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In January 2002 Bill visited the Ice Hotel with his wife Amy Somrak and their friends Allan and Pat Tuchman. Located in the arctic circle of Sweden, the hotel's owners rebuild the hotel every year. Temperatures outside the hotel can be as low as 40 degrees below freezing; inside the hotel temperatures are a comparatively warm 9 degrees fahrenheit. In this public radio piece Bill examines the hotel rooms, interviews its designer, and probes the hotel's appeal.
Bill I began to worry as the plane landed. I became alarmed when the flight attendant prepared by putting on a coat, a large scarf and gloves. I'd hoped for a few more minutes of warmth.
Bill I was landing in the arctic circle in Northern Sweden. I was to stay in one of the most incredible structures in the world. A hotel made completely from ice. My wife had picked up the New York Times travel section a year ago and read about this ice hotel. She learned how every year, they build a sixty-room hotel from three thousand tons of snow and ice. She decided then and there that she had to visit it. Earlier that day at breakfast, in Stockholm, I asked her why, exactly, we were going to the Ice Hotel. She got as close as she ever does to philosophical, for she is first and foremost a woman of action.
Amy "I want to taste everything, I want to try it, I want to sample it, I wanna do this really neat thing. And I've never been to Sweden, and its a great excuse to come to Sweden. And hang out in the Arctic circle, and I've experienced the arctic circle in summer, but never in winter, I wanted to try out thirty below and see what that was like."
Bill What specifically, I asked, excited her about the experience of the Ice Hotel?
Amy "Because it's cool, because it's beautiful, because it's ephemeral, because they built it new every year and it melts back to the river. And that's just, God that's amazing. They build ice sculptures inside and every year it's unique."
Bill Her very physical way of experiencing the world is not mine. She travels around the world to climbs rocks, or backpack along a glacier, while I prefer words. Reading to me is the supreme experience. I agree completely with the Argentinean writer Borges: "I think of reading a book," he wrote, "as no less an experience than traveling or falling in love. I think that reading Berkeley or Shaw or Emerson, those are quite as real experiences to me as seeing London." So, that day as we flew from Stockholm to the Arctic I buried myself in a book about travelling through the Sahara Desert. I was in denial about going to the arctic.
I had only briefly formed an image of where we were going, and what it would be like. It occurred when my wife and I were packing for this trip. As we laid out our things she pointed to a set of warm clothes and said "we should carry them on, rather than check them. They're mission critical." I don't like vacations where anything in my luggage is described as mission critical.
Bill As we approached the airport the pilot told us it was minus twenty-nine degrees celsius outside. That's fifty two degrees Fahrenheit below freezing. As the plane neared the ground I began to think of those mission critical warm clothes in our carry on luggage.
Bill On landing I hope for a few more minutes of warmth, but there is no jet way, so we exit the plane by a set of stairs, and walk across the tarmac in the frigid weather. We'd scheduled transport from the airport to the Ice Hotel by dog sled, but instead got a rude awakening about exactly how cold it was. We met a representative of the Ice Hotel, who explains why our dog sled ride has been cancelled.
Hotel guide "Too cold for the dogs, not for you, but for the dog, because they get so much cold air inside, not good."
Bill Too cold for the dogs, but not for me. I don't like this at all. Instead of a dog sled we take a bus to the Ice Hotel. As we leave the airport my friend Allan - we are travelling with Allan and his wife Pat - points out how far north we've flown. He notes that it is high noon, but the sun sits only five degrees above the horizon. Next he draws my attention to the satellite dishes along the road: They point, he notes, toward the horizon so they can reach satellites that circle the equator half a globe away. After that we all sit quietly and study the snow-covered landscape. I find myself wondering what my stay in the Ice Hotel will be like. Will it be anything like the first Ice Palace? It was built by a Russian Princess and was a monstrous joke.
Bill The cruel Russian Empress Anna Ivanovna, niece of Peter the Great, had built the first Ice Palace in 1740 to punish a member of the Russian nobility.
Prince Mikhail angered her by converting to Catholicism, so she first punished him by forcing him to set on a basket of eggs and cackle until they hatched. Not satisfied with this, she made the Prince marry one of her servants. A women described as of "exceptional ugliness." She'd been nicknamed Buzhennia after the Empress's favorite dish of roast pork with spiced vinegar and onion sauce. Even this forced marriage wasn't enough punishment. Immediately after the ceremony she forced the bride and groom, festooned in furs, to sit in an iron cage on top of an elephant. They led a parade of hundreds of provincial couples - Lapps, Finns, and others - all dressed in their national costumes. They marched to an Ice Palace.
On the Neva River she'd commissioned her architect to build a Palace of ice for the couple's wedding night. In this Ice Palace she had armed guards force them to stay all night in an ice bed. In spite of its cruel purpose the Palace itself was a true work of art.
Built of exceptionally clear ice from the Neva River, the palace was fifty-six feet tall, seventeen feet wide, and over twenty-one feet long. To build it the architect had precisely measured with a compass and ruler each block, carefully cut them, then used a crane to set them exactly in place. Freezing water joined the blocks so smoothly that they appeared to be one single piece. A visitor said of that Ice Palace that it was "infinitely more beautiful than if it had been constructed of the finest marble. The transparency and bluish tone of the ice gave it the look of some precious stone."
Every detail in the Palace showed exquisite craftsmanship: Twenty-nine ice trees adorned the building. Flora and fauna were sculpted from ice and then painted natural colors. And while most of the palace was left transparent, the pillars, doors and window frames were painted green to simulate marble. The windows panes were made from the thinnest ice possible.
So, as our bus tooled along a snow-covered arctic highway, I prepared for an experience of beauty and discomfort.
Bill Our bus arrives at the Ice Hotel, but we cannot see it, we must wait for a tour, plus we need to get outfitted to battle the cold weather. As we leave the bus to dash into the warm reception hall, my friend Allan draws our attention.
Hotel guide "There's a thermometer hanging here in celsius, reading minus twenty-five and a half."
Bill Again, minus twenty-five and a half celsius is some forty-six degrees Fahrenheit below freezing. I'm not pleased to learn this, but I've brought with me high-tech clothes especially designed for cold weather. Most of them were an engagement gift years ago from my wife, which, I now realize, should have been my first clue that I'd end up in the Arctic. They're made from synthetic material that "wicks" water away from my body. In cold weather this is crucial because the problem isn't getting warm, its staying warm. As your body heats itself it sweats, and if you wear cotton or wool the water produced stays near your skin and pulls out the heat.
Bill So, at the Ice Hotel reception area I put on no less than six layers of clothing, then cover it with a huge insulated coverall suit supplied by the Ice Hotel. I put ear muffs on, then a hat, then I cover this with what I used to call a face mask, but my wife says I must now call a Balaclava. Apparently the first people to wear full face masks where the soldiers of the Crimean village of Balaclava. They popularized this head gear in ferocious battles of the Crimean War. Still in some subconscious denial about the arctic, I keep calling it a Baklava. A food I note from Greece, a very warm country. When we finish suiting up it's time for our Ice Hotel orientation tour. It begins with an ominous warning.
Hotel guide "We have this check in tour because this is not a normal hotel. And to be able to survive the night and enjoy your stay here we have to teach you how to live her. Tonight it's very cold, its minus thirty degrees and its actually a bit dangerously cold, so you have to be aware."
Bill With that we are allowed to enter the Ice Hotel. In our seven layers of clothing and with the temperature dropping now to nearly seventy-two degrees below freezing, we thread our way along a path lined by giant ice obelisks, each eight feet tall and three feet square. As my wife notes, they are the same shape and size as a portapotty. We can see the Ice Hotel in front of us: It's a one story building, nearly 100 feet wide.
On this trail we pass a refrigerated "Thermo King" truck. It is unloading into the Ice Hotel skids of Abolut Vodka: citron, lemon, and currant flavored. I take this as a positive sign of civilization, until I realize that the Thermo King truck is needed to keep the vodka from freezing. Ever enthusiastic Allan is, of course, at the door first.
Allan The front entrance is built of clear blocks of ice with reindeer skin doors."
Bill Allan, Pat, my wife and I take a breath and then Allan pulls on the reindeer antler door handles and we enter the Ice Hotel.
The first thing we sense is warmth. The temperature inside the Ice Hotel is twenty degrees below freezing, but compared to the outside this feels toasty. Then we notice quiet: Inside the Ice Hotel all sound dies in the three feet thick snow and ice walls. The only sound is our own footsteps.
We enter the the Great Hallway. A mist rises from its floor; it's roof made of great arches thirty feet tall, held up by massive pillars carved from sparkling, clear ice. I feel a sense of contradiction: The walls are made of snow and ice so they seem fragile, yet at the same time massive; the supports are transparent, yet solid. There are no vertical walls, everything is part of an arch. This drives my eye to focus on the top where an arch culminates in a point. This point tells me these aren't the semi-circular arches of Roman or Byzantine architecture, but influenced by Gothic design. The arches look like they've been transplanted from a great Gothic cathedral, and then frosted with translucent snow and ice.
Next we set out to search for our rooms. From the Great Hallway we venture down a smaller corridor perhaps fifteen feet tall, made of arches shaped like those of the Great Hallway. The guest rooms line this corridor. The doors of the rooms are just holes cut into the ice walls, then covered with a flimsy curtain. Next to these "doors" the room number is carved in snow. We locate our rooms and enter them.
Amy "Oh, look at the chocolates frozen solid."
Allan "The carpet is made of snow."
Pat "I've never had a bed that lit from underneath before. This is going to be ..."
Amy "Are those candles under it."
Pat "I don't know let's see."
Amy "It's a fluorescent light."
Pat "So, instead of legs for the bed there are blocks of ice, then it looks like a wood frame."
Amy "What is that?"
Pat "It's a foam mattress, then reindeer skins."
Bill Allan sums it up the best.
Allan "I see a block of ice. I see reindeer skins on it. There are no reindeer pillows. And there is a night stand made of ice to put my glasses on so they stick to my face when I wake up."
Bill From there we explore the rest of the Ice Hotel. We find intricate sculptures carved out of ice. In one room a Viking Ship juts out of the wall, in another an Egyptian pyramid rules the floor, and oddly, in a corner there is a life-sized statue of Frank Zappa sitting on a toilet. Next we come across the room, which to me, is the crowing glory of the Ice Hotel: The Absolut Vodka Bar.
To enter the bar we pass through a thirty foot tall ice wall, where they've cut an opening the shape of a Vodka Bottle. The room is like a huge igloo, its dome reaching fifty feet in the air. The room is filled with tables and benches carved from four inch thick ice. The bar itself is one huge chunk of ice. I immediately order a drink called a Northern Light. Allan orders a "Fire & Ice", ironically his breath condenses as he says "Fire." Our drinks are served "On the rocks" in the most literal sense: Our glasses are a chunk of ice, with a hole in it. Our bartender explains.
Bartender "We have a special drill, a machine, that makes them. You drill a hole, you cut them in squares, you dip them quickly in hot water and let them freeze again. And while you drip them in hot water [is because] you just have to get the sawdust out of the barrel."
Bill We are comfortable at the bar, but are reminded our comfort is only relative to the outside when we notice that the stereo is in a refrigerator to keep it warm. We also see our bartender dipping her pen into the flame of a candle.
Bartender "I have to warm up the ink, otherwise I can't write anything with it. It looks very silly. And The worst thing is when you stand like this and you look around, and you look at the pen, and its on fire."
Bill Following our drinks in the Ice Bar, we tour the hotel studying the sculptures until its time to spend the night in the Ice Hotel. Staying in the hotel is much less exciting than you'd think. First, attached to the Ice Hotel was a real, heated building. It contained a changing room, and heated toilets. Non-ice toilet, I note. Second, they gave us special sleeping bag rated for twenty degrees cooler than the actual temperature of the Ice Hotel. Our guide told us that wearing anything more than the lightest of clothes would make use sweat. And that sweat would suck the warmth from our bodies, making us very cold at night. So, we change into light clothing in the heated changing room, then dash to our beds, to crawl into our sleeping bags. None of us emerge from our warm cocoons until morning, when an Ice Hotel hostess comes by to offer us warm lingonberry juice. We then gather in the changing room where I chat with other guests about how well they slept.
British woman "Very well, wake up once I think. I was out like a light."
British man "Terrible really. Main problem was the sleeping bag. I kept getting tied in knots. I was twisting and turning all night and had to untangled by myself. But other than than it wasn't cold. It was quite fine."
Bill Although he did have one problem.
British man "Dropped my pillow, and it went onto the floor, and I picked it up, and it was freezing [laughing] freezing."
Bill Next I check with Allan and Pat.
Allan Going to the bathroom scared me back to sleep. Just the idea of having to put on all those clothes."
Pat "My nose got cold at one point, and that woke me up. So, it took a little while to convince myself I really wanted to stay inside the sleeping bag and not go anywhere.
PatThere was the time that I was lying there and I gave a great big exhale, lying on my back, and it snowed back on top of me."
Bill And my wife rated the experience highly.
Amy "It was great. I got up once, braved the elements to go to the bathroom, came back. It's actually better than being camping, because you know when you get out of your nice, toasty warm sleeping back you don't have to go into the cold and dark and dig a hole. You can go to a nice, proper rest room with heating and lights and radio. It's much, much easier than being camping."
Bill You can see one of the problems my wife and I have in choosing where to travel: I never rate the comfort of a hotel by how far it was above digging a hole for going to the bathroom. I was eager, after my night in the hotel to find out why anyone would build such a beautiful, yet ephemeral thing. I mention to my wife and our friends that I'm going to find the architect of the Ice Hotel and talk to him or her, but they insist that I first have some arctic experiences.
Bill We took a dog sled ride along the iced over Torne River. We rode in that long twilight characteristic of the arctic. Even though fifty degrees below freezing quickly numbs fingers, toes and noses, the twilight made up for it by making the snow look luminous and blue.
We visited with some Sami, the indigenous people of northern Sweden. They couched us in driving a reindeer sled, and shared they're amazing knowledge of reindeer.
Sami guide "It's hard to sound like a deer, but like this" [Deer impersonation follows]
BillThey shared with use a meal of reindeer wrapped in what looked like a tortilla shell.
And as I held on tightly, my wife drove a snowmobile into a dark forest and we sat in the freezing cold, until the Northern Lights appeared above us. We watched them flicker and twist, until they disappeared.
Of course the snowmobile was too tame for my experience loving, rock climbing, primitive camping wife. She just wanted to . . .
Amy "Just let it out, but we never really got any straightaways. I really wanted to see what that thing could do."
Bill And not all experiences were as sublime as visiting natives, or taking in the great cosmic display of light -- some were more mundane, yet, to my wife, equally important.
Amy "I found out that the giant monolithic piece of ice that look like porta-potties. They're outside so if you lick them your tongue will stick to them."
Bill After enough experience for me, I left Pat, Allan and my wife. They planned to take another snowmobile ride and "Let them out." I wanted to find out why anyone would build something as beautiful, yet temporal as the Ice Hotel. I'm used to buildings, art, or literature that's made to last the centuries. So the Ice Hotel puzzled me. In the morning I tracked down the Architect of the Ice Hotel, a man named Ake Larsson.
Bill When we meet I first notice Larsson's hat: It's a knit skullcap that makes him looks like a medieval Deacon. I expect when I glance down to see him wearing vestments, but he wears only a thin cloth jacket. He chain smokes as we chat in his barely heated office, which is scattered with papers and drawings. How, I ask, did he get started working with ice?
Larsson "I've been working with wood for twenty years, before I turn over to ice. I started with furniture, when I needed furniture. I didn't want to buy what was out in the shops. So I started to make my own furniture. And then it turns over to be more and more artistic furniture. And suddenly I realized there were no furniture anymore, just art!"
Bill Once he realized he was making art Larsson sought out other media. He made sculptures of ice, and fall in love with the medium. Over time he refined his methods for building ice sculptures, and then moved onto bigger things. I asked him what exactly the magnificent translucent arches of the Ice Hotel were made from.
Larsson "I call this material snice -- the density is just between snow and ice."
Bill He explains that to make the arches they use snow cannons to blast this special "snice" mixture into a mold. This compacts the snow tightly, so that when the temperature reaches 50 degrees below freezing the snice becomes a mass so solid that Larsson tell me "you could drive a car on the roof." Yet these arches that make up the Ice Hotel aren't permanent like his wood furniture. In fact, they don't even keep their shape over the season.
Larsson "One of the things with snow construction is it compresses all the time. The whole building shrinks. The building is five and half meters high - the highest arch - at the end of the season its four and half. So it goes down one meter."
Bill What inspires him to create these transient arches made of snice instead of something permanent and enduring.
Larsson "Yes, I spend the summers around Europe to look at old Cathedrals."
Bill And which cathedrals inspire him the most?
Larsson "In Reims at France. Very beautiful arches. And also St. Peters in Rome. St. Peters for the size."
Bill Again, I ask him why ice, why not stone or wood?
Larsson "It's to realize a dream, a fairy tale in snow and ice, to build a castle in snow and ice -- that's the goal for me, to build up a dream."
Larsson "It's just for the moment, enjoy the moment, the day you are in - and don't think about the future or the last. Just here and now. And enjoy it."
Bill And what does he dream of building in ice, of building "for the moment?"
Larsson "St. Peters. It's possible to do. The sky is the limit here [laugher]."
Bill How does he feel about his Ice Cathedral disappearing at the end of every winter?
Larsson "Happy. Because then I start to draw a new one."
Bill Still I wondered why anyone would create something so intricate and beautiful, yet short lived. I returned to the Ice Hotel to search for the answer. I found an artist working on a huge ice statue of a women.
Artist "Lady of the river. Yeah! Ah, A very big lady, the mother of the river."
Bill The statue is very detailed, and has obviously taken days to carve. Yet, it will be gone in a few months. So I ask why does he like working in ice.
Artist "Yeah, its perfect. No body can buy it, the water takes the life back. Yeah, it's perfect for me."
Bill I realize now, that the Ice Hotel reminds us of how we should approach art, and even life. The novelist Walker Percy captured the essence of this approach with a single question about the Grand Canyon. He asked, is it really possible today to experience the Grand Canyon? It seems an odd, almost nonsensical question, but Percy was after something very deep when he talked of "experience."
Bill When the first Spanish Explorer stumbled unexpectedly on the Grand Canyon he experienced wonder and delight as he took in its depths, patterns, colors, and shadows. Today our experience starts with a travel brochure, and a distinct image of the Grand Canyon.
When we arrive we ask ourselves "does it look like a postcard", if so we go home and say "it's every bit as beautiful as a postcard." If it doesn't conform to our expectations, maybe the colors are somber, or the day is cloudy, any disparity between the experience and the postcard makes us return home saying "I was unlucky, I wasn't there at the right time." Percy argues that the only way today to truly experience the Grand Canyon is to stumble upon it.
That's what, in a sense, the Ice Hotel does. It makes us stumble on it, because very year it's new. It reminds us that when we approach any creative work - a piece of art, literature, a building, or even the most ordinary everyday object - to truly appreciate it we must remove our blinders, and see it fresh, unmediated by any preconceptions.