The Colour of Snow

Greetings! I write to you from my new office (pictures soon) where I’m a) sorting out my quarterly accounts, b) really enjoying seeing much joyous creativity in Colour at Play in The KNITSONIK School, c) recovering from a chest infection, and d) going through all my photos from a trip last week to La Plagne for a long-anticipated Ford family skiing holiday, marking the occasion of my parents’ 70th birthdays. We are a large clan with ten adults and six young kids – mostly under 10 – and it was special to get time all together. Pops seemed especially happy to see all the intergenerational skiing, and one of my favourite memories of the week is of my six year old niece, Bella, taking Pops out on a skiing trip and proudly telling me “I showed Pop Pop the way”.

Now, I don’t ski. I’m not naturally athletic, have zero interest in speedy/adrenaline-rich pursuits, and have feet that, after twenty years of arthritis, are a nightmare to find shoes for – let alone ski boots. I have a horror of falling over, painful toes with zero flexibility, and a deep suspicion of slippery surfaces: it’s just not in my wheelhouse.

Nevertheless, armed with the greatest walking boots I’ve ever found, the finest socks money can purchase in this land (dyed a joyous shade of TOMATO RED) and my sturdy brown tunic, I found some super walking trails up on the glacier and had immense fun travelling around the mountain tops on gondolas and making foolish timelapse videos (I don’t know why, they just make me so happy).

I also discovered I really like snow shoes – Raquettes – and especially the quiet off-piste places you can find when you go walking in them. Our guide was amazing, pacing the walk for a range of abilities and fitness, and pointing out birds and trees and pausing exactly the right amount of times for everyone to catch their breath. At one point he produced the most perfect thing: a flask of thyme tea sweetened with honey. It was such an amazing sensation – all the endorphins of effort, the cold air, the very warm sun, my little cup of perfect tea, and the dazzling light all around.

The Raquettes strap firmly onto your feet, spreading your weight more broadly than if you were only wearing boots. This means you can walk in areas where there is very deep snow, which would otherwise be totally inaccessible. Extra wide feet and walking poles made the snowy landscape feel so accessible and open, and I enjoyed the effort of it, and its rewards.

Looking down at my Raquettes and walking poles

Later on in the week I went on several gondolas all the way to the top of La Chiaupe glacier, which culminates at an altitude of 3200m. You can feel the presence of the glacier, its sheer force of coldness that means this part of the mountains is covered in snow all year round, and from the top you can see mountains all around – miles of peaks as far as the eye can see.

Looking over miles of snow at distant rocky snow-covered peaks

Looking over miles of snow at distant rocky snow-covered peaks

I discovered that as long as I have the right boots and socks, I’m OK in the snow.

I found a beautiful walking trail halfway up to the top of La Chiaupe glacier – it is really well-marked, and the snow has been compacted by the piste-basher, so you don’t end up waist-deep in snow. I passed three people on the way who were finishing the trail, and then had the mountain to myself for two hours of endless white snowy vistas, and what I can only describe as an exquisite kind of peace. At moments, all I could hear was my own breath, and the wind combing through the frilled edges of the snowflakes lying in their infinite drifts. I made some recordings that I look forward to revisiting in coming days, but I don’t have high hopes of them being better than my memory of the quiet, and of how the snow seems to act as a kind of giant muffler.

My sister-in-law Michelle was telling me how she had been talking to my nieces about how every single snowflake is unique, and when you see this much snow, that seems like an impossibility. But there it is; the miracle of it.

Photos don’t do justice to what it was like here – the strange absence of sound, the feeling of being somewhere so bright and reflective; being in a place where the sky appears darker than the ground. I felt like my brain was trying to get its bearings the whole time. The air is thinner this high up and you’re above the cloud line, so you get to see the sky in a different way, too. For all that cold snow, I was very warm in my woolly base layers and my thick cotton tunic and trousers, and I had to reapply SPF50 twice because the sun was so hot.

Building all the learning resources for Colour at Play means I’ve been thinking even more intensely than usual about colours, and creative practices of noticing and recording them. The early parts of the course are all about paying attention more closely to our surroundings and in La Plagne, as you can probably tell, I found myself mesmerised by the snow. I’ve never seen anything like it; the endless glittery white with its blue shadows interested me so much – how would I paint it? How would I draw it? How could I show the whiteness of the white? The shadows in the white? How would you?

The last happy memories of this strange and snowy land were all made on a hiking trail in another part of La Plagne; Mark and I took this trail together and he pointed out various slopes down which he had snowboarded earlier in the week, leaving great big curving shapes and lines in the snow.

It was beautiful and quiet.

The end of that trail was a long descent through woodland into Plagne Bellecôte; the trees were full of birds starting their spring songs; the snow was melting to slush; we met other walkers in t-shirts only; and found an exciting ice-cave filled with massive stalactites hanging from its ceiling. The floor of the cave was littered in broken-off shards, and all around I could hear the sound of the icicles melting.

a small cave in the side of the hill, with a fir tree to the right, and great shards of ice to the left.

closeup of big icicles in ice cave

We had snowfall while in La Plagne, but towards the end of the week, most of that snow was melting, and the fresh green growth of spring was appearing around the bases of the trees. I loved finding lichens and snail shells in the forested part of La Plagne, and was especially happy when my nephew Leo brought in “an interesting rock” and a snail shell he had found outside in the snow; in my own bag, brought from St. Leonards-on-Sea, I had my own collection of interesting rocks, which were grounding and supportive reminders of home in this very unfamiliar and intriguing snowy place.

Who does not love the comfort of “an interesting rock”?

After working with my good friend Kate on Colour at Work and especially after reading her fantastic essays on colours’ relationships with social and industrial histories, I am wondering who has written about the colour of snow – and what it might come to mean in these times of climate crisis? Walking in its enfolding peace and light, up there on the glacier, I felt truly lucky to see and experience so much of it and feel compelled to now find a way to show and represent its special colours.

9 thoughts on “The Colour of Snow

  1. I have never gone skiing and I hate to be cold and I never thought I’d want to explore snowy mountaintops but now I’ve put this beautiful place on my bucket list (just like all your essays on color have expanded my colors to knit with list!)

  2. What wonderful photos! I love the whiteness and am in a bit of mourning that spring is here in Vermont. The blue (and also a green) of snow turned to ice or light under snow or in ice that’s melted and then frozen again is unique. And the snow and ice melting and refreezing make so many amazing shapes! White and blue are such a compelling combo–Delft china, tie-dyed indigo silk or cotton–that it’s no wonder it crops up in so many Scandinavian colorwork sweaters. Glad you had that time with your family and didn’t let the lack of skiing stop you.

  3. Excellent and unique descriptions and thoughts Fliss, really enjoyed reading it and looking at the photos xxx

  4. I am inspired by your willingness to try new things in such a challenging environment! I’ve never tried snowshoes but you opened my eyes to the possibility. The magnificence of these mountains and glaciers also had me thinking of the threat that climate change poses to these places.

    1. I was really happy to find ways to experience a landscape I imagined would be too difficult and challenging for my arthritis-y body. I would never have chosen to go to a ski resort myself, but as the whole family were going and I didn’t want to feel left out, I was incentivised to try new things. I’m glad for the push – it was a privilege to see these places and, as you say, with climate change, a very real reminder of what we stand to lose if we do not make huge changes.

  5. Loved your Timelapse and the magnificent photos! The blue-ness of snow light (which seems to absorb everything) always surprises me – and I thought immediately of the difficulties of Jack Cardiff & Osmond Borradaile shooting Scott of the Antarctic in Technicolor in 1947

    1. I do so love a timelapse! Yes – it’s very blue isn’t it? And yes weirdly absorbing. I know folks go on about white being reflective but there’s a weird absorbent flat quality to the snow that is so hard to put into words. Your comment prompted me to run a quick search and I was amazed to find how many resources people have created online purely about how to photograph or film the snow – this must have been especially hard for early proponents of this activity. I feel my little phone camera tried its hardest but something about the extreme light and whiteness of the snow above cloud level seems to push photographic technology to its limits.

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