Since the winter of 2004, visitors to Les Arcs ski resort in the French Alps have woken up to find sprawling snow patterns that have a strange resemblance to crop circles. The prints stretch across otherwise untrammelled hillsides and the depressions left by frozen lakes. They are trippy and exact enough to give the impression that a horde of aliens landed in the powder the night before for a little snow-stomping debauchery. The truth is, all of these designs come from a very focused 54-year-old Brit who heads out for marathon snowshoeing sessions. He carries a clothesline, measuring tape, an orienteering compass, a camera, a change of clothes, a head lamp, and a pretty clear picture of what's to come.
His name is Simon Beck, and he's an orienteering mapmaker from Southern England who owns an apartment at the resort. He trudged through his first design on Christmas 2004 because, "It just seemed a natural thing to do." Without snowshoes, he stepped out a five-pointed star with circles. After the snow covered that design, he trudged out a larger 10-pointed star. Soon after, he found a frozen lake where he could make an even bigger design, but the snow was too deep. He went out and bought snowshoes, and found a comfort level that has led him to stamp out bigger and more intricate patterns.
Inspiration for the art comes from the rakings left in the sand gardens of Kyoto temples, not from crop circles. He begins by scouting out wide expanses of terrain where the fresh snow will be untracked by visitors. He makes sure the slopes have a low avalanche danger, the frozen lakes have thick, stable ice, and every spot has a nearby vantage point from which to take a picture. Once he has a location selected, he draws out a preliminary design using a protractor and paper.
After the clouds deliver a fresh snow canvas, he heads out with his gear. Often, this is at night so that he still has his days for skiing. To keep the art as close to his original sketch as possible, he uses an orienteering compass and measuring tape, and counts his paces. For circles, he pins the end of a clothesline at what will be the center and marches around while holding on to the end of the line. The process is enjoyable, but the goal is to get a photo so he can share his creation on Facebook. He is happiest when he finishes and gets a solid, unique picture. "Usually the last several hours are at night using a head torch," he says. "Sometimes, when it is nearly complete, a snowcat (pisting machine) will drive along one of the nearby pistes and the effect as its lights light up the drawing is awesome!"
His designs take an average of 10 hours to complete. Most people at the resort love the art, but at least one group questions his time and methods. "Most of the skiers think I am a bit mad, and it's a waste of good skiing time (I agree, hence the preference for working at night.), but I hope to spread the message the mountains and snow are beautiful and worth preserving," he says.
After another winter in France, Beck has bigger plans for 2013. He wants to travel to Norway to mash his work into a different landscape. And maybe, eventually, he'll set up a tour to show his photos, though it's unlikely this will happen at any time when there's still fresh snow falling on the slopes.
You can see more of Simon Beck's art on his Facebook page.