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.