Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Carte blanche

Out for a slither on the slush today, before the temperature hits the 60s tomorrow, I crisscrossed the woods behind my house to try to get something of a workout without having to bushwhack up through the saplings. The snow is melting fast, but it's dense enough to support a skier over the forest litter and some of the fallen branches and trees.

Snow in general provides a pathway and absolution for the innocuously trespassing bushwhacker. While I barely ventured beyond my borders today, I have navigated on the snow for miles over the mountain range when time and conditions allowed it. Almost none of that is ever on a trail of any kind. Even when my ski outing is centered on a trail, I'll look to the forest on either side if I need to pick a better line to climb or descend.

Today's goal was to fold as much distance as I could into the 13 acres at my disposal. I tacked roughly from property line to property line across the lot, working my way gradually toward the back line.

The slope faces south. Any part of it tilted up has already baked brown. And tomorrow the remains will disappear with a nearly audible sizzle.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Skiing vs. Snowshoeing

Weird winter weather puts a bewildering variety of stuff on the ground. In the new normal, frozen stuff piles up for a while and then fully or mostly melts away before more is delivered.

Skis and snowshoes evolved to serve similar purposes. Both will hold a person up on or near the top of snow that would be exhausting to stomp through in bare boots. This applies to soft snow about six inches deep or deeper, given a relatively smooth surface underneath. If the ground is rough and rocky, the snow has to be deep enough to fill in the irregularities. On a rough trail, a nice, deep snowpack creates a better travel surface than the chunky ground.

Skis allow a person to slide, even on an inch or two of snow over a smooth enough surface. Smooth enough might be a manicured trail or a well-packed layer of leaves in mature hardwood forest. You know it when you see it. You wouldn't want to rip any fast downhills on snow that thin, but you can cover ground nicely on flat to rolling terrain, compared to trudging in boots.

Icy conditions favor the modern snowshoe with built-in traction teeth on the bottom. Some people suggest wearing those even when the snow is very shallow, just for the crampon. Or, if the trail is solidly icy, you may do better with any of the various forms of mini-crampons, such as Microspikes. Descendants of army surplus ice creepers, devices like that provide grip when a full crampon would be overkill. As with every other piece of modern gear, you can end up with a few different items to serve the whole spectrum of ice hardness and thickness. Or not.

Given some snow depth, the choice comes down to skis versus snowshoes for flotation and mobility.

After the early visit from the polar air mass this winter, conditions have moderated to springlike, alternating with less drastic freezes. Precipitation has varied from snow to rain. Right around here, nine inches of snow from a recent storm remained powdery for a couple of days before rain and sleet thickened it up. 

Yesterday I went out for a little spring skiing in February. Sections on the mountain behind my house have been logged at different times, the oldest being about 20 years ago now. Hard to believe, looking at the sapling hell that hems me in, that those pecker poles are 20 years old. Underachieving little bastards are still about the thickness of a fat broomstick, and stuffed in next to each other on what used to be fun terrain for practicing different ski techniques. Some have died, still standing. As I identify them, I snap them off to open spaces. It's not my land, so I'm not going to whack a real trail. A nip here and there, just to skinny through, doesn't make a space I'd like to ski down through.

Snowshoes might seem like a more logical choice in tight confines, but snowshoes have width. And when I do get to some open space, I want to slide, not plod. To me, snowshoes were always something you used when you had to, not because you preferred to. Weight on your feet is more fatiguing than weight on your pack. Skis have weight, too, but because they are designed to slide in contact with the snow, you aren't picking them up and putting them down the way you have to do with the non-sliding snowshoes. In soft, deep snow, you can shuffle in the snowshoes at times, especially descending, but you still don't get the return on your investment that you get with skis.

Skis slide. That is their strength and their drawback. Aimed down a hill, the skis will go until you stop them, whereas the snowshoes will generally stay stopped until you make them go. Aiming up a hill, skis will slide backwards more readily than snowshoes. You have to feel out the snow to figure out how steeply you can climb with the skis. Climbing skins enhance grip, but you may not have them. My old ones fell apart, and I have not gotten new ones yet. On the climb I have to pick my way through vegetation, accounting for the firmness of the snow, and slope angle.

Bushwhacking in the winter is better than in the summer, because I don't worry as much about disease-ridden ticks getting rubbed all over me by the tangle of saplings and undergrowth. With the leaves off, I can also see farther to plot a route. Beech trees hold some leaves, and evergreens are ever green, so I can't see for a really long way at the best of times, but it's still not the jungle of summer.

The deer have churned up the leaves in places as they forage and bed down. Snow depth varies depending on sun exposure and tree cover. Skinny skis can slither through a narrow space on a strip of snow, traversing a slope that would be treacherous on snowshoes, because of rocky outcroppings. The skiing is hardly a lyrical flow, but progress is steady. I like to stop and look around anyway, so stopping to assess the next obstacle is not a hardship.

My choices might be different if I frequented trails. I have snowshoes, and I don't mind using them when they're the best tool for the situation. Learn to use both. It's all fun.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Choosing a binding

All the different shapes and sizes of cross-country skis call for bindings that match the proportions of the ski and its intended use. They also have to match the brand and model of the boot.

Once again, the industry is not the best friend of either the consumer or the retailer. As bad as it was with Rottefella's cheesy NNN system duking it out with Salomon's more solidly made and better supported SNS Profil and Pilot systems, things got worse when Rottefella convinced its manufacturing allies to adopt the NIS plate that only accepts an NNN binding.  While a mounting method that requires no jig and no drilling eliminates most of the problems that made NNN so failure-prone, it also eliminates consumer choice in an obvious move to monopolize the market.

To make matters worse, Fischer and Rossignol decided to stab Rottefella in the back and introduce their own plate, the IFP, that excludes Rottefella bindings and cannot be drilled to mount a Salomon binding on top of it at all. With many -- perhaps most -- skis coming with either a Sin plate (NIS) or the even more heinous IFP plate, consumer choice gets funneled down to just what a couple of manufacturers are willing to provide. These decisions are made by accountants, not by skiers.

Fortunately, the IFP binding takes a regular NNN boot. We haven't quite returned to the System Wars of the 1980s.

Salomon offers their skis pre-drilled to accept any of their own bindings. They also sell an NNN-compatible boot and binding system for skis without a plate. As always, Salomon's version is much better made than anything produced by Rottefella's manufacturing partners. This keeps a shred of choice left in the marketplace for consumers who want or need to mix and match. 

But wait, there's more. 

If you have chosen a moderately heavy ski, perhaps with a metal edge, you will have better control with a beefier boot and binding. The only heavy system binding widely available is Rottefella's NNN-BC. You can get boots for NNN-BC ranging from something slightly heavier than a regular touring boot up to some gnarly models with buckles and external cuffs designed to drive and control the new generation of shorter, wider off-track skis. This is still well short of the state of the art in downhill-oriented backcountry skis. Telemark equipment has reinvented the alpine ski,  making the free heel aspect of the turn completely irrelevant. 

You can still find boots for heavy 75mm bindings.  These were generically referred to as three-pin, even though some models had no pins at all. Some cable bindings used a slide-in toe piece with a fixed bail. If you really plan to take touring skis more than a couple of miles from where you parked your car, use 75mm bindings and boots. They're a proven workhorse. If you prefer touring in semi-refined environments like snowmobile trails, then the NNN-BC system will allow for somewhat more fluid striding -- at least as fluid as you'll get with a chunky BC boot sole. 

It gets tricky on skis that barely reach the threshold of heavy, such as the Fischer Spider 62. Available either as a flat top or with a SIN plate, Spiders are easily skinny enough to use in a set track at a touring center. But the metal edge on the Spiders makes them a trifle heavy for the cheapest and lightest touring boots and bindings. If you don't push the skis very hard,  you might not notice any control problems, but then what was the point of buying a ski with a metal edge? When you jam on the emergency brake, you want it to dig in. Salomon's two-bar Pilot binding gives a lighter boot more lateral control than a basic single-bar binding would. If you're looking at metal edge skis 62 to 70mm wide, choose the Pilot binding or a BC system binding. If nothing else, make sure you get a manual binding rather than an automatic step-in if you go with light touring boots on a ski like that.

It's disheartening to see the suppliers of the cross-country ski industry fighting over market share like a couple of street dogs scrapping over a half-eaten carcass in an alley.  Economic competition does not necessarily favor a better product, only a better marketed product. I guess they all control a ski better than a leather strap across the toe of an elkhide mukluk. In the modern era, it's not about getting large numbers of people to enjoy the physical and emotional benefits of an activity. It's about getting the largest number possible to spend the largest amount of money on it. 

Monday, January 08, 2018

Skis for a beginner

Cross country skiing used to be simple. In the interest of making it simpler, the industry has made it vastly more complicated. The rack has filled up with perfect tools for specific subsets.

When I got into the activity in 1984, all this complication was just over the horizon. With a fairly wide conventional touring ski, a kick wax that was not quite right but basically adequate, and a detailed vocabulary of profanity, I was able to decipher the basics. At every plateau on the climb to develop the skills that interested me, I was always able to curse my way to the next level.

In the early 1990s, Fischer introduced little bitty skis for adults. The first of these was a skating ski just 147 centimeters long. It allowed skiers to try out the V-stance of skating in trails that were not widened and groomed for it, as the skate technique gained acceptance. From that one ancestor sprang all the shorties that we see today.

The initial micro ski went extinct quickly because of its many shortcomings. The ski industry is famous -- or should be -- for solving one problem while creating several others. This is not just planned obsolescence marketing. It is a genuine lack of understanding in the ski community of how their stuff actually works. It may be the same in other activities, but, because skis have almost no moving parts, they seem to nurture a simple-mindedness that permeates the culture. It's even worse in lift-served skiing, because those skiers are only going in one direction.

Because cross-country skiers propel themselves over flat ground, and climb hills, the design of the ski is a little more complicated than for a ski designed only to steer under the influence of gravity. Thousands of years ago, when cross-country skiing emerged as a means of winter transportation in northern Eurasia, people were probably less demanding. They wanted to stay on top of deep snow, and be able to move themselves along. Various things attached to the bottom of ancient skis, like horsehide, and seal skin, and patterns cut into wooden bases, indicate that they didn't like to wax any more than modern skiers do. But they did use sticky natural substances as part of the general tool kit. It was all about getting from place to place.

The genius of the cross-country ski is the glide. You get something for nothing. It takes less energy to slide on snow than to walk on dry ground. It takes way less energy to slide your feet in the motion of skiing than it does to slog through deep snow in bare boots, or to trudge on racquet-type snowshoes. And with skis on, you can get the advantage of sliding even on snow so shallow that you don't really sink into it much with bare boots.

Ski length may have been determined by regional variations in snow type and depth, and perhaps a bit by superstition. "Reach up" provides a ski that is about 115 to 120 percent of your height. For general purposes, this is a good proportion for classical striding on a traditional ski. But flexible boots, and bindings that only hold the toe, make any ski tricky to steer on downhills. That situation inspired the development of patented bindings that have ridges on them to engage the bottom to the boot, and shorter skis that can steer more easily when gravity will not be denied. What's not to like?

Shorter skis do not stride as well. A skier who starts on traditional length skis and practices all the ways and wiles that have evolved for centuries will have a much better intuitive grasp of how to make a ski obey, and when to use one of the modern shorties instead. The skier who starts on a short ski and never questions it will be at the mercy of the industry to solve any dissatisfactions. A whole set of skills becomes unnecessary until you -- by chance -- get into a situation where you would have liked to know something you didn't even know existed.

With all this specialization at your disposal, you can pick a ski that suits you right now and enjoy it for years. That is the benefit of all that variety. If you are an athletic type who thinks that the skate technique is all you will ever want to do, you can buy that equipment and take those lessons and never bother to learn the traditional style. The techniques are quite different, for all their deceptive similarities. Likewise, if you know you're only going to shuffle around on a few weekends a winter, get the ski that makes it easiest.

When I'm standing with a beginner at the ski rack, we both have to gaze into a crystal ball. I don't want anyone to throw down a few hundred bucks for a package that is not going to serve them well for many years. Sometimes people just want to do it, bim bam boom. I'll take the money. But if a skier wants more detailed advice, I owe them that. Moreover, I owe cross-country skiing that. It's a great activity with many facets. Oversimplification does it no justice.

Skiing is full of unspecific terms. "Wax" refers to substances that span the range from liquid through paste, sticky solid, and brick-hard, applied to ski bases in whole or in part, by smearing, crayoning, or ironing, to provide glide or grip or both. "Back country" refers to anything from the local park to the far side of Denali. To the resort-oriented ski industry, it's anything they're not preparing with large machines for consumption by paying customers. Here's your ski. It says "BC." Have fun and don't break a leg.

Your skier of ancient times could take a variety of terrain in stride. Racing skis were skinnier, with a stiffer central section to pull the grip zone off the snow in the glide phase, but anyone not afflicted with the neurosis of racing would have a fine time on their mid-width touring ski, whether the trail was groomed to the primitive state of the art or an unbroken blanket of magical white. If things were icy, or gloppy, or chunky, everyone would have a uniformly crappy time, and laugh about it. But you had to be willing to work with your equipment. Now you can have an extensive quiver of near-perfect skis, if you can afford them. Your main challenge then is to pick the right one for the trip you intend to make that day.

I suppose that, in the time when skis were made by some local guy in the village, some skiers would have a couple or three different pairs if they could. Your supply chain was nice and short. You could ask the maker for exactly what you wanted. Now you have to shop around for brand and availability and take advice from people who might not even use the product. The 20th Century development of downhill-only skiing took over the public image of the sport so that cross-country skiing seemed like something invented by hippies in the 1970s as a goof. Cross-country product is manufactured and imported by companies whose accounting departments have the final say in what hits the stores. The stores and other retail outlets order based on what they think will sell. In the industrial world, your menu is provided by people who don't know you, taking their best guess.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

A trudge in Clumpland

Yesterday, cold, dry snow fell steadily all day. It was one of those days where the snow falls constantly, but piles up to only a couple of inches.

Below the top dressing, the previous snowfall had not reached its maximum predicted depth, and had ended with misty rain here, so about 6 inches of powder is topped with a breakable crust. That's better than a hard glazed crust, but it's grabby when you're skiing ungroomed trails. I went out on my traditional-length exploring skis, with heavy leather boots. I have about a kilometer of trail folded onto my little patch of forest. Because of logging and changes of ownership of the land around me, I can no longer flit easily into open woods to bushwhack up the mountain. A wall of saplings blocks me from the exit I used to use. I've found a way to wiggle through, but I have to be in the mood for it.

Before skiing, I shoveled some snow left over from the 6-incher. After skiing I did a little stretching. Aches I'd been nursing since the end of bike commuting miraculously diminished. What hadn't felt like much exercise had been enough to regain mobility lost to seasonal depression and sloth.

Through the afternoon and overnight, the temperature remained in the 20s. This morning it remained down there for quite a while, even though the forecast called for a high above 40. But when it headed up it didn't waste any time. It had gone above freezing by the time I finished clearing the new snow and put on the skis.

I knew what I was getting into. I hadn't put on F4. By keeping the skis in contact with the snow as much as possible I was able to dislodge the clumps over and over. I didn't care if I got a huge glide. The extra resistance actually helped me get more out of the short trail. A fine drizzle joined the plops of snow falling from the trees. I didn't want to stay out too long anyway. I don't even know how long it was. More than 30 minutes, but well under an hour, I'd guess. And yet it was enough to add to the gains from yesterday. Four days ago I felt like a candidate for a hip replacement. Three days ago, after some aggressive stretching, I'd managed to get the hip pain to move to other muscles nearby, but still felt it going up or down stairs. After two days of really minor skiing, everything is moving much more freely. A hard-core workout would probably have done less good.

The advice of experts often comes from hard-core adherents who push themselves to the limit over and over. But then a lot of those people seem to end up hurting themselves in scary ways, like atrial fibrillation, not to mention joint damage and other musculoskeletal issues related to heavy use and repetitive motion. Cross-country skiing involves no routine repetitive impacts (provided you miss the trees), but the dry-land training can get pretty intense among the driven types who like to excel at very strenuous activities. If a little is good, more is not necessarily better, if you happen to find yourself living past age 50. A more gradual approach helps in the long haul.

A little is better than nothing, think of it that way. And a little more from time to time is helpful. If you start getting drawn into the neurosis of competition, be prepared to spend money on medical interventions. If that's your bag, and you have the budget, have fun! I like to go fast once in a while, but an instinct kicks in when I start to feel like it's ripping my lungs out. I'm just a tourist at heart. I climb mountains for the scenery, not the glory. I ride a bike to get from place to place and enjoy the countryside. If this area had a comprehensive trail network that connected practical destinations, I would ski from place to place, too. But the snow has always been somewhat unreliable, and nowadays it's really unreliable.

A little bit of cross-country skiing is worth it. More can be nice, but a reliable little bit will help you a lot.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Alone with snow

After that last post on January 23, we lost everything well before spring arrived. The snow that fell later didn't restore conditions. Spring snow is lousy for spring skiing.

Our first big storm of the 2017-'18 season is delivering 6-10 inches of cold, dry powder. This is on top of about four inches from a couple of days ago. Because this is one of my normal days off, I was able to go out while the snow is still falling. It won't finish until late tonight or early tomorrow morning. With a La Nina and a big volcanic eruption in the Pacific, we may be looking at a cold, snowy winter.

All my life I have loved snow. When I lived in Miami I dallied with tropical languor, but it was just a fling. At the end of college I moved north and asked everyone who had been there, "What'd I miss?" I missed the Blizzard of 1978, for one thing. I missed the communal bond of everyone who faces frozen precipitation. Some hate it and can't get away fast enough. Others love it and won't hear a word spoken against it. I've always been more realistic, loving what I love, but acknowledging the challenge.

Snow should be shared. The fun should be taken with a friend or friends. The burden should be borne with a partner or a coalition. A snowy day invites outdoor play and indoor snuggling and warm treats.  Even the chores can be sociable if companions are available. I don't have them, but I recommend them.

I'll probably be up on my roof at least once during the season, thigh deep in snow, knowing that once I hurl it to the ground I will still have to move a lot of the compacted mass from where it landed. Every year, that gets harder. Beyond the tedium of a long, arduous chore is also a bone-deep fear that I won't be up to the task. Aging is part preparation, part genetics. The woman I know around here who shoveled her own roof until she was about 91 years old is a rare specimen. Longevity runs in my family but I take nothing for granted. Just because you're alive doesn't mean you're strong enough to get everything done the way you once did. And with every storm I have to get my driveway and doorways passable, while still getting to work somewhere in the vicinity of opening time.

Whatever difficulties I have are not snow's fault. It's still the same innocent killer it always was. You can sled on it, ski on it, build forts and snowball fight. You can wreck your car in it or get buried in an avalanche. It's nothing personal. I like that.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Mediocre winter good for spring

In the winter of our dreams, the cold weather comes and stays, not brutally cold, but cold enough to keep our plentiful storms of powder snow firm on the groomed tails and fluffy in the back country. New England terrain and weather have trained us to want a little heavier, denser snow right at first, but if we have to settle for nothing but powder, we'll manage to live with it.

This has not been the winter of our dreams. After a little 6-inch tuneup and a solid 14-plus inches in a storm of moderately powdery snow, we've had repeated thaws, some rain, and only wet snow when we got snow at all.

Density is the key. The warm cold, just below freezing, and the high moisture content of the snow, have put down a dense layer that has consolidated a lot under the cycles of freezing and thawing. When powder melts, it vanishes like cotton candy. You need a ton of it to give you any spring skiing at all. But this stuff we're getting this winter handles thawing beautifully.

I've only been out on the groomed trails about three times, but I've done a lot of skiing around my own woods, just checking out the scenery and wildlife, or gathering dead pine limbs for kindling. When the temperature has been just above freezing, the top layer of the dense base has softened up perfectly for maneuverability.

The National Weather Service tells us that the storm that is moving in this afternoon will bring mostly snow and sleet in a temperature range from the mid 20s to the low 30s. An accumulation of 4-7 inches total, largely made up of high-moisture snow and sleet, will fill in the ungroomed areas with a very durable surface to enjoy when winter fades. Things being as they are these days, winter could start to fade in a couple of weeks, or hang on to the verge of April. Unless we get a disastrous thaw and deluges of rain, the ground cover should provide hours of fun in the longer daylight and milder temperatures of late winter and early spring.

A blockbuster storm would only push the closing date farther. Even without that, with a couple or a few additions of several inches here and there, a lot of terrain at low to moderate angles will be a fun house. In suitably open woods, it might be a great year to take the skating skis off the reservation and go wild.

New England teaches us to let go of our hopes and expectations. I'm just pointing out technical observations, not making a rock-solid prediction. If this then that. If we keep this high-density frozen product, which is actually not great for skiing among trees when it is frozen hard, our reward will be some quick and challenging skiing in the warmth of lengthening days.