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.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Muscle Memory Encore

On Sunday another unusual opportunity to ski came up late in the day. To get the most out of the short time slot I used skating skis.

Skating isn't really harder than classical, but it uses the skiing muscles differently, which can feel harder when you're out of shape. In classical the skis stay together, parallel, so when you're reduced to trudging it feels more natural. The same plod on skating skis really feels like a pathetic waddle. So I went harder than I should, to try to stay in a speed range that flowed smoothly.

Almost the same distance I skied on Friday using classical skis took only two-thirds as long.

I was already stiff from the classical skiing. It tormented muscles that had been unmolested for more than a year. At my age the pain ramps up over a couple of days, so I was peaking when I went out to skate. Interestingly, the pain of skating decided not to wait. It detected the pain I was feeling from the classical outing and said, "hey! Me too!"

In spite of my stiffness, muscle memory provided accurate technique, as it had on Friday. I went through the motions. Fatigue made me sloppy, but I had no doubt about what I was trying to do.

Experience hurts at a time like this, because the body remembers moving at a certain speed. I wasn't trying for race pace, but I'm so deteriorated that even an easy pace was shredding me. I never had much patience for dry-land training. Back when I got out regularly I could fudge the dry-land phase and make it up in the early season. Now that I can't count on getting out there at all, let alone early, I would have to choke down a much longer period of dry-land alternatives to be almost ready for my chance at real skiing.

A longer period on classic skis would help. If more opportunities come along I will try to use the classic skis to regain some sort of fitness base. Skiing is absolutely the best exercise to get ready for skiing. Everything else you might do is simply to get you to the snow again.

Friday, February 07, 2014

Who woulda thunk it?

Muscle memory is an amazing thing.

I went out on the groomies on classical skis this afternoon for the first time in at least a year, maybe two. Admittedly, waxing conditions were as perfect as they get. Still, I never expected to be able to set the kick and lay down such a fluid stride when all my groomed-trail classical has been imaginary for so long.

I have no stamina. I can't maintain the rhythm on the climbs. But the body remembers even if the cardiovascular system and all the tweaky little supporting muscles burn out quickly.

Classical requires precision that skating does not. Skating requires some basic commitments, but classical depends on repeated subtleties to get sufficient grip from a ski without too much grip wax on it. It's easy to remind me of playing music, so it reminded me of playing music. To get a good sound you have to be in the right place at the right time with just the right amount of force.  This is especially true on a fretless, bowed instrument like the fiddle.

As it happens, the weekly String Band has finally come around to playing a tune I took up as a challenge on my own about five years ago. I downloaded some sheet music for it because I had it on a Darol Anger CD and wondered if I could ever get a handle on it. Turns out that five years of practice will get me a half-decent toehold. Hell, I've got my whole foot on there.

Ordinarily I set my chair back just a little at the weekly jam and struggle gamely with the tunes. I make no pretense of being one of the top players. But the evening our leader introduced the idea that we might take up Banish Misfortune, the others in the group each gave an opinion and then turned to me.

"It's like this," I said. Then I ripped through the A part with a precision that surprised even me. Apparently, the practice had set the tune in my mind and muscles so thoroughly that I couldn't even mess it up when playing out loud, alone, for a room full of people. Muscle memory.

"You can wait in the hall," said Big Scary John. He's a kidder, that guy, but he sure looked scary to me when I first arrived.

Muscle memory. The version of Banish Misfortune we're learning is a tad different from the sheet music from which I began my work. Of course it is. That's the nature of these folk tunes: endless little variations. Sometimes the same title will have two or three unrecognizable tunes under it. Fortunately this isn't one of those. But the variations interrupt the flow of the version I know. I feared it might be catastrophic when our leader first mentioned the title as a future selection. As it turned out, the autonomic nature of the tune gets me back on track immediately, even when my attempt to assimilate a variation derails me momentarily. Likewise, on the trail today, slips in technique did not break up into total turbulence. The body remembers.

As far as skiing goes, I wish I was in better shape. Never a racer, I still got a lot of satisfaction from knowing that I could surprise a few people. It's also just nice to lay down a powerful stride for mile after mile. No telling whether this will be my only indulgence this winter or if I might get into something resembling a routine. It depends on factors entirely beyond my control.

Getting my skis ready yesterday, I taped off the ends of the kick zone so I could get a clean, crisp edge on the glide zone. The memories and the longing it evoked, as I started the ritual of glide waxing made me think of an addict in a movie, holding the tourniquet of surgical tubing tight with his teeth. It's a powerful thing, skiing. Withdrawal had been brutal. I've suffered depression, genuine, medically treated depression, since regular skiing dropped out of my life. I'm taking a risk to dare to take a taste again. I've never managed to stop wanting it. And why should I? As addictions go it's pretty darn wholesome. But it has an undeniable effect on brain chemistry. Thus it has a power that I can prove to you can turn dark. To have a little is to want more, for a host of excellent reasons.

The body remembers. The connections spark with the familiar electricity. The rhythm wants to assert itself. Getting winded is like hearing a tune in my head and lacking the chops to play it at that speed. It makes me want to practice, so when practice is denied the frustration is that much worse. It can grow into despair.

We'll see what happens with the rest of the winter. At least I know I'll be back at String Band next week.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Actually skiing

Looking out at the sunny afternoon I suddenly realized that nothing on my schedule would prevent me from going out back to poke around on skis.

The temperature had gotten up to 20 degrees F. The wind was still sharp, but it hardly penetrates the forest. Occasional veils of faint cirrus clouds filtered the sun a little at times, but mostly it was a flawless afternoon.

Two to five inches of hero snow overlay a shallow but firmly frozen base. The top snow was cold and dry, so the waxless pattern of my beat-up old skis did not hold like a crampon, but it was good enough for a trudge around the property. I don't know if the total elevation gain from the house to the top of the knoll is 100 feet. The steeper end certainly rises little more than half that, but it offers a few lines. You might get four turns or a dozen, depending on snow depth and your quick decision making.

Abutting properties have been logged within the last decade. The saplings have grown up into impassible thickets.
I bushwhacked my way back out after attempting to find a way through to the higher slopes of the mountainside. On my own land the trees have not been cut. I traversed to the top of a knoll at the back of the property to ski down.
This hemlock grove is a Deer Hilton. The deer bed down in several locations near each other in the mixed forest. The various tree species offer shelter, buds to browse, and acorns and beechnuts.
So many lines. A little play area like this wouldn't be worth a drive, but it's fine for the back yard.
When you're just poking around, any drop invites you to throw down a few turns.
Tracks are everywhere, from the well-established trails of the resident deer to the zippers laid down by mice.




Monday, January 27, 2014

SIN and Redemption

When Rottefella's minions announced the NIS binding a couple of years ago it seemed like an egregious grab for market share by forcing customers to choose the inferior NNN system over the sturdier Salomon systems. But, given time to think about it I realize that the SIN plate has accidentally cured all my objections to the NNN system.

Back in about 1991, when the Salomon Profil system came out, it addressed a lot of inadequacies of Salomon's previous SNS system. At the same time it corrected the flaws in Rottefella's NNN and NNN II systems, notably the unnecessary ability to adjust the length of the binding plate to the boot size and the cheesy construction of the bindings themselves. NNN bindings were more complicated to mount, leading to more possible assembly flaws, and they broke more frequently. The adjustable-length plates notoriously came apart where the two sections joined. In early versions, the rear part of the plate frequently sheared right off the ski.

Looking at these problems and finding ourselves selling a particular model of Salomon touring boot much more than any NNN boot, we decided to quit carrying NNN and beef up our stock of Salomon. We could sell with confidence. We could justify our decision on functional grounds. No one told us we couldn't sell NNN. We chose not to.

Function does not necessarily determine whether a product or its parent company can survive in the marketplace. Rottefella licenses NNN to many companies. NNN gets sold in stores where the clerks and the customers don't know any better. The sales people may know other things, but for various reasons they simply believe what they're told about Nordic product.

Meanwhile, the Omnitrak waxless base was killed off by K2 when they bought Karhu and destroyed the company. So the stage was set for this strange time when Rottefella's marketing ploy, the NIS plate, actually turns out to make their product -- if not outright good -- at least good enough.

Point one: adjustable length requires trickier drilling. With the SIN plate, there is no drilling. The binding sections slide onto the plate which is already permanently bonded to the ski. Of course time will tell if that permanent bond really lasts. SIN plate separation could be pretty nasty on a fast, twisty downhill. But nothing has gone wrong yet...that I know of.

Point two: cheesy construction causes bindings to break. SIN bindings have to be pretty robust because of the design of the plate. It's almost idiot proof, which also works well when the skis are sold at stores where no one knows or cares much about cross-country skiing.

The demise of the Omnitrak base means that there's no reason not to settle for a SIN plate ski with whatever waxless pattern they've managed to mold or chisel onto it. The best in the business is gone. The competition for distant second place is crowded with probably adequate mediocrity.

Many of the boots for NNN are reported to be quite comfortable. So that's good. I don't know if any of them have an inner lacing system comparable to the one Salomon has been using on their better boots for at least 20 years, but Salomon can't even be counted on not to mess that up eventually. The Escape/Siam 7 boots this year have what looks like the nice inner boot lacing system, but when you feel around you discover that it's not as separate as it used to be. They're getting perilously close to making those models just another standard boot with an annoying cover over the laces.

Salomon also helped make the choice more debatable with their wide application of the Pilot binding to what had been a stable and functional line of boots and bindings.  Pilot started as a skating binding, where its advantages were obvious. I could easily describe and demonstrate how the binding made skate skiing better. This is emphatically not true of the racing classic Pilot binding they introduced and have already abandoned. And the Pilot touring bindings, while they may offer some advantage with the generally wider compact touring skis, sometimes don't work perfectly smoothly for some skiers. I'm not sure how I feel about them, which is a definitely step down from how confidently I could endorse the Profil system in its heyday. At this point if someone wants an NNN boot and a SIN plate ski I can't say they're making a mistake.

The NIS plate does inject complication and annoyance into the world of cross-country skiing in other ways. If a person chooses a Salomon binding and a SIN plate ski, the plate has to be masked with a special shimming plate to cover its little ridges. Otherwise the mechanism of the Salomon binding, particularly the step-in versions of Pilot, will catch on the SIN plate and jam. Rottefella may chuckle diabolically over this, but at the moment their own NNN-BC binding would need a similar adapter because there is no SIN version of NNN-BC.

Alpina supposedly offers a screw-on SIN plate for flat-top skis. How long will it be before an NNN affiliate has to offer an adapter shim to mask the SIN plate as well?

Even after decades of consumer confusion and a certain amount of complaint, the cross-country ski industry moves ever further from standardization rather than closer to it. Looking on the bright side, at least you can hunt around for the best or least worst solution for your particular needs. If the industry settled on a norm, there's a better than even chance it would be crap and we'd all be stuck with it.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Treats vs a Steady Diet

When I lived in Maryland, ski conditions were rare. If I got to ski in Annapolis it meant that a significant storm for that area had brought usable snow that might last only a day. Sometimes we might get a week out of it. Skiing was a treat.

Even if we did not get to ski in our own neighborhood, skiers from the area would make a special trip to western Maryland, West Virginia or Pennsylvania for a better shot at usable snow. Because it was a dedicated expedition, skiing was the main focus of the trip. Whether we stayed in a hotel or camped out, we ate and slept only to fuel and rest ourselves for skiing.

After moving to what we used to consider ski country, I started to experience skiing as part of a more routine daily schedule. I had to go to work, clean the house, buy groceries, and all the other details of a regular life. I did not live in ski clothes for the whole winter the way I would live in those clothes for a whole visit to winterland. Convenience actually makes skiing less convenient. You have to suit up for it and then change into appropriate garb for whatever you have to do next.

Granted, when skiing came to Annapolis I was fitting it in around my workaday schedule. I was younger, so skiing for two or three hours at night didn't wear me out as much as it does now. The excitement of having snow added to my energy. Living in a place where snow is more normal erodes the excitement. It does not come back once it's gone. I have to clear that snow from around my home before I get to play on it.

Another result of regular skiing is a higher standard of skiing. I recall my eager fumbles for the first few years. Every bit of progress was great. I would visit New England and feel like I must not look too bad out there. After a couple of decades living up here I know how I looked. I've seen a lot of other people look that way. The innocence was nice while it lasted. Knowing better is a burden one cannot put down. Indulge the innocent, but you cannot rejoin them. Well, I can't anyway.

I still enjoy skiing in the woods in much the same way as I always did. It's an ancient style of practical skiing. But on the highly refined crack cocaine of modern grooming with performance gear I can't settle for a wheezy wobble. Better to avoid the groomies altogether than remind myself of how far I have fallen. If by luck I happen to get into some kind of shape again I can sneak in the side entrance and try to zip around a little.