Jul 29

I’ve been thinking about snow and the properties of water-as-snow.  Perhaps strange in a UK summer, but I did spend quite large parts of my early twenties in the snow as a ski guide so I do think about it quite often.  However the main reason I’m thinking about snow now is because my daughter (age 17) has been climbing the mountain Stok Kangri, near Leh in North-western India, and I’m wondering about the snow she has encountered there.  I have no means of knowing if she is even encountering snow because she did not take her phone and communication has been thin.   So snow and mountains are on my mind. 


The 'wastes' of Northumberland 

As ski guide I learned to detect avalanche risk in mountains by looking at the layers of snow.  Water as snow becomes like soil or other solid matter, laid down in discernible layers that may or may not cling together.  Snow on a mountain like Stok Kangri in the Himalayas is of course very different in physical form and behaviour to the snow we get in Northumberland which we would generally describe as ‘wetter’.  Mountain snow would be described as ‘drier’ – a rather strange way to describe water of any sort.  A BBC film produced and directed by my old friend Karen Partridge, ‘Himalayas: Water towers of Asia’ and the associated website suggests that the name Himalaya ’translates from Sanskrit as “abode of the snow”, a name that seems appropriate for the largest body of snow and the highest concentration of glaciers outside of the polar regions…. melt water from the peaks feed the great rivers of Asia, including the Indus, the Ganges, and the Tsangpo-Brahmaputra. This water – and the sediments they hold – form the backbone of agriculture of the whole region.’  It is the water supply to 40% of the planet.  The Himalayas hold most of the global water outside the polar regions. All sorts of myths, beliefs and legends are linked to water in India.  The Ganges is India’s most sacred river.  The rituals of life and death are performed all along from the headwaters in the Gangotri Glacier in the Garhwal Himalayas, to its mouths into the Bay of Bengal through the Sundarbans delta area which reaches across both India and Bangladesh.   The many characters of the river and the interactions with people are shown in Peter McBride’s (2014) elegant photo essay, reminiscent of Eric Newby’s classic trip recorded in ‘Slowly Down the Ganges’ (1966).  Newby lists the 108 names of the Ganges, he particularly highlights the one hundred and second name Jambu-dvipa-viharini  which he translates as ‘Roaming about, or delighting in, Rose-apple-tree Island' (meaning India).  

   Forms of water, Schwartztor & Zermatt, 1984

One year when I was working in Zermatt, I went with friends snow trekking around the back of the Breithorn near the Monte Rosa between Zermatt and Cervinia.  We went to do what is known as the Schwarztor (Porta Nera) between the ridge of Breithorn and Pollux.  After walking uphill off-piste on skis for a little over an hour (about 800 meters) - it seems much longer (softees now do it from a helicopter) - you start down a glacier with crevasses and mounds of deep powder snow, then down into a field of ice columns (seracs) and on through to the Gornergletscher. There are a number of websites that describe the route as ‘serious’ and ‘one of the best descents in Europe’, which is saying something if you are a skier. This was an astonishingly exhilarating experience that horrifies me now.  We don’t often think about glaciers as living – but they flow and surge, deform and reform, creating ‘fields’ of furrows and crevasses and curved structures called ‘ogives’ (see Glaciers online website for some amazing images).  My knees wouldn’t stand the quick turns needed now for this trip. But I think even wild swimming does not beat immersion in deep, deep powder snow where no-one else‘s marks are evident.  At the bottom of the glacier field, water was pouring out from the underground river through what seemed like a luminescent blue-green ice mouth; we roped down across the gaping hole, carrying our skis to avoid being swept away.  That was in 1984.  Now, thirty+ years on the glacier has changed.  It has apparently retreated 200 metres in the last six years. 

 A friend on the Schwartztor, 1984

The strange properties and characters of snow can be found described in the records of many journeys, particularly by explorers and climbers.  In ‘South’, the story of Shackleton’s 1914-1917 expedition to  the South Pole, Shackleton describes pack ice  as: ‘a gigantic and interminable jigsaw-puzzle devised by nature.  The parts of the puzzle in loose pack have floated slightly apart and become disarranged; at numerous places they have pressed together again; as the pack gets closer the congested areas grow larger and the parts are jammed harder until it becomes “close pack”; then the whole jigsaw puzzle become so jammed that with care it can be crossed in every direction on foot.  Where the parts do not fit closely there is, of course, open water, which freezes over in a few hours after giving off volumes of “frost-smoke”.  In obedience to renewed pressure this young ice “rafts”, thus forming double thicknesses of toffee-like consistency.  All through the winter the drifting pack changes – grows by freezing, thickens by rafting, and corrugates by pressure…..I have given this explanation so that the nature of the ice through which we had to push our way for hundreds of miles may be understood’ (p4).

Thinking about all this reminded me of the famous Ice Man who was found high in the Alps in 1991, still frozen but gradually being revealed from his snow blanket and the changing levels of snow.  There is a fascinating exhibition (until January 2016) at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology ‘Frozen Stories - Discoveries in the Alpine glaciers’.  The website has an excellent section on Ötzi the Iceman.  So snow, like bog water - and it seems the sea (see the drowned forest stumps off Borth beach) - can act as a preservative.  Snow is, like water, both celebrated and reviled and described in language and stories.   There is still much debate as to the number of names for snow by cultures who live mostly in it.  There has long been debate over the ‘Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax’ with some suggesting that research shows Inuit and other cultures such as the Sami have many more names for snow than English language, and others suggesting this is all about linguistic interpretation (see Martin, 1986 for example).  Innumerable stories are associated with snow, have snow as a central character or use the character of snow to signify what is going on in the story.  In our own culture we have the recent Snowman (Raymond Briggs), and adopted stories such as Jack Frost (probably from Norse myths), the Snow Queen (Hans Christian Anderson – Denmark) and Dr Zhivago (Boris Pasternak - Russia).  In a number of these, snow is not a backdrop, but an active participant, an anthropomorphised protagonist or character in the story, just as in water stories where we have water sprites, mermaids etc. 


Jack Frost by A.E. Jackson, 1905, from 'the Children's Song Book', (Ed A.W. Tomlyn), a book inherited from my Grandmother. 

Snow is only one alternative form of water, think of ice, hail and steam.  My travels up and down the country inevitably take me through Darlington, the proud home of steam manipulation and past Cragside in Northumberland which was one of the first real hydro-houses; where Armstrong used all sorts of ways to manipulate and use the power and forms of water for his domestic benefit (ice house, steam lifts, water closets, ornamental landscape features).   The Scandinavians are perhaps the best at making the most of the bodily experience of all the different forms of water, from sauna, to steam, to plunge pool, to a naked rolling in the snow.  In Iceland the sulphurous steaming pools and geysers and snow provide side-by-side non-manmade possibilities of this experience.  Perhaps wild swimmers should consider extending a wild water experience to thinking how you might get up close with the various different forms of water to become true Hydro-lovers? 

  Schwartztor, 1985.


BBC Worldwide: Himalayas: Water towers of Asia.  Available: http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20130122-himalayas-water-towers-of-asia

Frozen Stories Exhibition, South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology: http://www.iceman.it/frozen_stories_en

Glaciers online: Glaciers of the world (Swiss Education site): http://www.swisseduc.ch/glaciers/earth_icy_planet/index-en.html

McBride, P. (2014) Chasing the Sacred: Down the Ganges From Snow to Sea. Available: http://proof.nationalgeographic.com/2014/08/04/chasing-the-sacred-down-the-ganges-from-snow-to-sea/ and High in the Himalaya: 36 Avalanches and a Silent Refuge. Available: Refuge http://proof.nationalgeographic.com/2014/08/05/high-in-the-himalaya-36-avalanches-and-a-silent-refuge/

Martin, L. (1986) "Eskimo Words for Snow": A Case Study in the Genesis and Decay of an Anthropological Example, American Anthropologist, New Series, 88(2): 418-423.

Newby, E. (1983 orig. 1966) Slowly Down The Ganges (Picador, London)

Shackleton, E. (1925) South: the story of Shackleton’s 1914-1917 expedition (Heinemann, London). 


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