Feature

The White Stuff

Issue 9 - 2018
By Giles Whittell · Images Gallery Stock

Complex and miraculous, snowflakes continue to elude scientists’ attempts to fully explain their creation. Snow aficionado and former Scott Dunn seasonaire Giles Whittell explains his lasting obsession with these mysterious crystals

Issue 9 - 2018
By Giles Whittell · Images Gallery Stock

Complex and miraculous, snowflakes continue to elude scientists’ attempts to fully explain their creation. Snow aficionado and former Scott Dunn seasonaire Giles Whittell explains his lasting obsession with these mysterious crystals

This has to start back in December 1991, the time of the best traffic jam I can remember. I was in France, on the new four-lane highway up the Isère Valley. For a week, a parade of Atlantic storms had been blowing across France to the Alps and dumping two metres of snow on them. Between Albertville and Moûtiers they brought the highway to a standstill, and I was in that standstill, in a bus. Even in the floor of the valley, the snow was fabulous. Coin-sized flakes arrived like paratroopers from the full- blown blizzard higher up, plastering the windscreen faster than the wiper could sweep them off. For long periods that wiper seemed to be the only thing moving, but eventually the traffic eased. The bus started to climb, and after eight hours on the road, in the middle of the night, it sighed to a halt in a drift. We were stuck, so I stumbled out into the storm. A few years later I found myself interviewing one of my heroes at his private ski ranch in Utah, and he offered some advice. “Follow your bliss,” he said. I think he meant follow your dream, but I already had.

 

By the time of that embouteillage on Route nationale 90, snow had been an obsession for two thirds of my life. The other third – the first – had been spent in Africa, where snow was scarce but not completely absent. My mother would spend hot afternoons in Nigeria reading to us from Little House in the Big Woods, in which Laura and Mary make “curlicues and squiggledy things” out of molasses by pouring it onto pans of snow. For me, that description was as good as air-conditioning, and it fixed in my mind the idea of snow as a thing of bounty.

 

 

Snowstorms are keepsakes that last in the memory for decades

 

 

Snow irrigates. It slides. It covers mountains like thick icing. It’s the only thing on Earth that brings peace to New York City, and it makes curlicues out of molasses. My pleasure in watching snow fall has never been fleeting. Snowstorms are keepsakes that last in the memory for decades. They can be recalled and savoured like Proust’s madeleines, which is a good thing, because the odds against snow falling at any given time or place are high. To form, it needs dramatic upward movements of moist air, rising over ground or other air masses. This uplift has to lower the temperature of the moisture to freezing or below, and the air has to be seeded with billions of dust particles around which ice crystals can form.

 

Those crystals have six sides, because that’s how water freezes. They grow by branching (when water molecules cluster at a corner and make it protrude) and by faceting (when they stick to one of the sides instead). For reasons no one fully understands, branching and faceting don’t happen at once. It’s one at a time, according to air temperature and humidity, and branching can be accelerated by a process called knife-edge instability that helps to account for the miraculous complexity of a fully formed, six-sided flake.

 

How this works is another mystery. “I think the instability exists, but why?” asks Kenneth Libbrecht, a Californian physicist who grows flakes in his lab and coined the knife-edge phrase. “Who knows?” We do know that no two flakes are alike, because no two flakes since the dawn of time can have taken exactly the same path to earth through exactly the same layers of air. Despite this, there are a lot of them: 315 billion trillion flakes a year, Ken estimates; enough for seven billion snowmen (at 100m flakes per snowman) every ten seconds, all year round.

 

I’ve spent time studying snowfall maps to judge for myself if this can possibly be true, and I think it can: despite global warming, 40 million square kilometres of the northern hemisphere still spend most of the winter under snow. Most of us don’t think of the world as quite that snowy, because most of us don’t live in Manitoba.

 

A couple of years ago, a forecast of big early season storms sent me scrambling for tickets to Geneva. By the time we got to Chamonix the snow had come and gone and a ferocious föhn wind scoured the slopes like a hair dryer. Through the Mont Blanc tunnel, though, the same wind had turned the north end of the Val d’Aosta into a scene of snow perfection. Overcome with gratitude, I decided then and there to write a biography of snow, or at least a suitable appreciation. The book has turned into a quest for the snowiest place on earth, which I think I’ve located in a place I’ve never been.

 

I do have my memory of that bus ride, though, which was historic in its way. It carried the first full complement of Ski Scott Dunn guests to Courchevel. I was their resort manager, and they were a forgiving bunch. As we ground to a halt, the windscreen-wiper motor caught fire and the bus filled with smoke. So I wasn’t the only one to stumble out into the storm. We all did – we had to – but no one seemed to mind. When it’s snowing, nothing else matters.

 

Giles Whittell’s book, Snow, is published by Short Books

 

a young Giles Whittell in action on the slopes
 

A young Giles Whittell in action on the slopes (above and below)

 
a young Giles Whittell on the slopes
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