Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Racer Tweaks

Every year there's a new hot technique or equipment change in the Nordic racing scene. During the development of skating as a separate discipline, these changes were often drastic and meaningful. Some were doomed experiments as weird as anything from the Age of Dinosaurs. Others reflected the evolution of gear and technique to make skating genuinely more efficient.

The period of skating evolution got people in the habit of expecting change. It slopped over into classical technique and equipment as well.

Some changes have been more or less permanent. Skate skis settled in to a fairly consistent set of lengths and flexes. Poles grew to ridiculous heights and then settled back to a reasonable one. Classical poles grew, too, and settled back slightly longer than they were at the start of the process.

The funny thing is, within the narrower band of what has proved to work well, fashions seem to change from year to year, a centimeter or two one way or the other. Most of this is just fidgeting. It works better because people think so. It isn't different enough to be noticeably worse. It's still within the usable range.

If a racer tweak makes you cut your expensive poles short one year you'd better hope the trend doesn't favor longer ones next year. That's a good reason to have a couple of sets of poles for each discipline, so you can ski according to fashion without butchering something you have to replace for the next trend.

One benefit to racer tweaks is that they get hard-core skiers moving slightly differently from one year to the next. This might actually help reduce the chance of repetitive strain injuries. No one with coaching credentials has said so officially. I'm just pondering the notion. On the plus side, even if they don't do any measurable physical good, they probably don't do any harm.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Move Christmas!

Christmas really interferes with the beginning of ski season. At a time when we should be building up the wax in our ski bases and getting the kinks out of our form with our first forays on real snow we have to keep taking a break for shopping, parties and family gatherings.

Families in which everyone skis have an advantage, because everyone probably wants to ski. It becomes the group activity. But not everyone skis. In the wider world skiers have to get along with non-skiers and observe the social rituals.

Okay, fine. Ho ho ho.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Don't be a Selfish Downhiller

On free-heel skis, the downhills are as much of a challenge as the uphills. The skinnier the ski, the dicier descending will feel, unless you have a lifetime of skiing behind you. Some people just look like they were born on skis. It usually turns out they were.

For the rest of us, getting down safely is our first priority. Getting down stylishly is nice, but comes later.

Later is now. Style isn't just to impress onlookers. It's part of sharing the trail with other skiers.

One element of style is turning. You turn your skis to avoid other skiers as well as trees and other uncomfortable solid objects. But you also turn your skis to check your speed more efficiently than in a sustained snowplow position.

Sure, the snowplow will get you and only you safely to the bottom of a hill. But in the process you may take all the loose snow with you, leaving those who come after you to deal with the bobsled run as best they can. Is that nice? How would you feel if you came upon the chute of glistening ice instead of the freshly-combed granules of groomed delight? Cut the next guy a break.

I certainly can't shoot the drops in a fluid string of closed-stance parallel turns, soI don't expect anyone else to achieve that level as a matter of routine. But you and I can at least narrow the wedge of the snowplow a little, and weight alternate skis to turn back and forth. With all your weight on one ski at a time, you can actually lift the unweighted ski off the snow slightly. That way it scrapes nothing away. We can even practice bringing it parallel to the weighted ski momentarily before stepping (stemming) into the next turn.

Start your turn sequence before you jet up to frightening speeds. That way you will stay in control and not have to jam on the brakes in a panic stop. Panic snowplow stops don't really work all that well. The force on the ski edges tends to straighten the skis out, leaving you hanging between equally-weighted skis, bombing out of control down that hill you didn't like the looks of in the first place.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Wind Trainer Winter

Looks like a wind trainer winter this year.

Actually, I don’t have a wind trainer. I have a Nordic Track and a rusty old set of rollers. But Wind Trainer Winter describes the season most cyclists and cross-country skiers endure for at least part of the early winter, when dry land training doesn’t work, because the land is no longer dry, and the snow isn’t deep enough to allow real skiing.

In one of life’s little twists, even though I work in the cross-country ski business and have been able to enjoy quite a bit of groomed-trail skiing over the past few years, I don’t expect to do any this winter. Come to find out that neck and shoulder pain I’ve been experiencing is the result of being stabbed repeatedly in the back by people I work with at my winter job. I’ll be devoting my time to other people’s winter fun and falling back on a bit of tactical Buddhism to manage the loss of an activity I deeply enjoy. Sometimes you just have to suck it up. Didn’t Buddha say that?

The Nordic Track provides good all-around conditioning, though it does nothing for fine-tuned classical form. It will at least keep me from turning into a complete doughboy before spring allows me to venture out on the bike regularly. I will also be ready to trudge through the puckerbrush on my wide exploring skis, if snow conditions allow.

The rusty old rollers are great for loosening up sore muscles, tuning up the cardiovascular system and making sure the bike saddle doesn’t become a complete stranger. In an active Nordic ski season, it’s too easy to neglect saddle time until the painful reacquaintance some time in March.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Nordic Boom

People flocked to cross-country skiing in the 1970s because it was presented as easy, affordable and fun. People flocked away again when they discovered it wasn't that easy, so it wasn't fun.

The cross-country ski industry has been trying ever since to recreate the boom, never acknowledging it was based on the public's misconception.

Sure it had its easy aspects. With 75mm three-pin bindings and skis you sized by just reaching up, a person could walk into and out of a ski shop in minutes with the best touring gear available. The skier was then left to discover just how tricky it would be to get around on that simple, inexpensive gear. The lift lines and ticket prices started looking pretty good again.

The industry began throwing products at the problem by the late 1980s. They weren't helped in this country by a sudden deterioration in the winters, but that only hastened the decline.

By the early 1990s, the cross-country industry had actually come up with some good items, but by then a lot of people weren't looking anymore. And the product array still includes a lot of poorly designed trash. A skier still has to know how to pick out the good stuff, or have help picking it. More critically, a skier still has to make it go.

The bad news is picking a ski takes longer than reaching up in the air. The good news is that the ski you buy may suit your style far better than the old simple sticks. And then you're ready to enjoy the most fun you'll ever have getting the most complete exercise in the world.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005


In March, the light looks like morning until evening. Then the twilight lingers forever, as if the sun did not want to go to bed.

This is the season for multi-sport days. If you have the time and the conditions, you could ski, bike and paddle, in whatever order suits your fancy.

If you just want to ski, touring centers will probably groom for the diehards into April. Some may even do it on the sly later than that. And spring brings settled conditions to the many delightful places that fall under the confusing catch-all heading “back-country.”

If the snow consolidates enough, and then thaws just the right amount at a time, you can use skate skis in a lot of unlikely places. I wouldn’t tend to use them on steep, wooded slopes, but my local river has some very nice sections of flood plain for wild skating. You can really fly around a rolling, open hardwood forest, as well. You don’t need no stinkin’ trail. All you need is firm snow.

On wider boards, with beefier boots, more rugged terrain beckons. With a heavier setup like that you can charge through some deeper glop, but at some point you can usually find corn snow perfection for a little while.

Wear sun screen.

Skiers of all levels are still coming to the touring centers. Warm days bring out the people who want to slide but hate the cold. So people are even taking their first lessons as the season is winding down. The sun invites them outdoors. If skiing captivates them, they may follow it toward the colder months.

Sunny, warm days make me think of driving a convertible with the top down. It’s still a little chilly for that, but the hardwood forest puts the top down in the winter and puts it up in the summer. There’s more light in some places from now until the snow melts than at any other time of year. The snow reflects the light upward, and carries it into ravines and hideaways that will be shaded grottoes in summer.

At this moment, the snow outside my house looks like it should be lapping at the windowsills. The way the land rises, two feet of snow pack reaches eye level well before the end of my yard and the beginning of the woods. It’s horribly sticky stuff. The more it thaws and freezes, though, the more it will turn to rounded ball bearings.

The last slush holds up better than the first flakes. Even when the ground looks mostly bare, go connect the dots, skiing from patch to patch on ribbons of snow hanging on in shaded lines. Why walk when you can ski? It may seem trivial, but you might actually stumble on a sizable little stash. And there’s always the rest of the day to do something else.

The snow is just water, after all. During the storm March 9, the howling winds outside the Jackson Ski Touring lodge blew one part of the golf course into foot-high waves that looked exactly like small surf rolling down onto a beach. The phenomenon didn’t last. By the end of the storm, the wind had flattened out the waves.

I like to ski where the snow interacts with streams and rivers in this season when the streams and rivers are claiming the water that winter has held back in a frozen savings account. I also like to paddle where the water meets the snow and ice. Watch the water make its journey. Snow and ice coat the trees when a storm is fresh. Then the sun comes out and the water starts to move again.

On the flood plain across the road, before some people whose hobby is killing birds moved in and made it too dangerous to explore over there whether you have feathers or not, it used to be fun to imagine the end of the ice age. On foggy, dank days, I could stand on the bog, barely making out the forms of stunted spruce and tamarack in the gloom, and pretend that a rotting cliff of ice hundreds of feet high was melting away a few miles to the north. I could step out of my own puny schedule and be on geological time.

Of course the illusion does not hold up, and aren’t we glad? But it’s important to have it, to make what we do have all the sweeter. A little of this, a little of that. A buffet. Breakfast all day, in the morning of the year.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Consolidated spring snow turns the local logged area into a terrain park.
Posted by Hello

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Monday, March 07, 2005

Skiing Sick

I wasn’t really fighting a cold, but I wasn’t cooperating with it, either. Symptoms were mild, just a little stuffy nose and a general lack of energy. Until anything more definite came along, I would just keep skiing.

Because of the lack of energy, I skied slowly. Because of the excellent conditions, I skied classical.

Continuing to study technique and timing as I had recently observed them, I waxed only slightly heavily, and focused on complete weight shift, loading up for the most effective kick with the least effort.

Each time I have gone out to ski the busy Ellis River Trail in Jackson on a weekend or vacation week day, I have caught and passed everyone in front of me and been passed by no one. The point is not how great I am, because I’m not. It’s just the accumulated benefit of the little things. Even sick, and getting sicker, my slow pace was faster than anyone else’s.

Kick timing makes a huge difference. Fully shifting weight through the hip as the gliding foot shoots forward sets up the next stride. Drive the knee and flex the ankle as you throw the hip forward. Don’t step onto a stiff, nearly straight leg and expect to have any power in the next stride. But cross-country skiing is a whole made up of important parts.

Most people I see on the trail are not holding their poles correctly. Not only do they lose the power the strap would provide, the incorrect grip means they plant the poles at inefficient angles and can’t swing their arms in the proper rhythm to keep momentum going.

Classical skiing uses pendulums swinging in alternate rhythm. The legs have their timing and the arms have opposite timing. If the arms can’t swing freely and the poles can’t deliver power at the right time and strength, the whole machine slows down.

The problem may start with the beginner lesson. In a well-intended attempt to get people thinking about their footwork, instructors have them set the poles aside. Skiers are encouraged to stride without poles, to work on timing and weight shift, but it gives the impression the poles are an unimportant afterthought. This is wrong.

Skiers from alpine backgrounds are accustomed to holding orthopedic grips in their fist, which also does not translate well to cross-country poling.

Holding the poles wrong is worse than not holding them at all. If that pole strap doesn’t cross the palm and support the hand, allowing for a smooth release and follow-through, it blocks all the other movements a skier could do with the poles held right or not at all.

A really fit, technically proficient skier could have run me down and flitted past me easily. But that skier would only have been doing, at full strength, what I was doing on half power or less. At a faster tempo with more power in the kick, the speed range moves up dramatically.

Despite the fact that my cold was getting worse and my muscles felt like melting clay, I was not breathless and could enjoy the scenery. A couple of other skiers stopped me to point out a large beaver foraging along the partially-open river. It was a leisurely tour.

Skiers who started very young often have trouble describing what they do, because they learned it naturally, gradually, by doing it more than by thinking about it. Skiers who start as adults have to learn differently, because the human mind automatically tries to correlate new experience to old experience.

As I was describing the lift of the obliques to an instructor, she cautioned against curling sideways, which risks causing the shoulders to sway back and forth. She also mentioned driving the knee forward and flexing the ankle. When I focused on those elements, I found they reinforced the hip lift. I’d already made sure I was lifting my hip rather than dropping my shoulder to engage the abdominal muscles and lower back. Consciously placing the knee and ankle under everything completed the solid platform from which to kick onto the other ski. It even works amazingly well up hill.

Only by skiing sick and tired did I really discover how little effort I needed to get good glide. I couldn’t pole hard to make up for sloppy kick. I couldn’t speed up my cadence to make up for weak kick. I had to make each kick count, and really ride the gliding ski.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Classical Observations

The classical skiing has been exceptionally good around here with a series of snowstorms bringing packed powder conditions. Why waste that on skating?

The changes snowstorms bring depend on the type of snow and the time of day. If the snow falls at night, groomers can probably get out on it before you hit the trail. Then all you experience is a clean, fresh surface.

If the snow falls during your skiing day, things get trickier. If the snow is dry and powdery, you need to wax your kick zone longer, to spread your grip over more of the fragile snow. Otherwise, even with the right wax, you will slip because the snow shears away from itself.

With no-wax skis in fresh, loose snow, you may or may not notice any effect, depending on the grip pattern on your skis. You can’t really extend the grip zone of a mechanical-base ski unless you add wax at either end of the scale pattern. And it has to be the right wax.

One storm brought heavy snow and temperatures right around 32 degrees. It damaged trees, took out power lines and made very difficult skiing while the snow was falling. However, the dense snow packed well for later days.

The fresh snow can take a while to pack firmly, making the wide skating lane fragile. Forceful edging digs into the soft platform. The more delicate dance of classical loads the snow less severely.

Even after the snow settles, as long as it shows its powdery origins it provides endless kilometers of reliable kick and glide.

Sunlight is the poor man’s training video. How many of us can afford to have a coach tape us so we can see our flawed technique? But watch your shadow when the sun is at your back or coming directly from either side and you can see yourself in action for free.

A friend of mine likes to use the expression “hips high and forward” to describe proper classical form. In a fully-developed classical stride, you do throw your hip into it on each side, each stride, but I didn’t really feel the lift until recently.

You want to shift your weight fully from one ski to the other, but not so far that you fall to the outside of the track. I can recognize one fellow skier by the way his shoulders swing from side to side. It works for him, but he’s expending energy and losing some power.

When the stride feels the best, my shoulders are perfectly level. I know because my shadow tells me so. But as I shoot the gliding foot forward, ankle and knee flexed, if I consciously throw the hip forward and lift it toward my rib cage with the oblique muscles on the side of the abdomen, it accomplishes the weight shift and loads up that whole side of the body to fire a ferocious kick down into the snow for the next stride.

You can’t simulate this on dry land, because you are shifting your weight onto a moving foot, weighting the ski while lifting and driving the hip forward. Your foot is flat. The kicking leg is swinging back and up behind you.

As the gliding ski slows, remain on it with the hip lifted, until you are ready to kick for the next stride. The previous kicking ski is coming forward again, feeding into the track, but do not weight it until it comes up beside your gliding leg. At that instant, uncork the power of your compressed oblique muscles and all the other muscles from there down your leg. Shoot the hip forward on the new gliding side, lift and compress. Repeat as necessary.

The skier whose shoulders swing is compressing the obliques by bringing the shoulder down. Maybe the hip is also coming up, but swinging the shoulders moves more mass than necessary.

Lifting the hip properly is surprisingly tiring until your body gets accustomed to it. Those are weird muscles to make hurt. It’s funny to feel them get all pumped and sluggish from lactic acid. It also pulls on the muscles of the upper thigh. But when it all comes together it feels perfect.

When you first feel it, you may exaggerate the motion, as I did, to explore its limits. But I discovered it near the beginning of a busy couple of weeks of skiing. As I got tired, skiing day after day, I had to learn how to do it more economically, but still do it. Slow the stride down.
Really focus on balance, and on getting the most out of each kick. Try it on upgrades, to see how steeply you can climb before you have to speed up your tempo. Speeding up is correct, but methodical kicking helps you focus your power.

Striding is a dynamic process. Breaking it down by verbal description can’t help distorting the timing. But perhaps a concept or a phrase will stick in mind, and the rest of the process will fall into place around it.

Instructor Peter Theriault of Jackson Ski Touring observed that when he taught a lesson to a small group whose native language was not English, the students who tried to translate his words as best they could did not do as well as the one who knew no English at all. The one who could not understand had to learn by watching Peter exactly, imitating what he saw, with no distracting verbal filter.

“Don’t try to tell him what I said,” Peter told the other students. “Ask him to tell you what I did.”

Skiers have known for a long time that following better skiers is the best way to learn. But we do love to talk about things. It’s the next best thing to doing it.

Monday, February 21, 2005

Time has no meaning

What day is this? Oh yeah, Monday. Thought it was Sunday, or maybe Wednesday. It all seems like Saturday after Saturday. How many days have I been working? Will it end?

This is the mental state of someone working in a recreation-related business during Vacation Week. These are the unsung – and sometimes cursed – individuals making the snow, holding the lift chairs, serving the meals, working in the shops, teaching the ski lessons and probably working the longest hours of their winter season to make sure that the people who came to have fun can have it.

This is The Big One for winter recreation businesses; the week when people who wouldn’t ordinarily do whatever it is will try it, be it cross-country or downhill skiing, snow boarding or snowmobiling. It may be the only opportunity these people have to do a whole lot of playing outside in the winter.

By the end of President’s Day Weekend, time has lost all meaning.

We who live here can often forget what it is like to live somewhere else and to have to travel here. And some of us have never lived anywhere else. Like many residents, I’m “from away,” but I’ve never been a Massachusetts resident, although I did impersonate a U Mass student once long ago to get into a cookout. Long, boring story.

The pressure cooker of serving vacationers is not for everyone. By the end of the second weekend it’s not for anyone. Regardless how one promises always to try to be strong, gentle and wise, the sheer numbers are overwhelming even when they don’t set records.

The human flood brings many personality types. A lot of people are in a desperate hurry to enjoy themselves. So they dash around, running stop signs, giving the finger, tailgating. They push and shove in line and snap at the people serving them, because it’s vacation and they have to get as much fun as they can.

Other vacationers have learned to turn off the urgency. I know how hard it is. I used to come up here, all excited. I needed the calming influence of quiet people to remind me how to relax.

Absorbing all that energy takes energy. Imagine one of those badges that indicates how much radiation a person has absorbed while working in a nuclear facility. If we wore them in the vacation business, they would be completely black by about Thursday.

On the second Sunday night, the survivors gather here and there for a drink, a few tired tales, or just to stare into space, blank, drained.

After the February vacations only the devoted skiers remain. A few new ones will drop by, but the trend is downward. The funny part is, the best of skiing lies ahead in most winters. Daylight in March approaches and then surpasses 12 hours. The snow makes its transition to spring. We often get some good storms in March, so we get a few powder days and more snow to consolidate for the spring snow pack.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Frozen Granular

FAST skating out there this afternoon.

Swat! Swat! Swat! downward with the poles. Skis leap ahead. The arms, shoulders and lats are up and running now, in what passes for mid-season form for me.

Curl the obliques slightly with each pole stroke in V2, to stay over the gliding ski without a big torso swing. It's sort of a mini torso swing. The curl helps direct the energy straight down into the ski. At least that's how it feels to me.

Quick feet. Other people's frozen ruts can grab a ski. Be on one ski or the other.

I have no idea what the genuine experts advise. I can only tell you how it feels. Figuring out things for yourself is most of the fun, as long as you know enough basics not to endanger yourself and others.

High-tempo fun this afternoon. And what will tomorrow bring?

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

The West Face of the Hausberg

The snowstorm that began February 10th left about a foot and a half of incredibly heavy, wet snow. Winter will do that sometimes around here, suddenly trying to catch up with itself after delivering little for the first month or so.

I had to work until Monday, so I missed the colder, drier spell that followed the storm itself. I didn’t get out until Tuesday, the day after Valentine’s Day, after another five inches of glop. The temperature was like spring, but the snow was not the consolidated base of a well-seasoned March.

The Hausberg rises from my back yard. Visitors from Germany called it that. It means “home mountain” or, I suppose, “house mountain.” It elevates the local lump to alpine grandeur.

The West Face has many routes. It’s really just an uphill bushwhack through the mixed forest. There are hemlock groves, stands of pitch, white and red pine, and a lot of beech and oak. At about half and three-quarters of the way up, bands of rock present bouldery prominences. In winter, these fill in with snow to look more dramatic than they really are.

Wanting an hour of steady exertion, I set out on the old beater skis to look around.

A local logger has done extensive cutting out there. I have been climbing this mountain since 1989. Until this year, the West Face was forested, with very little sign of recent human passage. Now it looks completely different. There had been some cutting over toward the South Ridge, but my usual route had been mostly untouched.

Big clearings have replaced what were hardwood glades. Since I navigated as much by the trees as the shape of the land itself, I have to get used to new landmarks. But I can remember from the swell of the slope what used to grow there.

You might think that a cleared patch would make a dandy downhill ski trail, but not always. There’s a lot of slash and junk. The warm snowfall blanketed a lot of treacherous snags and hollow spots. Powdery snow would have sifted down into the clutter, filling it properly. Warm, sticky snow formed a dense layer over top, like a thick quilt laid onto open bedsprings.

Farther north on the face, and farther up, the glades remain, so the skiing is unchanged.

The sunny afternoon enticed me to climb longer than I’d planned. I had not reached any summits in a while, so even the home mountain seemed like a worthy goal. The forest is full of memories.

The dense snow provided very good climbing. Skis climb somewhat like an airplane. A wing can only climb to a certain angle before it stalls. Likewise, a ski can grip up to a certain angle before breaking loose. But the angle varies depending on the ski and the snow.

I like to sneak up on a climb, angling up along a contour, looking for places to tackle a little more elevation with a few well-placed sidesteps. I may not get to the top first, but I’m usually alone. I do get there with enough energy to keep going. And often, in a group where we each pick a line, I can spot and follow a nice, steady approach and arrive ahead of the vertical chargers who will do heroic sections of herringbone technique straight up the face.

On the other side of the ridge, loggers cut some clearings about eight or nine years ago. I had gone over there and skied the clearings and skidder trails, one or two of which went straight down. On a powder day, you couldn’t ask for anything better.

From the summit of Hausberg, I skied over there now and started to laugh. Saplings have grown up in impenetrable chaos. I hadn’t gone back to check in quite a while.

I could still look north and see Mount Washington and the whole panorama, Chocorua, the Moats, you name it, from the Sandwich Range all the way around to Maine.

Skiing down, I had to weight the skis lightly to stay up in the snow, above the snags. The heavy snow kept the skis from turning readily. I’d chosen the skinnier, longer skis because they would accelerate better in the heavy snow. The long, soft tips would come around easily in a narrow stance. That was the theory, anyway, and it mostly worked. I would have had to run right out with my short wide skis to ski the identical conditions immediately to see what really would have been best. Not today.

Telemark turns allow you to lead with one ski, which is helpful when you have obstacles under the snow, or dense snow that might cause you to slow or stop suddenly. The lead ski acts like a probe. It also cuts a track the trailing ski can follow.

I skied straight down the fall line in many places, switching leads delicately so I wouldn’t drive into the snow and stop. Don’t over-turn in heavy snow. Even if you want to bail out and stop, you won’t have to turn very far to do it.

In general, use the telemark position as your downhill cruising position if you are at all unsure of the trail. If you work from down to up rather than up to down, you’re ready to unweight and switch leads or to weight harder and turn sharper, without the risk that you’ll get caught between your skis, standing up with them just a little too far apart and evenly weighted.

Frankly, I don’t know how people ski heavy crud in parallel on skinny skis. I see them do it. I just don’t know how they’re doing it. Most of the ones I see doing it have been skiing all their lives and have strong alpine backgrounds. But as long as I can get ‘em around and get down with some kind of style, I figure I have a method that works.

Remember also that I tend to ski in the woods, at lesser angles and lower speeds than someone jumping couloirs up in one of the ravines or some photogenic place out west. I neither seek nor avoid such places. There are just a lot of other places to explore.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Look what you can do with synthetic corks.
Posted by Hello

Skiing is where you find it

The winter of 1993-94 was the classic, almost mythic, New England winter. The cold hit early and bit hard. Snow began in December. By the beginning of February, roofs were collapsing around the region.

The temperatures stayed low. My records show morning lows of 10 below, 15 below, 20 below, and one morning at minus 27 after a high of 5 the day before. We'd get very brief respites, when 20 felt balmy and 40 was torrid, but mostly it was just relentlessly cold.

New Hampshire's a tough economy. I found myself in one of those times when I had a surplus of time and a shortage of money.

We started to run out of firewood. This was serious, because that was the only source of heat. With one thing and another, and a series of lackluster winters, I hadn't cut the four cords I used to pile up for winter. I would get most of it from clearing trails on my property, but now I'd cleared about all I wanted. Come fall, the pile looked big, but the ceaseless cold shrank it with every armload I shoved into the stove. And this was for a tiny house.

Even before the snow I was trudging into the woods to cut dead pine trees to supplement the hardwood I knew would dwindle far too fast.

The snow got deep in a hurry. I went out on snowshoes, but that just added to the toil. So I started skiing in on some old beater Karhus, 55 millimeters wide, with 3-pin bindings. They were derelicts. The original owner had discarded them with a chunk broken out of the sidewall, but he'd included the chunk when he dropped them at the shop. I just epoxied it back in and figured the skis were good enough for chores. At 210 cm, they were longer than anything else I owned, but they were soft.

After juggling ski poles, a bow saw, an axe and dead wood a few times, I began to ski in carrying only the tools, skiing out with a dead tree balanced on each shoulder. It seemed like drudgery for all of a day or so, but then I saw a picture in the newspaper of a woman in Sarajevo, dodging sniper fire to drag a green tree limb home to burn in her apartment living room. And she didn't even have a fireplace. The citizens of Sarajevo were having a nasty winter camping trip that year.

Suddenly my life seemed extraordinarily privileged. I have viewed it that way ever since. I had hot water, plenty of food, dry, dead wood to cut and no one shooting at me.

For the rest of the winter, I honed my balance and strength, skiing to get trees. I don't want to return to those hard times, but they made my life better. You don't really plan to have experiences like that. You really shouldn't. It was just what life dealt at the time.

Monday, February 07, 2005

Skate Touring

Skate skis offer some fast touring on groomed trails when classical waxing might be frustrating.
If the temperature changes over a wide range and you don’t feel like messing with kick wax changes, or the snow is very abrasive, skating lets you concentrate on glide without worrying about how to grip.

Skating seems like a racer’s technique, but there’s a big difference between as fast as you can go and just fast enough.

Study racers to learn some of their techniques, but don’t copy everything they do. It may be the most efficient way to go fast, but not the best for someone who wants to have a little breath to spare.

Racers use a fast poling tempo. You might do that when skate touring, but not as much of the time.

In V2, where you pole while balancing on one ski, then step onto the other ski, practice staying centered over your ski, solidly over the binding, so you can ride the gliding ski for longer. A racer won’t ride a gliding ski too long, because it slows down too much. But on a leisurely tour you can afford to lose a little speed.

In V2 you use the poles over each ski, so you pole every stride, pole-step, pole-step. To maintain maximum speed, increase the cadence. You will feel yourself start to run short of breath, your muscles and lungs burning as you pour out the energy. To race, you need to play that edge of exhaustion. A racer who goes too far has “blown up.” You can recover, but you will have to slow down.

Slower V2 has a tempo kind of like rowing. Pole-glide, pole-glide. Draw out the glide.
Real rowing, of course, is some of the most anaerobically demanding misery ever devised. But it looks very flowing and relaxed because of the smooth movement of the boat through the water.

Many people start skating with the V1. In V1, your poles and one ski hit the snow together. This gives you a dominant side, the one on which you pole, and a non-dominant, or off side. V1 is used at slower speeds such as on climbs. Racers will use V1 up some pretty steep, long grades. Some even manage to stay in V2. If you’re not trying to keep up with people like that, why torture yourself? We’ll get to leisurely hill climbing in a moment.

The problem with V1 is that dominant side. You work one side too hard unless you remember to change dominant sides.

You can change dominance by switching your poling side early or late. To switch early, rush the one-two, one-two timing by going one-one, poling as one ski hits the snow and immediately poling again on the other side. That works well to maintain momentum on a climb. It helps you “fall up the hill.” Your aggressive weight shift forward keeps you moving, and you simply move your feet faster to keep them underneath you.

Switching dominance late leads to a one-two-three tempo. This is often referred to as the Waltz V1. You can do long stretches in Waltz V1 to go a little faster in smoothly rolling terrain when you don’t feel up to the balance and tempo of V2.

V2 frustrates new skaters because it calls for balance and timing. But because it demands these skills you should pursue it so you don’t get stuck in a slow, gimpy V1, forever in second gear.

Use Waltz V1 to sneak up on V2. Waltz goes pole-skate-skate, as you take two strides before poling again, but V1 calls for your poles and dominant ski hitting the snow together. Okay, but try poling slightly before you slap that dominant ski down. Then try poling even earlier. Eventually you will be doing V2 Alternate, with a tempo like pole-skate-skate-skate. The strides on which you don’t use poles give you a chance to check your balance and position before poling again.

Racing involves balancing a number of demands on your energy. The current trend of falling up hills calls for a lot of aerobic fitness and fast-moving, coordinated muscles to keep up the tempo. What happens when you burn out?

We who do not train like racers find that out.

Diagonal V skating uses the poles alternately, as in classical skiing. It has been called a herringbone with glide. That makes it a great low gear for long climbs when you don’t have the aerobic engine to maintain a high tempo in V1, or the sheer power to muscle your way up with long drags at a lower tempo.

At all times when skating, stay centered over your binding, putting pressure evenly into the ski. You notice this when doing diagonal V. Lean too far into the hill and you lose power because you lean too much on your arms. Sit too far back and you don’t maintain the little bit of glide that makes diagonal V so much smoother than a regular herringbone. Shift your weight over the tip of each ski and you lose your edge. The ski slips back.

All these weight shifts will eat your energy in other phases of skating, but you can really analyze them when you’re plastered to the side of a steep hill. Mastering efficient diagonal V may help you extend your V1 to steeper, longer hills as your balance improves.

Mushy snow makes skating a chore, so don’t try to skate hard when we get those warm, slushy days. A little soft stuff on top of a hard base provides a wonderful skating surface, but a couple of inches or more of wet glop is just torture. Then it’s time to get out the wide waxless skis and have a picnic, or pursue klister experiments.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

The Ultimate Combi Boot

Thanks to duathlon racing events, a nordic discipline presently more popular in Europe than the United States, there is now a combination boot that uses the Salomon Pilot binding for skating, but attaches to the Profil flexor-type binding for classical.

The weakness of combi boots has always been that they needed flexibility under the ball of the foot to allow classical striding, but that flexibility seriously reduced their lateral stiffness for skating. Salomon's new Carbon Pro Skiathlon takes advantage of the fact that Pilot boots have always been able to snap into Profil bindings. The carbon sole plate gives springy flexibility to the forefoot, while the double-bar Pilot binding retains a large amount of control in skating.

Like any combi boot, it does not do each tehnique as well as the boots specifically designed for them, but it does them much better than any previous version.

The boots aren't cheap. As part of the Carbon Pro series, they retail around $350 US. But specific skate and classic boots would end up costing at least $500.

The performance of the boot depends on the carbon sole plate. The carbon layer provides strength and flexibility with less weight and bulk than the plastics used in the Race Skate 9 and Race Classic 9. The 9s are great boots. They provide excellent fit and performance, and some different fit options for different-shaped feet. But they aren't as light as the boots in the Carbon series. The flexible carbon sole of the Skiathlon will retain its performance better than any previous version of combi boot. If you really want to use one boot for both techniques, the best you can do right now is the Skiathlon.

A couple of testers have said they like the support of the taller boot on long descents, especially when they are getting tired.

Most testers have rated its skating performance as merely adequate, but that's reasonable when they're coming from dedicated skate boots. The Skiathlon has a softer cuff and looser ankle strap, adaptations for classical skiing, as well as a forefoot very similar to the Carbon Classic. If you haven't skied a Pilot boot before, you may feel the performance is a significant step up from your previous boot.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Consider this idea

Snow in the flatlands is such a waste. Especially when it’s a big storm, no one can put it to use. But I have a plan.

Mobile groomer squads could go wherever major snowstorms have just hit, to pack and track as much terrain as the local topography allows. That way local cross-country skiers could get right out on a quality product without anyone locally having to tie up a doomed permanent investment in the equipment and personnel.

This would require some sort of government funding, but it’s socially valuable. It would be good for morale, health and fitness. People wouldn’t curse the snow anymore. In places where snow doesn’t come often enough to support a permanent facility, mobile grooming would take advantage of the transient conditions.

The mobile groomers would use large military-style transport planes to bring in state-of-the-art machines. There would have to be several of these strike forces, because, as recent weather has shown, a large storm can affect a number of communities nearly simultaneously.

The groomers would lay down track in public parks and on any private lands where the owners had agreed to allow free access. Depending on the local economy, a local business might provide rental gear, or a mobile rental unit could be sent to meet the residents’ needs.

Some areas that only occasionally receive snow have very enjoyable terrain for cross-country skiing. But a big dump makes too much work for the few local skiers to go tromp out a track for themselves. Mobile grooming would pack out the trails so more people might be inclined to try it.

How much could it cost? Not as much as even a minor skirmish overseas, let alone a protracted war. It would provide another alternative for people who might otherwise be lured into self-destructive habits.

Mobile grooming would be good for society. Write to your senators and representatives today.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

The Long and Short of It

How long should your cross-country skis be?

To help you get a ski that does exactly what you want it to, the ski industry has manufactured confusion. Bear with me while I try to explain a little of how things got that way, what’s good about it and what’s not so good.

Cross-country skis are shorter than they used to be. But some are shorter than others, and sometimes shorter is not better.

Fischer Skis changed cross-country ski design profoundly in the very early 1990s with a micro skate ski called the Revolution. Skating was a very new technique. Not all ski areas groomed the trails wide and smooth enough for it, and many people were intimidated by the strangeness of skiing in the V-stance skating uses. The Revolution was 149 centimeters long, shorter than many people’s poles, especially skate poles. It was meant to make learning to skate easier.

When Fischer designed a ski that short with a mid-section stiff enough to support adult weight, they wanted to use the technology in more places, to try to make all cross-country skiing easier. Unfortunately, the shorter ski only focused on some aspects of nordic skiing at the expense of others.

The experiment caught on. Soon even racers were sporting around on dinky little skis. After all, anything worth doing is worth overdoing, right?

The short ski fad quickly brought the inadequacies of short skis out in the open. Racers demanded skis that would actually glide, so skate skis began to grow again. The one-size-fits-all ski disappeared, and almost no one missed it.

Shorter touring skis had many advantages for both recreational tourists making sedate strolls around the groomed trails and intrepid back-country adventurers who could use a maneuverable ski more than a long, speedy one. A three size system seemed to work well enough, with broad fit ranges based on weight. The sizes generally run somewhere around 160 cm for the small one, 175 for medium and 190 for large, no matter who makes them.

Shorter skis need to be wide, but really wide skis need a wider binding attachment and a laterally stiffer boot than most lightweight touring gear. Recreational compact skis wider than 65 millimeters don’t fit in the tracks at touring centers at all, and require a heavier binding.
Wider skis won’t help you if you can’t edge them strongly. All you can do is stand on them like a big, wide shelf.

Skis for groomed terrain can be somewhat shorter than the old long models because modern grooming provides a firmer, more reliable surface. You need a ski long enough to support the length of your stride, but you don’t often need the extra floatation the really long ski provided. But classical skis still tend to run between 110 and 120 percent of your height, and skate skis end up somewhere between 106 and 110 percent. It has nothing to do with your height as such. It relates more to your leg length. Those lengths represent the optimum balance between tracking, gliding and maneuverability.

If you don’t ski vigorously, you can get away with shorter, wider skis. But short, wide skis will tire you out quickly if you really try to drive them hard. They’re better suited to times and places when you don’t plan to drive them hard. You may get tired, breaking trail or skiing long climbs and descents, but it won’t be at that edge of anaerobic metabolism enjoyed by racers and other people who enjoy searing lungs, thudding heartbeat and burning muscles, and flying through the landscape as fast as they can push themselves.

If you just like to get a lot of glide for your effort, comfortably below the pain threshold of high performance skiing, longer, skinnier skis will do a better job for you there as well. Try to demo several models if you can, to get an idea what length will work best for you. There are even some models that sort of bridge the gap between compact and traditional.

Between the compact sizes and the traditional ones, a good nordic ski fitter can tailor a ski to your needs. One very tall, slender woman looking for a touring ski would have fit a 160 cm compact based on weight. With her stride length, a ski that short would be a tripping hazard. She was tall enough but light enough for a traditional 200 cm ski to fit her at the short end of her acceptable range. Another skier, a very portly gentleman, was short enough for a 190 compact to fit him like a traditional ski. If he’d tried to buy a traditionally-built ski for his weight it would have been over 130 percent of his height. He would have hated it.

Last year, Fischer muddied the waters again with their tongue-depressor Cruiser series, skis both ugly and ineffective. Other companies offer proven designs that give tourists really good performance. Unfortunately, the Fischer tongue depressors have created a fashion for fat, ugly tips, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the ski behind the tip is as unsatisfactory as the Fischer. Again, only a demo can tell you for sure what will work for you. Some people like the tongue depressors. Hey, if it feels good, do it. Lots of things are ugly to look at but fun to ride. Just don’t suck down a bunch of manufacturer propaganda or buy just for a name. Even the big names can launch a turkey, but most of them can never admit it.

Monday, January 10, 2005

Loosen up, Baby

People confuse tightness with control. They think of the iron fist. This leads to no end of trouble in skiing.

Tension strikes most often on the downhills, but it creeps in everywhere in cross-country skiing to make life harder.

Loosen up. Enjoy life. Git down.

Git down. This is distinct from “get down.” “Get down” is what you say to the cat when it’s on the kitchen counter, or the unauthorized dog on the couch. “Git down”is what you do when the music is good and you just gotta move with it.

Cross-country is a dance. It has its learned steps, but you respond to changes in the surface, the pitch, the tempo, mixing and matching those learned steps in combinations for the moment. Some muscles are tight, but the flow comes from knowing how tight to make the tight ones and how relaxed to keep the rest of them.

Most skiers hate to fall. Beginners especially hate to fall. So they tense up when things seem to be going out of control. Things just go out of control that much faster.

Look at a professional downhill ski racer. They fall pretty frequently. They almost never look tense, even as the whole thing explodes around them in a blast of snow and flying skis. That’s because they are trying to control the situation to the last. As a pilot friend of mine says, “you keep flying the plane.”

A military saying also springs to mind: “In an emergency, you don’t rise to the occasion, you fall to your level of training.” Military sayings are hip right now. Many are annoying, but that one makes a very good point. As you gain experience you will build a repertoire of quick, correct responses to various situations. You won’t always be right. But you will learn that stiffening up, drawing your body up and locking your knees is never right.

Git down. Never bend your waist unless you have already bent your ankles, knees and hips first. You may discover that by flexing from the ground up you no longer feel like locking your knees and sticking your butt out behind you like an awkward puppet.

I have been the awkward puppet many times. Only 12 years ago I despaired of ever learning to ski the wild ungroomed snow of what we loosely call the backcountry. The guy I was with, a skier almost since birth, was laughing so hard I wondered if he would ever inhale again.

You learn to find your speed range. Mine is only medium fast. If you like to go really fast, focus on steering at high speed and stopping quickly in emergencies. If you prefer more controlled speed, focus on techniques to keep yourself in your comfort zone without scraping away all the loose snow that people behind you might have wanted to use.

By starting to flex at the ankles and working your way up you will keep your springs and shock absorbers working all the time. You’d be amazed how much more secure you might feel on a downhill if you crouch right down in a tuck. Your center of gravity is instantly lower, so you feel less force throwing you off the outside of a turn. You are going faster than you thought you liked, but you are back in control. If you do fall, you are more likely to skid out and slide than catch an edge and get tossed airborne into a trailside tree.

Don’t tuck if you haven’t learned how to come out of it to slow down when you need to avoid another skier. But if you are rising from a tuck you have more control than if you were trying suddenly to crunch yourself lower.

Git down when you stride, too, just nowhere near as low. Remember to keep the joints flexed so you can apply power at the right time and follow through smoothly. As you get tired you will be tempted to stand up more. That is appropriate, but remember to mix it up, slowing down and standing up to rest, flexing down and springing along for short periods to keep yourself loose.

A trudging stride on soft skis will lull you into skiing without shifting your weight fully from ski to ski. You get perfectly good exercise and a pleasant slide through the woods. Those are both good. Try to practice some more dynamic techniques occasionally to help you out when things start to go a little faster than you might prefer. Git down. Loosen up. Throw a little jazz into that stately waltz. You can always slow down again.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Those sticks in your hands

Ski poles tend to just hang there without calling much attention to themselves. But these trivial sticks do an important job.

Humans have been picking up sticks for many thousands of years. How complicated can it be to hold a stick right? But add a simple webbing strap to that stick and it becomes very complicated indeed, at least to look at some of the improvised gripping techniques one can see on any sunny Saturday in winter.

Even the most modest touring pole comes with a strap that will adequately support your hand and transfer your poling power to the snow without demanding that you apply a crushing grip to the slim, smooth handle found on most cross-country ski poles. Your fingers merely guide the pole using that slim handle. So relax your forearms, if you haven’t already, and let the pole do its whole job, from strap to tip.

The basic pole strap is just a loop of flat webbing. It may come out of a vertical slot in the grip or a horizontal one, but in either case it should flow smoothly around your hand without any uncomfortable twists or wrinkles.

Put your hand through this loop from underneath, so the outer part of the loop goes around the back of your hand and the part nearest the handle crosses your palm, extending between your thumb and index finger. Close your hand lightly around the pole. You should then be able to press downward and the loop will tighten around your hand to support as much weight as you want to put on it. Do not just reach through the loop and grab your pole, so the webbing just goes under your wrist like a sling. That will provide a little support, but nothing like the support and control you get from holding the pole properly.

As you go up in quality to better and better poles, you get progressively better straps. At first these are only wider, which is nothing to sneer at. Wider straps do spread the load over more of your hand. But the newer strap systems support the hand much better than any single loop. I am no fan of needless complication or change for the sake of change. These new straps really work.

The fancy straps show their strength first in skate skiing. Because a skate skier uses the poles vigorously and forcefully, at a fast cadence in a shorter stroke, the control and support provided by a full, surrounding harness become indispensable aids to smooth skiing. Traditional straps tend to ride up around the fingers, requiring constant fidgeting to shift them back into place.

Biathlon competitors skate with the traditional straps so they can get out and deploy their rifle quickly. Most of us do not have to worry about weapon handling when we ski, but if you like to be prepared for anything in these uncertain times you might want to consider all your options.

When you buy the pole, you get the shaft. The basic touring pole has a cylindrical shaft that is the same diameter all the way down its length. It also has a fairly large basket to work in ungroomed snow. For slower skiing a pole like that is a fine workhorse. If you are skiing in ungroomed snow you probably aren’t blazing along anyway. If you tour at a leisurely pace even at groomed touring centers you also don’t run into the limitations of poles like that. But when you try to ski faster, the heavy, unbalanced pole will take energy from you and be harder to manage as you get tired.

Better poles have tapered shafts and are made of lighter materials than the basic pole. Poles intended for faster skiing in groomed areas also have smaller baskets, further enhancing balance and light weight. The more you pay for the pole, the lighter it will be. Be warned: once you use light poles you will never go back to heavier ones.

Before we get into poling technique, let’s give a quick nod to adjustable poles. These have telescoping shafts so you can adjust the length for different types of use. They usually have symmetrical baskets for use in deep, ungroomed snow. They are a vital tool for real back-country skiing because you can set them at full length for striding when terrain allows, mid-length for climbing, when a slightly shorter pole is more useful and less fatiguing than a long one, and at downhill length for going...down hill. You will feel much more secure and be able to use more correct downhill technique if you can set your poles to that length. You can keep your hands low and in front of you, where you want them, and plant your poles to time your turns.

You’ll see skiers using poles as outriggers, walking sticks and even just sort of waving them one at a time down the trail because the guy in the lesson said so. Occasionally you will even see someone using them efficiently.

Poling rhythm matches skiing rhythm. Plant the pole as you plant the kick zone. Plant it at an angle, so the basket is pointing back. Apply increasing force as your hand comes down and back. About the time your hand passes your body, the pole basket should be lifting from the snow. Keep swinging your arm back to follow through smoothly.

Do not hold your hands out to the sides. Your hands want to swing up in line with your shoulders, not winged out in the “flying stork” technique. Arms and legs move parallel to each other, parallel to your direction of travel.

You do not need to jam the poles in with great force. Only after the pole is securely planted should you increase the force on it. You can swing at the ground and miss if you try to put too much sting into the pole plant itself. You aren’t hammering a nail.

People ski without poles so they can concentrate on foot and leg technique. Less often you see someone ski with poles alone to feel how the pole stroke works from beginning to end. I don’t mean double poling, where you push with both at once. That’s a great technique in its own right. But you can use a level stretch of trail to work on single poling by itself. Just as when skiing without poles you then can add them to the leg motion, so too can you pole along and then start kicking and gliding in the same tempo.

Use the parts of the body together, but with an awareness of what each part is doing. You can apply this idea to many activities. Cross-country skiing happens to use a lot of simultaneous but separable motions you can study individually and then combine into a stronger whole.

A Learning Progression

Most people start cross-country skiing on fairly wide touring skis. These days, the skis are quite likely to be shorter, compact models rather than the long, traditional skis.

Beginners start with the classical diagonal stride. It is a lot like walking. You can take this technique a long way, once you master the basics of climbing hills, descending safely and stopping where and when you want to.

You can ski a lot of different terrain. This led to the many shapes cross-country skis have developed, because certain shapes do very well in certain terrain. If you decide you want to stick to a particular type of skiing, get the skis that do it best.

For classical skiing on groomed terrain, a skinny, pointy ski goes fastest. But high-performance classical skis can be some of the most difficult to master. You have to learn to propel a stiffer ski, which takes precise timing when you plant the kick zone. At the same time you have to learn to balance and maneuver on a much skinnier ski than your sedate touring model.
You might jump into both challenges at once, but I took a different approach more or less by accident. It worked out well.

I had toured on moderately wide, traditionally long skis. The same pair took me tramping on hiking trails, skiing to Zealand Hut, ski camping, and touring on groomed trails. It was too long and skinny, with too light a boot for the rough stuff, and too wide and soft to go really fast on groomed trails. However, it did use kick wax, so I could vary the grip to suit conditions. It gave me a chance to start challenging my technique by waxing lighter and shorter. But those skis would never challenge me the way real high performance classical skis would.

Under certain conditions, skating is simply the most effective way to get around on snow. Because of that I got drawn into it. If I wanted a quick, effective workout and a fun flight down the trails, skating was the answer.

Ski skating uses a stiff, skinny ski, but it’s easier to learn to propel yourself on a skate ski than a high-performance classical ski. It feels weird and difficult to go from a sedate touring ski to the V-shaped stance of skating, but once you get over that hurdle you can concentrate completely on balance and steering on the skinny ski. You don’t have to worry about kick timing.

On a touring ski you can shuffle along without fully committing your weight to one ski at a time. On a high-performance classical ski you can’t get away with that. You must shift your weight completely. Beyond that, you also need to time the kick correctly, firing your energy down through the ski just as your weight passes over the foot. It is a distinct skill that calls for practice on flats and uphills to train your muscles to make all the variations unconsciously.

By skating you can learn to balance on one skinny ski at a time and control your speed on downhills as a completely separate project from all the timing issues of fast classical striding. You will still have to learn all that when you finally undertake it on racy classical skis, but you will be more secure on the skinny sticks and more accustomed to going fast. Even if you are a conservative skater, classical tends to be a slower technique. You will probably have become more comfortable with the kind of speed you’ll achieve on your classical equipment once you do master the kick timing.

You can certainly start nordic skiing with any of the disciplines and just stick to that. If you want to dive right in on high-performance classical skis you will have mastered the most difficult form of the art. If you only want to skate you can certainly specialize there. But if you have a general interest in checking out all that cross-country has to offer, the progression I have described here may help with that advancement.