In many ways, Simon Beck is just like the rest of us: When he sees snow falling, he aches to get outside and play in it. He longs to trace fresh tracks through the powder. He also gets scientific, nerdy. He wonders if this new dusting will be the right canvas for, say, the Sierpinski Triangle, a geometrist’s favorite consisting of one large equilateral triangle divided into smaller and smaller similar equilaterals.
Beck is the world’s premier snow artist. Perhaps you’ve seen photographs of the huge drawings, two to eight acres in size, that he makes by tromping over snow-clad lake beds and plains for ten hours at a stretch, in snowshoes. He’s created snow art in Banff, Alberta; at Powder Mountain in Utah; and in Japan, Switzerland, Chile, and China. He’s also rendered a dragon in Siberia to promote Timur Bekmambetov’s 2015 fantasy film, "I am Dragon," and tramped the Maserati logo into the snow in France.
A 61-year-old Oxford-educated engineer, Beck has shined, all his life, as an orienteering star in his native Britain. He is sinewy and intent, and on cold winter days his wild white beard is atwist with icicles. The snow artist is a throwback. He lives by himself in Les Arcs, a low-key ski resort in the French Alps, in a condo without both television and reliable cell service. He makes calls from the local pub, and he’s happy to be in a quiet village devoid, as he puts it, of “nightlife and all that other garbage.” He needs to concentrate, for he does most of his work right in Les Arcs, on remote mountain lakes. Beck skis 60 or so days a year and waits for optimal snow art conditions—for cold, windless days after at least six inches of fresh, dry snow has fallen. “You become obsessed with the forecasts,” he says, describing his process. “And then, when the snow starts falling, you create the design on paper.” That takes an hour or so. It’s not hard. In some ways, it’s just a way to kill time before the next morning.
“At 9 a.m.,” says Beck, “you have to decide to go or not go.” If the sun threatens to warm the snow up above about 22 degrees Fahrenheit, the snowfield could become a slushy mess. There’s always a good chance Beck will waste the day. He can’t deliberate, though. He needs to capitalize on sparse winter sunlight and get himself, via skis or snowshoes, to his canvas by 11 a.m.
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Working, he’s in a sea of white, negotiating a bright landscape that would induce almost anyone else to feel disoriented. “It’s hard to know where you are in the design,” Beck says, “and also to know how far you’ve gone. I count my paces and move toward specific points.” He uses a magnetic compass to navigate, and he relies on a rope and stake to create circles. Stomping out the contours of a given design takes about five hours. Beck hums as he works. He sings to himself. He walks about 20 miles, and as darkness falls, he shifts to the delicate task of shading in his design, by making thousands of laborious toe-to-heel impressions in the snow. Skiing home, he still has no idea what the design will look like when viewed from above. “The whole thing is an act of faith,” he says. “It’s the reverse of map making. You start with the map and then you try to make the ground agree with it.”
Luckily, Beck is familiar with maps. At age 16, he placed first in Britain’s orienteering championships for juniors. Later, at 25, he left his job to spend over two decades making maps for orienteering races. For a single 10-mile race, he’d spend roughly 450 hours making a map noting every large boulder and stream crossing.
Beck ventured into snow art on a whim. In 2004, shortly after buying his condo, he saw a frozen, snow-covered lake and attempted a star. Now, drawing on the earth is a year-round pursuit for him. Summers, he carves designs on the sand with a rake, usually at Brean Beach in southwest England, where he lives during the warm months caring for his elderly mother. “You’re working against the incoming tide,” he says. “There’s seaweed, and the slightest bit of rain will wreck your design.”
Beck carries a self-critical perfectionist bent wherever he goes, so that he has qualms about calling himself an artist. “That’s an overstatement,” he says. “Really, I’m just executing designs.” And worrying: Beck insists that nearly all of his commercial works are done on rushed timetables and thus compromised by suboptimal conditions. Last year, while carving an advertisement on a warm day in Gastein, Austria, he mopes, “I had to retrace to the ‘A’ in ‘Adidas’ eight times.”
As Beck sees it, his most lasting legacy will be the photos he takes of his Les Arcs work—or, more precisely, the photos he takes on cloudless winter days before February 20, when the sun is still low enough to create dramatic black shadows delineating one snowshoe pathway from the next.
“You ski down to a viewpoint,” he says. “Sometimes the sun is obscured by a cloud. But sometimes—maybe 10 times a year—you strike gold, and you think, ‘It’s beautiful. I’ve been lucky.’ And you just want to keep looking.”
The numbers behind Simon Beck's art...
- 2004: The year he began making snow art
- 300: Estimated number of pieces since starting
- 2-8 Acres: Size of average design
- 61: Current age
- 20: Approximate miles walked per design
- 1 Day: Time it takes to create a piece.
This article originally appeared in the December 2019 issue of SKI Magazine. For more great storytelling about the greatest places to ski on earth, SUBSCRIBE NOW.