‘The fastest glacier whose speed has been clocked dashed 12 kilometres in three months’ – which glacier was this? when was this? how was this speed measured?

Basically, I was mesmerised by this book. English’s curiosity with snow is evident on every page. There are facts from this book that I will remember for a long time. I have already shared a lot of them with friends, beginning with ‘Fun fact! Did you know…’ (to any friend who has been on the receiving end of this, I’m sorry if you are sick of my ramblings by now). My only criticism is that I wanted more. English made snow so exciting and interesting that I wish he would do the same for glaciers, and I have no doubt that he could.


The Expedition: Solving the Mystery of a Polar Tragedy by Bea Uusma | Book Review

Normally the last thing I want to do after a hard day’s work focused on a polar subject is… read yet more polar-related stuff. There are multiple books gathering dust on my bookshelves that come under this category – Antarctica, polar explorers, Arctic history and folklore, popular science – lovingly given to me by friends and family who presumed that my interest was unrelenting. A small challenge I have now set myself is to read these, and this was encouraged by one book, which I picked up on a whim from the museum in Svalbard because I had nothing else to read at the time.

The Expedition: Solving the Mystery of a Polar Tragedy by Bea Uusma tells the true story of three Swedish men who vanished in 1897 whilst attempting to be the first to cross the North Pole in a hot air balloon. Thirty three years later, their bodies were stumbled upon at the shores of the harrowing White Island, which lies to the north-east of Svalbard. There was no concluding evidence to suggest how they had ended up there and why they died – they were found with ample provisions, warm clothing, functioning weapons and plenty of ammunition. Many speculated on the cause of death, from eating polar bear liver (known to be toxic) to carbon monoxide poisoning to suicide. But there has never been consensus on which theory is more likely, with little supporting evidence for each one.

The crashed balloon in 1897 (source: Wikipedia)

The crashed balloon in 1897, with expedition members Salomon August Andrée and Knut Frænkel. Photographed by the third expedition member, Nils Strindberg. Photography from the expedition was recovered from White Island in 1930 by a Norwegian group who stumbled across remains whilst on an expedition studying the glaciers of the Svalbard archipelago (source: Wikipedia).

Bea Uusma’s first encounter with the story occurred in the nineties when she began reading a book at a boring party about the subject. The author’s obsession grew from this as she spent fifteen years trawling through museums to find missing clues, compiling past theories, visiting White Island… and eventually providing her own theory with convincing evidence.

The narrative jumps from details of the expedition to Uusma’s own experiences trawling through museum after museum for evidence, and documenting her several attempts to visit White Island. The level of her obsession is obvious, with documented diary entries and thorough record of their diets in the lead up to their deaths. This is nicely broken up with images, tables, maps and diagrams. It kept me captivated and I was continually wondering whether she could conclude what really did happen rather than just add another theory to the mix. The ending conclusion is worth sticking around for. In my opinion, her evidence is very conclusive and a much stronger argument than any of the other theories out there. I’m bursting to write about it but I don’t want to spoil it for anyone else!

Frænkel (left) and Strindberg (right) with their first polar bear kill (source: Wikipedia)

Frænkel (left) and Strindberg (right) with their first polar bear kill. The three expedition members encountered many polar bears on the pack ice and on the shores of White Island. They lived off a diet of polar bear and seal for the majority of their time after the crash, which first began speculation that they died of dietary-related issues such as Trichinosis (a parasite found in undercooked meat), Vitamin A poisoning (from eating polar bear liver), lead poisoning (from their canned food), scurvy and diarrhoea (source: Wikipedia)

Overall, this book has a great balance of detailed documentation and the author’s personal exploration. Uusma gracefully navigates the trap of producing a very dry record of events. As I said, this book has really sparked an interest in reading more about early polar exploration, which I am quite embarrassed to say that I know little about (I hang my glaciology head in shame). Hopefully whatever I read next will be as good as this!