Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Dependent Users on Snow

Fumbling to find that perfect classical stride I pondered how perfect classical skiing and all skate skiing depend completely on a prepared trail.

Thousands of years ago, when skiing was transportation, regularly used trails would develop a firm surface from the passage of many skiers. Natural changes to snow can also provide firmer footing at times. But a skier had to be ready to break trail if they took a route less traveled or they happened to go out first after a snowfall. Skis provided a way to travel independently.

As skiing spread around the world in the 20th Century and became more of a game than a necessity, increasing numbers of recreational users had decreasing patience for a surface that wasn't ready for them. In powder country, downhill skiers love the freshies, but cross-country skiers and skiers who have to make do with something less than champagne powder seek out improved surfaces. These are usually provided by expensive equipment driven by  -- hopefully -- skilled operators.

In many places, the snow itself is manufactured using expensive equipment under challenging conditions. While this happens mostly on downhill ski areas, unreliable winters have forced cross-country areas to take it up as well. The cross-country loops with man-made snow are usually short because of the cost in money and effort. Cross-country skiers will pay for a groomed trail, but they won't pay a lot.

Groomed-trail techniques on groomed-trail skis are fantastic fun. And in a pinch you might be able to trudge around on a skinny classical ski to tromp out a track in ungroomed snow. But to get a surface that will support the laboratory-perfect beauty stride you need more than just a couple of wobbly parallel ruts with pole-marks next to them.

Skis and snowshoes, once tools of the intrepid wanderer, are now toys of the vacationer who goes where many have gone before, and who gets nervous when skis or snowshoes sink from sight in soft snow.

New to the list of dependent users are the riders of fat bikes.  Originally conceived as an "expedition bike" that could go over terrain that would stop even a conventional mountain bike, they've seen a surge of popularity as toys for people who don't want to ski in the winter. They also provide an alternative for winters with little snow or such weirdly variable conditions that cross-country skiing becomes impossible, or at least so unreliable that it hardly counts. But a fat bike is an expensive item, even at $800, to keep around "just in case." So the fat bike user is more commonly not a skier. They look for any consolidated surface that will support their wheels, because even a four-inch-wide bike tire can't break trail in deep snow.

The real go-anywhere ski is the archaic, disrespected and discarded traditional-length touring ski about 55 to 60 millimeters wide, even up to 65 or 68. Your hip, modern skiers use short, wide skis  -- 100 to 120 mm -- that require wide bindings and wide boots, but those are so adapted to ungroomed snow that they can't take much advantage of firmer tracks and faster striding when those are available.

Perfect tools for specific conditions make you dependent on those conditions. Buy all that equipment if you like. Just understand the tradeoff.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The Five Stages of Vacation Week

Massachusetts Vacation Week approaches. When snow conditions are good, this brings a herd of city and suburb dwellers to cram a winter's worth of recreation into a single week. In recent years most of them don't even seem to get the full week anymore. They hammer the weekends, particularly the three-day President's Day weekend at the start.

The fatigue that comes on during any sustained period of serving the public occurs in distinct stages. While these can occur at any time during a tourist season, they're inescapable during the high-pressure concentration of Vacation Week, with its accompanying overtime.

The Stages:

Stage 1: tired but hyper efficient. This generally lasts a day or less. Soon degenerates into going through the motions, doing the absolute minimum necessary to get the latest goon out of your face.

Stage 2: increasing impatience with idiots and their bullshit.

Stage 3: Temporal detachment: You don't know what day it is and it doesn't matter anyway. You've been at work forever and will be there for all eternity.

Stage 4: Short term memory loss.Whole sections of your day, particularly driving, will disappear from your mind as you do them. Combines nicely with Stage 3 to create a drifty feeling drugs only wish they could match. In Stage 4 you could kill an idiot and go back to eating your lunch as if nothing had happened. You would be able to deny it while hooked to a polygraph without showing the slightest distress. Not only wouldn't you remember doing it, you wouldn't be sorry when you found out you had.

Stage 5: Staring. In Stage 5 you'll find yourself enjoying the diamond-like fire of morning sunlight hitting the scratches in the glass counter top. You'll stare into it until the sun moves far enough to cast a shadow over it or the next dripping vulgarian lurches into the counter and drops a puddle of mucus on it while firing questions at you. After dispensing with the idiot in ways you will never remember, you will shift your gaze to the far windows of the lodge. This helps you in two ways: you get snow blindness and avoid eye contact with customers.

Caffeine or a good night's sleep will fool you into thinking you're back up to full strength. You'll start to act like you're in stage one until you lurch off the rails because you're going way too fast for your condition.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Puppy stabbing

One of the instructors at Jackson Ski Touring used metaphors masterfully to convey the basics of classical technique. He would talk about kicking a ball down the track or sliding in socks on a hardwood floor to describe kicking and gliding in a way that would actually make the student's muscles start to engage in the way they should, rather than using abstract theory and anatomical terminology.

He instructed students when poling to think of pulling a little puppy forward with a leash rather than stabbing forcefully downward at the snow with the vicious metal spikes on the ends of their poles. "Pull the puppy, don't stab the puppy," he would say. Emphasizing the hand coming forward rather than the pole jabbing down helps create a fluid stride that relies on timing rather than force.

The snow hasn't been so good this winter, so I haven't put any time in on the trails. Yesterday I got out for my first quasi-groomed skiing on the Super Loop section of Sewall Woods. Three inches of fresh on top of the pocked and trampled remnants on which the die-hards had been subsisting allowed for a semi-refined slither over the irregular surface.

I noticed right away that I was doing a lot of puppy stabbing. Because the snow did not provide consistent support I was only able to connect two or three fluid strides before some jolt would break the rhythm. I would spear the snow abruptly as I put the the kickstand down on one side and the other. It occurred to me that puppy stabbing is the norm in bushwhacking and trudging along hiking trails and logging roads. Wherever conditions don't favor the beauty stride the rhythmic plant, plant, plant of puppy stabbing suits the abbreviated glide and lateral surprises found in that kind of terrain.

Another thing I noticed after I got home. My house was the temperature it always is at the end of a work day in winter: mid 50s. The fires had burned down. The gas heater maintains a baseline so the pipes don't freeze, but I need to get the woodstoves going to get back up into the 60s. Usually the house feels chilly when I come in after eight or nine hours of incarceration at the shop with a half-hour drive on either end. But after a mere half hour of puppy stabbing and determined trudging I felt warm when I walked in and was warm for the rest of the evening. I lit the fires, but without the usual sense of urgency.

A bigger storm seems to be on its way to open up the rest of the trails to a depth that will permit more technically precise skiing. In cross-country skiing, a little bit does a lot. Smoother trails just mean you cover more ground for your effort. It becomes more like flying than walking. Kick the ball. Pull the puppy. Slide.

Monday, December 15, 2014

We've got you covered

Finally went out for a ski in the woods out back. What I found did not surprise me, though I marvel at it every time I encounter it.
Snow cover is very complete, even after many days with high temperatures solidly above freezing. The sun is so weak this time of year that the snow is actually dense and crunchy nearly everywhere.

With rain and warm temperatures, we don't have the full depth that 12 inches on Thanksgiving and a couple more storms with two to four would leave us if we'd gone into a real winter deep freeze. But the same weather pattern in late February would have melted the snow so fast you could practically hear it sizzle.
Warm water lies close to the surface in the saturated, unfrozen ground. You ski where you can, because you can, not because you have to. In a full-on winter with complete coverage of deep snow, a ramble in the woods would require skis or snowshoes. That's the kind of winter we hope for every year. Optional skiing is different. You get to slide and glide on thin cover rather than just trudge, but you could trudge if you had to. You can ski on snow so thin that snowshoes are ridiculously unnecessary, using the gliding qualities of the medium more than the flotation ability of the ski.

Looks like one more good day of this kind of skiing before another rainstorm. We're in the last shortening of the shortest daylight, so the snow cover may actually continue to hold up in a lot of places. But where it has been groomed it has been thinned and damaged by the machinery, making it more vulnerable to hostile weather.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Just when you thought NNN couldn’t get any cheesier...

This doughnut box of NNN Basic bindings just arrived from Fischer. The Big F shows no qualms about throwing in with No!No! No! regardless of what tumbles out of the pipe.

The front end has one less screw securing the toe piece. And they've gone back to a completely detached heel plate. So drilling remains more complicated, just to attach a less secure binding. They get kudos for consistency.

In the end I suppose it only matters as much as which way you have the toilet paper come off the roll. Of course I have an opinion on that, too, but it's no more a winnable argument than the much stronger one against NNN. For some idiot reason the system thrives in the marketplace. Since it basically does what it says it does, holding your boot on the ski and imparting some measure of control, its inferiorities survive under the aegis of marketing. Make it cheap and available and you will sell a bunch. Sell a bunch and you will be viewed as a serious contender.

Rottefella may have realized that most skis get purchased and set aside. They might get used a little at first and occasionally thereafter, but why lavish materials and good design on something that is going to spend most of its time leaned up in a corner before being donated or unloaded at a yard sale. Since the screws are probably the most expensive parts in the binding, eliminating one from every binding adds up over the course of a production run.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Granulated grind

March sun combined with resurgent polar temperatures create transient snow conditions that drive classical skiers insane. So much for the idea of using classic skiing to build my fitness base. These are skating conditions until the definitive warmup makes either klister or a non-wax grip pattern work consistently.

Because the temperature has been dropping sharply at night, any areas that thawed because of the strong sun or an overall daytime high that went above freezing turn into chopped chunks, cobblestones and curbs. Don't stay out too late, no matter how good things seem during prime time. "Fast" is fun, but sliding out of control on a bumpy, icy chute will be more of a workout for your whitened knuckles than any other part of your physique.

After some sort of brush with a nor'easter Tuesday into Wednesday the temperatures appear to be on the rise. Could we at last have reached the mooshier phase of spring skiing and the real onset of cycling? It has to happen eventually. Even in the Year of No Summer (1816) the weather during the absent summer was more like a particularly nasty April than an endless winter. And the factors that led to that are not repeated now.  The June blizzard of 1816 would have presented tricky waxing conditions in spite of wintry snow depths. The temperature rose after the storm, it just didn't stay up in good agricultural range.

I'll take my June skiing in a high-elevation ravine, thank you, and enjoy real summer conditions down where we all actually live.

Monday, March 03, 2014

Hunting the Wild Cream Cheese

The Year of the Polar Vortex seems to be grinding glacially toward the inevitable end of winter's reign. March has come in like January. No telling how it will go out. Perhaps like a "normal" March comes in. We're still looking at daytime highs only in the 20s, with nighttime lows in the single digits below or above zero until the end of the week. At that point the forecast shows the days warming to the mid 30s. If this signals a change to genuinely warming temperatures, cream cheese season may be upon us.

When the snow base is beyond firmly frozen, more like sedimentary rock than anything that wafted down from a cloud as mere water, the thawing process softens the top layer each day as the sun gets strong enough, to create a layer like the food cited in the title. It takes an edge and guides a turn with savory sweetness. Each hard-frozen night saves the leftovers for another serving the following day.

In the Great Ungroomed, this process is all that makes skiing possible when the surface would otherwise be boiler plate. On groomed trails the morning granules provided by the tiller give way to this accommodating surface just in time to let the later skiers enjoy a treat after the early chirpers have shoved the granular surface aside in their haste to grab something more like the winter now slipping away.

Cream cheese also allows for ski skating on terrain that was never groomed for it. The firm support under the soft top layer lets skinny racing skis venture well off the trail where terrain and forest cover permit it. Access still depends on a very smooth snow surface, especially if you find yourself shooting some tighter gaps on purpose or accidentally.

At the end of the day, be off the snow before the temperature drops below freezing again! The cream cheese reverts to ice until the sun returns.

Daylight Relocating Time starts this Sunday, moving cream cheese hours later in the day. If you use trails that are regularly groomed this may actually add a full hour (or more) to the skiing day. If you have to wait for softening it merely shifts the usable period. But if you get stuck having to go out after work this will give you a bigger window. And if the temperature returns to mid-winter range you always have your trusty groomers to granulate it for you each morning.