Book review: The Vanishing Ice by Iain Cameron

A fascinating book about those who study late-lying snow in the Scottish Highlands.

It isn’t often, these days, that my book reviews are published here on my blog, as I usually send them in to The Great Outdoors for publication there. In this case, however, Chris Townsend got in before me; his review of this book was published in the December 2021 issue, so I thought I’d review the book here instead.

You might think that snow patches aren’t very interesting, and that there certainly wouldn’t be enough of interest to say about them to fill an entire book, but The Vanishing Ice is here to prove you wrong. Few people alive know as much about long-lasting snow in Britain’s mountains as Iain Cameron, but the book is no dry scientific treatise – it’s an engaging story about a lifelong passion, and the sheer adventure (sometimes adversity) involved in seeking out summer snow in the Scottish hills makes this a highly readable book. I’d position it as an accessible entry point to the subject.

Snow patches persist in a few locations on higher Scottish mountains throughout most years, and much can be learned about the mountain environment and our changing climate by counting and measuring them. This the author does deligently every summer, assisted by a small but growing army of enthusiasts.

Why is Iain Cameron so fascinated by snow? As he explains, it began in childhood and he can never remember not being fascinated by it. Despite the firm, assiduous tone of the scientist throughout, glimpses of a more metaphysical wonder do occasionally shine though: ‘The snow is engaged in an existential struggle against the elements… From the moment it comes into being it is dying.’ I also enjoyed many of his remarkable stories from hundreds of days on the hill looking for snow. He almost makes it sound more interesting than bagging summits. The late Dr Adam Watson, who helped to pioneer this field of study and worked with Iain Cameron for many years, gets an entire chapter dedicated to him – a worthy tribute.

As it becomes clear almost from the first page, this is a book about climate change; less snow survives into the summer these days, and less often, than it did in previous decades. While the author sets out much evidence in support of the idea that more snow once persisted in the hills, and that future decades will likely be a lot less snowy due to rising temperatures and changing weather patterns, I found it curious that he is unwilling to confidently state anthropogenic climate change as the primary cause of this. Instead he veers around the question in a way that almost seems evasive, and says that it’s a subject he tries to avoid being drawn into. To an extent I understand his stance here – Iain Cameron’s writing is careful and precise, and he is reluctant to put his name to anything that he is not 100 per cent certain of. Given the available evidence, not to mention the overwhelming scientific consensus, this comes across as an oddity, though. Notwithstanding this, climate change is front and centre thoughout this book, and it’s abundantly clear that the author believes a future with less snow to be an impoverished one.

There is a slightly bizarre chapter towards the end of the book, called ‘Modern Perils’, in which the author sets out some opinions that are going to upset a few people about health and safety in the mountains (plus a range of other topics). To be honest, while I don’t disagree with everything here, I think that the book would have been stronger without this chapter – it feels like a weird swerve in tone. On the other hand, it does provide a bit of spice. If you’re starting to flag a bit after reading about snow for the last 156 pages then this might be enough to get the blood pumping.

Overall, this book is both entertaining and highly informative. I’ve learned a lot more about late-lying snow in the Scottish mountains and have gained even more admiration for the dedicated amateur scientists who study them.

The Vanishing Ice: Diaries of a Scottish snow hunter by Iain Cameron is published by Vertebrate Publishing (£16, hardback/)

By Alex Roddie

Award-winning outdoor and nature writer, editor, author, and photographer.

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