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.

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Photography and Snowflakes

It is generally believed that no snowflake is the same because of one man and his obsession with looking at snow crystals: Wilson Bentley. Over the course of his life, Bentley photographed over 5000 snowflakes which were collected from around his home in Vermont over his lifetime (1865-1931). This impressive collection sparked curiosity among the scientific community into how snowflakes form and cemented Bentley’s place as the most dedicated observer of snow in history. I came across Bentley’s work whilst reading a book about snow, and his photographs and story have captivated me.

A snowflake will have one of a specific number of structures – such as dinner plates, branch networks, columns and ‘flower’ patterns – but with different detailing that makes it unique to any other. Up close, these internal symmetries and dendrites appear intricate and beautiful and is what captured the attention of Wilson Bentley as a fifteen year old boy when he first put a snowflake under a microscope.

Wilson Bentley's pictures of a series of plate snowflakes, circa 1902. Source: The Guardian

‘Under the microscope, I found that snowflakes were miracles of beauty and it seemed a shame that this beauty should not be seen and appreciated by others’. A series of plate snowflakes captured by Wilson Bentley. Source: The Guardian

Wilson Bentley lived all of his life in Mill Brook Valley, a small place in Vermont (New Hampshire, USA) which lies adjacent to the Green Mountains of Vermont and commonly receives high snowfall in the year. On receiving a microscope as a birthday present from his parents, Bentley became obsessed with looking at snow crystals gathered from around the town. A couple of years later he attached a bellows camera to his microscope and began photographing snow crystals. Microscope photography is now referred to as photomicrography, and Bentley was the first person in the world to perfect this technique.

Bentley’s set-up consisted of the bellows camera on top of the microscope, with a series of  attached pulleys and strings that controlled the focal length and focus of the camera. He would take a three-inch plate and create the luminous white shape of a snowflake on a field of black by scratching off the black emulsion from the photograph negative. Over a period of 50 years, he photographed more than 5000 snow crystals and eventually published a selection of these in ‘Snow Crystals’ in 1931 which propelled him to fame and attention from the scientific community.

Wilson Bentley in action with his set-up for photographing snowflakes (source: The Guardian)

Wilson Bentley in action with his set-up for photographing snowflakes (source: The Guardian)

Even when he was beginning to be acknowledged for his work in the 1920s, many people in the town thought he was mad for isolating himself in his garden shed obsessively studying snowflakes, including his father and his brother. At this point, he had been published in news outlets such as the New York Tribune and the Boston Herald, and was even featured in a short film called ‘Mysteries of the Snow’. He didn’t massively profit from this success, instead being content in doing the thing he loved. Shortly after his book ‘Snow Crystals’ was released, he died of pneumonia after insisting on walking back to his home through a blizzard.

Future studies showed that Bentley had only scratched the surface on snow crystal structures, partly because he exclusively studied snowflakes from Vermont. After his death, the scientific community became interested in exploring snow crystal structures, growing snow crystals in laboratory condition. This was largely led by Japanese nuclear physicist Ukichiro Nakaya, who could fine-tune temperature, pressure and moisture content in a controlled chamber to grow different snow crystal structures. Bentley’s six-sided stars and plates are just a few of the many varieties of structures that exist – prisms, columns, needles, triangular crystals, twelve-branched stars and irregular shapes are just some of the structures that can be grown under specific environmental conditions and are also found all over the world. This probably wouldn’t be known if it wasn’t for the work of Wilson Bentley.

'Every crystal was a masterpiece of design and no design was ever repeated'. A photograph of one of Wilson Bentley's snowflakes. Source: The Guardian.

‘Every crystal was a masterpiece of design and no design was ever repeated’. A photograph of one of Wilson Bentley’s snowflakes. Source: The Guardian

Today in Mill Brook Valley there is a small museum dedicated to Bentley and his work, with walls lined with his photography and his original contraption for taking these photographs. I would love to see this one day. What really captivated me about Bentley and his work was his unrelenting curiosity and his drive to share the beauty of snow crystal  structures that would eventually be scientifically translated. This is why, for similar reasons, I like using time-lapse photography to capture the dynamics of glaciers – images are not only scientifically valuable, but also resonate with everyone regardless of their knowledge of snow and ice.


Further reading

This article and this article from the Guardian on Bentley’s photography

The Snow Tourist by Charlie English which contains a detailed chapter on Bentley’s life work and also more generally on studies of snowflakes. I plan on writing a review when I have finished the book – it’s very good so far!