A feeling for snow

I remember the first time my eyelashes froze together. After a moment of panic – I can’t see! – I rubbed my gloved hands over my eyes and my vision cleared. It happened again, almost instantly, and kept happening until I learned to adjust the scarf covering my mouth and nose, so that my warm, moist breath did not escape upwards into my eyes, where it would freeze in the frigid air.

It was winter in the Colorado Rockies, in a small ski town nestled in a long, skinny valley at an altitude of 2,445 metres. My American friends thought I was weird – for many reasons perhaps, but not least for my preference of eschewing the free bus and walking to work under almost any weather conditions. This day, though, was fine and clear. My eyelashes had never frozen before but, as I later discovered, it was the coldest day yet of the winter, reaching a high of only minus 17°C (about 1°F). It was cold and crisp – in Colorado’s dry mountain air I never felt as miserably cold as I have in a Wellington southerly when the cold wind cuts into you and the icy rain blows horizontally into your face.

I’d been in snow before, on family ski trips in New Zealand and California, but I’d never lived in snow before. I loved the way it changed everything. You had to learn a new way to walk, a confident stomping downward step, so as not to constantly slip on the ice. You had to dress right.

I left Colorado at the end of the winter, before the snow turned to slush and everything changed. I never went back, but I’ve been chasing snow ever since. I went helihiking on New Zealand’s Fox Glacier. It was too tame. I went to Iceland and tramped around the northern extent of the Vatnakofull iceap. I went to Greenland and drank a martini made with ice from a glacier that calved into Eric’s Fjord. I went camping in the Arctic circle in Sweden, where the sun shone into my tent at midnight and the mosquitoes were as big as dragonflies. I went to Finland, where my great-grandfather was born, and to Norway, where I was told “there is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing”.

I fell in love with snow in Colorado. I fell in love with science from books. Now I get to combine the two. In Antarctica. Not as a scientist – I gave up that opportunity when I left geology for writing and the history of science – but as a journalist and science historian. It’s a short trip, from 30 November to 8 December, but I’m plenty excited. I expect I won’t be able to shut up about it for a while, so expect more posts on this topic leading up to my trip.

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About Rebecca Priestley

I have a PhD in the history & philosophy of science and I write about science and science history. I live in New Zealand.
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