Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Space travel

Small to medium snowstorms over the past couple of weeks have left a dense base of snow in the woods around my neighborhood. It's not a deep base, but it is very substantial, allowing for some easy travel and careful turning on a couple of inches of the top layer. At least that was true when I took this picture:
That was a week ago. A small storm had dropped 2-3 inches of powder on top of the firm base. A bigger storm arrived the next day, bringing about 7 inches of much wetter, denser snow. That set up firmly when the temperature dropped to overnight lows just above and below zero.

A week ago, I ventured far into the logged area up the back mountain. The loggers had finished cutting, so the only noise and activity came from their loading area down by the road. The little powder layer offered surprisingly good turning, although the deep skidder ruts, and reefs of logging slash kept me from letting my speed build up. And I still have to thread dense saplings to get clear of my little patch of mature forest to make my way to the clearings.

Bushwhacking on skis isn't just a matter of slithering through the first gap you see, or even the widest gap you see. The consistency of the snow determines how steeply you can climb. Slope angle is the primary factor in route finding. Even if the snow has good density and moisture for climbing, slope angle determines how hard you will work to gain elevation. It's always easier to proceed obliquely than it is to charge straight up the fall line. Within the general angle of a slope you will find lots of micro terrain around which to shape your course.

I'm not one to want to get all sweaty and out of breath when I'm not on a groomed trail. On the groomies I will act more like I'm on my road bike, pushing things aerobically for a specific length of time. Trail conditions are usually consistent, and the way is clear. Out in the woods, I'm usually alone, and obstacles may be anywhere.

Coming down last week, I could link a few turns at a time before I had to work around slash, ruts, stumps, or rocks, mostly buried in the base snow.

Today, with the benefit of more than half a foot of added base depth, more surface obstacles were covered. But the higher water content made a breakable crust that was stiff to turn in. Below the crust, the snow was granular, so it didn't support a high climbing angle. In addition, once I got out into the logged area, the sun made the top layer clumpy. This really surprised me after three nights near or below zero, and daytime highs that stayed well below freezing. It was a good reminder that New England is not as far north as it acts. The sun is already starting to climb higher each day, and apparently can exert quite a bit of power, even through bits of high, thin cloud that kept the day from being completely dazzling.

Last week, even descending through the sapling cover I was able to fit in a few turns here and there. This week, that would have been an invitation to multiple injuries. But up in the open I was able to link a few.
There were still snags to avoid. With more snow due in a couple of approaching storms, the open spaces will offer more and more freedom just to carve it up. But the reward of bushwhacking is not just the skiing itself. It is also the quiet and the chance to peek at nature. I saw a porcupine dozing in a sunny treetop on my way up, and saw the tracks of deer and bobcat in the clearings.

Back down in the woods, the snow was even crustier because it had dripped from the trees for a couple of days after the storm was over. That wet mess refroze, making a fast surface. The firm crust resisted turning. Progress was a bit jerky, but it was still more fun than snowshoeing. If I had a firm objective, like a mountain summit, snowshoes would be a better choice. It's a plod on snowshoes, but a reliable plod.

Every time you go out on skis you learn a little more about what works. If you get to cover even an extra foot per stride, that's distance you would not have gotten "for free" on snowshoes. You may have to average out your gains with a bit of extra effort or ingenuity, threading the gaps and working the angles, but it's fun trying.

Monday, December 17, 2018

Open terrain

The technical term for what they're doing to almost 300 acres behind my place is "logging the shit out of it." It's the most drastic timber harvest I've seen on this face of the range since I moved here in 1989.
This is just the easternmost swath. The real work stretches to the left of this view, farther than I cared to venture on this recon. They're still noisily at work over there.

Features are exposed that I had only seen before under mature trees.
This rocky step is ten or fifteen feet high. The mountainside has two or three such formations on the rise to the nearest summit.

The open slope would provide an exhausting number of skiable lines with enough snow. The ground was already rough, and has now been churned and trenched by the passage of massive machinery. The snow will need to be deep, with a dense base. Even then, knee pads and controlled speed are advised.

When the slope was completely forested, back in the last century, it was overlooked by everyone except a couple of skiers and a few hunters.  But a big white snowfield is like a giant billboard. It could attract motorheads who will gash it all up and make depressing noises while they're at it. Previous logging operations, as big as they seemed, were way less drastic than this one. This one can be seen for miles.

Even worse would be if it was subdivided and developed. I used to have nightmares about the forest being torn down and various things built on the mountain, including a WalMart. Elements of these dreams have happened in real life, but without the intrusion of human structures and permanent activity, for the most part. I have to learn not to care. Give it up. Go elsewhere. But the convenience of a wilderness that abutted my yard was pretty darn nice.

The loggers have been at it for what seems like months, and they sound like they're still at full throttle.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

There's snow and there's snow

October was cold and November has been snowy. It happens sometimes, even now in an era of warming average temperatures globally.

November 1989 was not only snowy, it was downright wintry. November and December were so cold that year that the ice in Wolfeboro Bay would support trucks and clusters of bobhouses before Christmas. But then January 1990 set what was at that time a record for average warmth. And the latter half of December had been very dry, even as it remained cold. We farmed our accumulated powder on the cross-country ski trails until January's warmth ruined it. By the middle of the month, winter precipitation had made its way back to us, but the winter was not epic.

The snow this November has not been powder. Today's snow kept mixing with rain. The temperature remained above freezing, so the moisture content was high, but the snow did not get impressively deep. There's a layer of wet slush at the ground that could still be there in January...and beyond.

Deep early snow inhibits the freezing of the ground and insulates water in the depths of the snowpack. If we get sustained bitter cold, and the snow hasn't gotten too deep yet, the lower layers have a chance to set up. If, instead, we get more warm snow before any cold powder that might come our way, the ghost of autumn's rains will lurk in the hollows to ice your skis as you shuffle through the back country.

The sticky stuff is great for going uphill. It can also be a good friend when threading tight vegetation going down. Today I went out to look at some downed trees that had taken down a power line. It wasn't the power line that serves my part of the grid. That went down later. But it's near my house. Someone on a local social media page had mentioned it. So I bushwhacked over. The slow snow allowed me to maneuver through tangles of downed trees that date back to last October's roaring gale that dropped a 95-foot pitch pine on my property. That one fell conveniently between two buildings. It took out the power to my house for a week, but it didn't break walls or roofs.

The maximum height for a pitch pine is usually 75 feet. But the ones still battling here as the white pines take over are quite large. At least a couple of them form the largest part of the tangle I skied around today.

People who don't know any better see snow and assume that it's good for ski areas. Ski areas will make the best of it and take the money, but even downhill areas are dealing with lots of surface water, tough grooming conditions, and unfrozen ground. Cross-country trails have it even worse. Especially with a large percentage of skiers who depend on groomed surfaces, we spend a lot of time explaining things to impatient skaters. They're welcome to go out and experience it for themselves. And once someone does, no further explanation is needed.

Last week, snow that fell as heavy, barely movable cement dried out and fluffed up with a shot of bitterly cold air. It became genuine powder. It was great for gliding and pretty poor for climbing. And it wasn't deep enough to provide security going downhill at any speed. Believe me, I tried. Below that tempting white mantle was the forest floor: newly-fallen leaves, branches, stumps, sticks.

No shot of deep cold is poised to follow this most recent winter storm. Quite the opposite: temperatures headed for the upper 30s to 40. Daylight is near its shortest now, so the sun can't do much if it comes out at all, but 40 is still 40.

Statistically, snowy Novembers do not tend to usher in long, continuously snowy winters. That's not to say they can't, but they usually don't. It's good, in a way. Snow management turns into a serious full-time job when it keeps on dumping, week after week.

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 support a person 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.