Ice—It’s More Than Just Frozen Water!



ice caves of france

Lower Glacière of the Pré de S. Livres, 1865, an illustration from Ice-caves of France and Switzerland.


If ice has lost all its wonder and the world feels to you like little more than a refrigerated truck, spend a few minutes with Ice-Caves of France and Switzerland: A Narrative of Subterranean Exploration, George Forrest Browne’s 1865 account of his journeys into the glacières of Chappet-sur-Villaz, La Genollière, and other such exotic Continental locales. The book’s tone is, as its title might suggest, implacably British, and Browne makes for an almost risibly agreeable narrator. The man simply loves to describe ice.

It did not separate under the axe into misshapen pieces, with faces of every possible variation from regularity, that is, with what is called vitreous fracture, but rather separated into a number of nuts of limpid ice, each being of a prismatic form, and of much regularity in shape and size.

A contemporary reader might expect some harrowing brush with fate, but this is not Into Thin Air. Browne is largely content to stay out of harm’s way:

It would be very imprudent to go straight into an ice-cave after a long walk on a hot summer’s day, so we prepared to dine under the shade of the trees at the edge of the pit, and I went down into the cave for a few moments to get a piece of ice for our wine.

And lest you tire of his meticulous accounts of ice formations, you’ll find relief in the more mundane details of his travelogue:

A counter-irritant appeared in the shape of a fellow-traveller, whose luggage consisted of a stick and an old pair of boots. The man was not pleasant to be near in any way, and he was evidently not at all satisfied with the amount of room I allowed him. He kept discontentedly and doggedly pushing his spare pair of boots farther and farther into my two-thirds of the seat, and once or twice was on the point of a protest, in which case I was prepared to tell him that as he filled the whole banquette with his smell, he ought in reason to be satisfied with less room for himself.