Book review: The Snow Tourist

It’s the end of November, and here in Duluth we’re stuck in this netherworld of cold and brown, waiting for the first real snow of the season so the world can be cold and white as it should be. The dreaming has begun, of snowy places west and north. The North Shore may be the snowiest part of Minnesota overall, but it’s snow-free so far this winter.

That puts us in the same place as Charlie English, author of The Snow Tourist: A search for the world’s purest, deepest snowfall. English lives in London, where he yearns for snow pretty much year-round.

For snow fans like me, this book is dreamy. It features a 40-ish male narrator, wrestling with his adventurous past on the slopes and peaks in his domestic present of marriage and young children.

There’s a lot of great information here, from the history of skiing to the art history of snow. Who knew that the woodblock prints of snow by the Japanese artists Hokusai and Hiroshige were a main inspiration for the birth of European Impressionism?

Or that Ull and Skrodi were the Norse gods of skiing?

I was disappointed, however, in the author’s “search for the world’s purest, deepest snowfall.” That subtitle got me all fired up, but the author doesn’t search all that hard. Let’s just say he was not very methodical about it. In the detailed 24-page “Snow Almanac” at the end of the book, English lists “10 snowy places,” from the Chugach Mountains of Alaska to Mount Hutt in New Zealand. Yet in two years of field research, he only visits two of these places.

Rather than head straight for the snowiest places, English goes to places associated with snow. Baffin Island, as he writes, gets about 80 inches of snow per year, similar to Duluth. He flies there in spring and goes out into the bush with an Inuit man named Billy to build and sleep in a traditional igloo. Afterward, English heads for Jericho, Vermont, to trace the history of Wilson Bentley, known for his microphotographs of snow crystals. Other snowy adventures include a failed ski crossing of the Alps and a weekend break in Vienna to view paintings of snow (like his favorite, Bruegel’s The Hunters in the Snow).

When English does get to a snowy place, like Alaska’s Chugach Mountains or Mount Rainier, he’s there overnight and gets out on a snowboard or snowshoes for a brief adventure. When I was in the Chugach Mountains as a 19-year-old NOLS student, we climbed up to the icefields and dug our shelter into bottomless snow, where we waited out a five-day snowstorm. Now that was pure, deep snow.

While the search for pure, deep snow comes up far short of its destination, the journey is worth it for all the things English and the reader learn along the way, about snow, history, and himself.


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