For The Love Of Snow

Words and pictures by Sam Baldwin
Published February 2007

Editor and founder of SnowSphere Magazine, Sam Baldwin, describes his ongoing affair with a cold hearted lover which has taken him to 9 countries across 4 continents in an ongoing search for snow.

the search continues; snow shoeing over rice paddies, Ono, Japan

I sit alone on the rickety two man chair as it slowly rumbles to the top, from where I will greedily devour yet another helping of this powdery local delicacy. The snow is falling so quickly and thickly, that by the time I get off, I am wrapped in a white shroud and the tracks from my previous run are barely visible.  

I am the only person riding tonight. Three lifties dash from the warmth of their hut into the blizzard, to brush the snow from the chair and bow each time I pass, but for the entire three hour night session, every ounce of powder on that slope is mine. The phrase “no friends on a powder day” suddenly takes on a whole new meaning. 

snow lies on a bamboo tree, Kadohara, Japan

Rather than strapping in straight away, I pause for a minute to breathe in the beauty of this silent scene. I begin to ponder my line, but for once, not the line I’m about to take. Instead, I look back at my life to trace the line that has lead me to this tiny, unknown ski area in west  Japan, on a snow stormy January night. 

It might seem somewhat strange that a person native to England, a country that receives very little in the way of snow, and is not blessed with mountains of any great height, should have such a strong affinity for this particular form of frozen water. Yet perhaps it is snow’s very rarity in my own country that made me fall for it so deeply. Indeed, they say that absence makes the heart grow fonder, and if true, this should surely mean that when it concerns snow, the English would have some of the fondest hearts of all. 

My earliest memory of snow is in London. I remember walking with my father and brother around the football pitch of Bishop’s Park, joyfully pelting my younger sibling and watching a group of older boys pushing around the biggest snowball I had ever seen. Crowding around the giant sphere that stood taller than any of them, they struggled to keep up its momentum as it grew in size, enveloping everything in its path: dead leaves, coke cans and the occasional frozen dog turd.  

Kamisho Junior High girls cross country ski team slide over a snow covered baseball pitch, Kamisho, Japan

From then on, I just seemed to be obsessed with snow. As the nights drew in and winter rolled around each year, I began to take an avid interest in the weather forecast. Every night I would watch the weathergirl and pray she would place a big magnetic snowflake on my little town in rural Shropshire. 

She rarely did, but perhaps just once or twice a year, that snowflake would land right on top of us and I’d wake up to the most beautiful and exciting scene a young boy could imagine; a soft white blanket of snow, completely transforming our humble town into a playground filled with so many opportunities for fun, no amusement park in the world could ever rival it. 

Days like this are some of the happiest of all my childhood memories. I would fly out of bed, throw on some clothes, wolf down a bowl of cereal, grab a sledge and head for the hill. Hours and hours would be spent sledging, snowball fighting and building snow caves - my brothers, my friends and I stopping only to change into dry pair of jeans before heading back out into the whiteness.  

snow covered temple, Eiheiji, Japan

There was always such a charged air of excitement and an atmosphere of mischievous fun on these rare English snow days. Even adults would revert back to their childhood roots, hurling snowballs at each other and screaming in delight as they tore past on their kids' sledges. Roads would close, trains would cease to run and England would shut down on account of a few centimeters of white water. 

My friends, my brothers and I, were always, without fail, the last to leave Clavers, the small hill behind our house that most of the town’s inhabitants would flock to after a snow fall. Long after everyone else had returned home to warm themselves in front of crackling log fires, we’d still be out there making the most of the short lived white treasure.  

After trudging up the hill for perhaps the fiftieth time that day, we’d pause at the top to admire the soft silence that the snow always brought. We would gaze down at our little town in its pristine white gown, the church spire pointing to the heavens, before launching down the slope yet again. We would be soaked through and cold, yet we never seemed to tire when there was snow to be had. We would stay out late into the night, the high albedo of the snow reflecting the starlight so that it never got too dark to play. 

snow shoes and beautiful views, Kadohara, Japan

The power of snow brought with it another great advantage; it meant no school, or at least by rights it should have. I remember the deep bitterness I felt towards my father one year after an unusually heavy snowfall, when he insisted we go to school. Rising before first light, he toiled away for hours to dig out the car, thus ensuring we could make the journey. A great believer in good education, he would have hired a helicopter and had us airlifted out rather than have us miss a day of lessons. Whilst other kids were out playing in the streets, I watched from the car window with silent sadness and deep resentment that I would be cheated out of a treasure so rare, money could not buy it. 

The snow would rarely last more than a day or two and all too soon the fun would be over, leaving but a few dying snowmen and gutters full of dirty grey slush as the only evidence of our temporary winter wonderland. 

apparently Japan is a crowded country; empty slopes at Rokuroshi ski area

Winters passed, and my love for snow grew deeper still. For some reason, I never lost my childlike fascination with snow. Somehow or other during the early 90s I became aware of something called ‘snowboarding’; a new, cool-looking sport, it was skateboarding on snow. I started buying the magazine Snowboard UK and scouring the TV for any mention of the sport, but at that time, footage of snowboarding was rarely aired.  

So a dream grew, that one day, perhaps, I might go and visit a country with high mountains and deep snow, and indulge in this heavenly practice. In the meantime, I found other ways to substitute for snow. I discovered that when the temperature dropped below freezing, the ground frost could be ridden and thus the sport of frost boarding was born.  

Trucks and wheels were removed from my skateboard, designs were drawn up, and through a serious of evolutionary steps, a crude set of bindings were developed using Velcro. I remember we even dragged a length of carpet up the cow pat ridden hill one summer to create our own mini dry slope for prototype testing.  

how it all began; a homemade board on a frosty hill in rural England

When it came to anything snowboarding related, we were keen, ambitious and innovative. Danny G, one of my more ingenious friends even manufactured a basic board out of real fibre glass resin - it was the fastest of the pack, but impossible to control! 

During the winter months, we would get up early and ride the frost on those beautifully crisp blue days. Flattened grass became packed piste, unridden blades were virgin powder, a frozen mole hill a kicker. The ground was rock solid and controlling our steeds was something we never really mastered; a problem which lead to frequent injuries. I recall my friend Chris taking a nasty fall and then being struck just above the eye by his own detached board which came hurtling down after him at light speed. It was an injury that required several stitches and did little for our mothers’ opinion of the sport.  

Frost boarding may have been a far cry from snowboarding, but for a group of snow starved friends living in rural England, it was the closest we were going to get to the real thing for some years.  It wasn’t until the age of 18, that the dream finally became a reality. I remember one night I watched an episode of a comedy show called Absolutely Fabulous, where the two lead characters went on a snow boarding holiday. The following day at school, whilst talking to my friend Fat Bob who had also seen it, I half jokingly suggested that we should go. 

Something significant happened during that conversation. Fat Bob and I suddenly realised that going snowboarding was no longer just a childhood dream anymore, it was a now a viable possibility for us. We had weekend jobs, so we had the means, and we certainly had the desire. Instead of just talking and reading about it, it hit us like a frost board to the eye that we could actually go out there and do it.  

hiking around a lake in the Tien Shan Mountains, China

Filled with excitement, we raced down to the local travel agent during lunch break, grabbed a stack of glossy ski holiday brochures, and began scouring them for the cheapest possible package deal. Five months later, a group of six guys and five girls were having one of the greatest weeks of our lives, sampling real snow, on real snowboards in the cheap and cheerful resort of Pas De La Casa, Andorra.  

But before the trip, my excitement had been mixed with anxiousness. What if I didn’t actually like snowboarding? What if I was no good at it? What if other snowboarders laughed at us? I needn’t have worried, snowboarding ticked all the boxes. Being on the crisp sunny slopes with good friends, amongst stunning alpine scenery was an experience that I knew even back then, would become a core part of my future. 

boot full of boards; Jasna, Slovakia

So from the frosty hills of England, to the waist deep ski slopes of Japan, it is my search for snow that has led me to the mountains of nine countries, across four continents. Be it a season in Whistler, a road trip to the Austrian Alps, a visit to New Zealand, or a snowboard trip to Slovakia, snow is rarely far from my mind. It has become entwined in my life, influencing decisions that I make, the places that I visit and the people I meet.  

And so it came to pass that I found myself living in Ono, Fukui. A quiet, rural corner of Japan, completely encircled by a ring of mountains, that come winter, provided me with 9 small ski areas, all less than an hour's drive from my home. Though snow was not the only reason for my desire to visit the land of sushi and sumo, it certainly had a large part to play.  

icicles casade over an avalanche tunnel, road to Izumi, Japan

Being a snow lover from England, unless I get lucky with the notoriously bad British weather, I will always have to travel abroad to get my snow fix, but it’s the travelling aspect of snowboarding that I love as much as the sport itself. Snow has taken me around the planet, snow introduced me to my girlfriend, snow gave me a set of like minded friends from all over the world, and snow led me to founding this very ski and snowboard travel magazine in its own honour.  

Where snow will take me next, I cannot say, but I can assure you that snow and I will be together till the bitter end. 

Sam Baldwin is the editor and founder of SnowSphere Magazine. He writes a monthly column for Snowboard UK magazine and has also written for White Lines, Future Snowboarding, The World Snowboard Guide, Tribe Magazine, The Snowboard Journal and The Scotsman. View Sam Baldwin’s portfolio here.  


Thugged Out and Fluoro: Snowboarding Style Gone Mad?

Baptism By Blizzard; Snowboarding Glenshee, Scotland

Slovak Attack: Snowboarding Slovakia

Riding High? Skiing, Snowboarding and drugs

The Fukui Fellowship: Snowboarding and Skiing with the Kids in Japan

Snowboarding Vs Skiing: The Dying Feud