Monday, March 31, 2008

Welcome to Big Time Nordic

Big time Nordic areas around North America are competing with each other to have the most awesome facilities, top-credentialed instructors and big-name retail stores to provide products and services that look stunning in a brochure or on a website.

What does this mean to you, the average skier?

Not much.

The people serving you will still mostly despise you. They're just professional enough to keep their contempt well hidden most of the time. They're only human, after all. You may crack one of them once in a while.

All this awesome isn't for the customers. It's so the masters of these little kingdoms can brag to each other about their awesomeness. It's so the inner circle can preen and strut about the great things they have for themselves, that they make the average visitor pay for.

Face it. On the average fat touring ski you don't need their awesome grooming. And the ski school director may be an ex Olympian, but the instructor actually teaching you could be only a page or two ahead of you in the textbook. Anyone more highly skilled than that would simply hate you more.

It's not so bad on the lesson area. The staff and the regulars expect duffers and dubs flopping all over the place there. Get off into the extended trails and dark alleys of the network and you will see the more sinister side. No one is going to jump you, rough you up and steal your stuff, but you'll get a more honest opinion about things like herringboning right up the classic track or stomping down a hill carrying your skis.

Humans are competitive people. Individual sports often attract people with poor social skills who have been frustrated trying to fit in or express dominance in more conventional social settings and competitive activities. Don't be surprised if they take it out on you. Add to this a large number of participants who feel entitled because of their wealth and upbringing and you have another category who will do their best to treat the average Joe Fat Ski like he isn't there.

Smaller Nordic areas tend to be less full of themselves and to host fewer irritable jackasses. The exception might be a place like Great Glen Trails, with its dinky 30 kilometers of grooming, because they give themselves a high awesome ranking based on their location by Mount Washington. Honestly, sometimes you'd think they designed and built the mountain itself instead of just exploiting it for massive financial gain through their various entrepreneurial enterprises there.

Hard-core cross-country skiers carry a lot of emotional baggage because they often don't know whether they will get to use their agonizingly honed skills. The winter could be bad or go bad, leaving them with no arena in which to demonstrate their superiority. If the winter is bad they're as grouchy as someone who hasn't gotten laid recently. If the winter is good, the swelling egos some of them pull around like giant parade balloons can fill a room with the distorted image of their self-perceived greatness.

Mixed in among these twisted egotists are the quiet, competent, generally versatile outdoor athletes, many of whom don't compete at all. They mix up the activities depending on conditions, cycling and paddling in the warm months, hiking and climbing when the snow won't cooperate with their Nordic hopes. The ones who do race are generally helpful and encouraging rather than sarcastic and disparaging. They beat you, you beat them, it's all in fun. No one is just dabbling around, but winning or losing is not the end of the world to them. How refreshing.

If you were to spend the entire season, or even several years in a row in the lodge of some of these self-important touring centers you might find the corrosive, toxic aspects of the atmosphere gave you sores in one area, scars in another and a hard shell somewhere else. The trick is to remain open to the nice people while warding off the jabs and acid from the nasty ones. Even so, nasty people often gain control of things and get to decide what everyone else gets.

The average day skier will probably sense none of this. You have to follow the soap opera to know the characters and their actions. You learn their twitches and tics, their annoying mannerisms and their favorite jokes favorite jokes favorite jokes favorite jokes...

And one day the producers write your character out of the script.

It's supposed to be just about having fun. So have fun! And remember not to take anything too seriously, even if some self-styled experts and authorities do.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Nordic Confidential

The season draws to a close, but new inspiration for drawings arrives along with time to put together the first couple of volumes of Nordic Confidential.

Learn what really goes on behind the scenes at the touring center! In case you cared!

Some previously classified material has recently come off the secret list.

This is going to be fun, but not for everyone. So stuff that turtleneck and get ready to strut like you're "all that," because we're off to the snobbiest touring center east of the Mississippi.

You must be impressed. No, really, you must. Someone will be very surprised if you aren't.

Fortunately, this blog is invisible to the arrogant. But Nordic Confidential may drift across a few radar screens and provoke some much-needed merriment.

Jackson Ski Touring!

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Researching Fat

Looking for something about medieval Nordic footwear, I found information on primitive skis. You think you've seen short and fat now? How about something 161 centimeters long and more than 200 millimeters wide? Add an animal-fur base for grip and a single staff-like pole and you're good to go, Nordic style.

None of this is a secret, of course, but it's easy to forget in the rush of new and improved. A fat ski of today doesn't really correspond to a fat ski of ancient times. But they share some influences in search of control and maneuverability.

Ancient skis show variation akin to true native kayaks. They vary by region depending on the conditions. Even in the modern evolution of the downhill-only ski, terrain and snow type drove the change as well as narrowing the skis' overall capability to increase one aspect of it.

The modern skinny stick would have little place in the ancient world, where humans were more forced to take nature as they found it and devise tools to adapt to conditions they could not massively alter.

At this moment, conditions out in the woods around here are setting up to allow some bushwhack skating. Too bad so much of the Pine River floodplain is no longer accessible. That has some wonderful flat and mildly rolling terrain to enjoy when the snow is like this. You don't want to develop too much speed down a hill on your skate skis when you could hit a weak spot and crash through into a ski-snapping pit trap. Steep terrain with tree cover can be difficult because the trees impede a wider V for climbing and require quicker turns than most of us can produce on a stiff, narrow racing ski. But flatter open glades can be a blast. This is all best enjoyed with a softening layer of what we call cream cheese, a moist inch of compliant turning snow on top of the frozen base. If you're lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time you can check it out.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Precious and Few

Skiing on a good day at Jackson Ski Touring I sense that these may be my last outings on groomed Nordic trails for a long time, perhaps a very long time.

The time slots in Wolfeboro fall before or after work. I find it hard to get fully organized and launched in the mornings in time to get a workout of significant length. Often I will find the trails have not been completely groomed yet. Sometimes the timing of fresh snow or other factors means I find them not groomed at all. And after work they have often been thoroughly trampled by a day of traffic. They may also be freezing into completely unenjoyable ruts. So to return there would mean no more skiing on the five normal work days and the 12-day marathons we have to run on vacation weeks when we have good skiing. If we don't have good skiing, there's no point having the time, because we have no skiing.

Given only two days on which I might go to a groomed area, I would notice the degradation of my skill and fitness. Not wanting to have this deterioration highlighted, I would tend to look elsewhere for things to do outdoors. Also, I would have the choice of driving to where I work on a day I don't work, or driving even farther to an area where I might get to ski for a reduced rate with the proper credentials. These I would have to arrange in advance.

I would get no more easy snow. So I contemplate the end of certain arrangements with some regret. However, principle comes before pleasure. I will not make a compromise I don't feel I can truly support, just for the grudging access to someone's trail network.

Things being as they are and shaping up as they appear to be headed, I cherish any opportunity to sample even the small scraps of fine trail I allow myself as a relatively conscientious worker. Gone are the days when my coworker and I would launch long forays on the more challenging trails. Gone is that coworker, in fact. For all the flaws in that arrangement, we had an unspoken understanding that if he was going to leave me to cover everything while he indulged himself, he would have to reciprocate. It is no doubt better business to ski shorter and work longer. So it is now, with the current plucky crew of two. We rein it in for the sake of better service and listen to the happy folk tell us how great the farther reaches are on any given day. They might as well be across an ocean as far as I'm concerned.

With two days (or less) a week on which to live the life I had thought I would live all the time when I set out into young adulthood several decades ago, I have to decide whether to expend them on something as self-indulgent and unproductive as Nordic skiing. With diminished capability from skiing far less, the time and money to travel to a ski area would seem like an even more unforgivable waste of resources.

With good wild snow conditions, a person can ski a lot on wider boards at slower speeds in the methodical plod of the exploring skier. Refined classical technique is pointless on heavier touring gear. It's a different discipline with its own skill set, more a fusion of hiking and downhill skiing than a gliding flight on featherlight gear.

With the kind of snow we've been getting for almost a decade now, wild snow is a difficult beast to ride. This year, with deep, dense cover, the lower mountains will offer some premium exploring during the spring thaw. But without the fitness base provided by regular groomed-trail skiing, a skier would face the extra handicap of somewhat rusty skills when trying to engulf this lavish buffet of wild delicacies.

I can't say for certain what the future holds. One must simply be prepared to lose what one loves, because that is what happens in the world. Some things can't be fought for, because the fight would destroy them as certainly as the force tearing them away already will. Character is displayed in the lack of fight, not in the self-centered rush to try to cling to what is being taken away. No whining, no knuckling under. Power lies in the ability to let go, especially of something that will be missed.

The Assurance Experience Brings

When we started in at Jackson Ski Touring a number of years ago, we were all intimidated because they made such a deal about being The Big Time. We were convinced that they were indeed all that, and that our own little cow town operation was just a clown college by comparison.

After eight seasons I can tell you that Jackson Ski Touring is just a clown college with a bigger budget, better advertising and a fantastic case of narcissistic myopia. Those are big words, and I understand some may find such complicated language offensive, but that was just one of the lessons learned in Jackson. We encountered a lot of pride in social position, power, wealth and upbringing, but surprising insecurity when it came to vocabulary. Who would have guessed?

The skiing is very good there. With their sole focus on Nordic the product can be the best available anywhere. On the other hand, Nordic being Nordic, resources are always tight. God help you if you show up on a big race weekend and you're not a racer. You're lucky if much of anything other than the race course is groomed, even in the best snow year in decades. What is groomed for you common people may still not be groomed very well. So on that day, Big Time means a big time Nordic race, which is somewhere well below a regional renaissance fair on the scale of real Big Time. The rest of you who believed the advertising of plush trails and steaming cocoa will find the trails rough and something else brown and steaming awaiting you.

A little humility would go a long way. Good luck there.

To be fair, a top-notch Nordic network requires a fair amount of real estate. Privately owned areas tend to have for-profit corporations holding the purse strings and share their acreage with downhill skiing and other attractions, all of which get to feed at the trough well before the cross-country skiers do. Blame yourselves for that, cross-country skiers, because your frugality, not to say maddening cheapness, is legendary. This also pinches the pockets of a white-hat non-profit association trying to hold together an unruly coalition of private land holders and government agencies like the US Forest Circus. So it ain't easy catering to your cheap asses.

This brings up another point. Downhill skiing into the 1960s carried an aura of jet set affluence. Even when ski areas particularly in the United States turned themselves into family attractions, the simple cost of gear and lift tickets made it something not everyone could afford to do.

In the 1970s when cross-country skiing suddenly surged in popularity, part of what propelled it was its low cost. Here was skiing for everyone, for the working class, for anyone with the gumption to snap into the skis and learn, and a few dollars for gear. It was a passport to unlimited winter fun on pennies a day.

All that is true. This makes the amount of northeastern preppy snobbery that oozes around some of these touring centers so surprising and annoying. A whole lot of people need to get over themselves. Many of them are the ones in perfect turtlenecks and V-necked sweaters who grudgingly come down from the Olympian heights of their favorite downhill-ski mountains to mingle with the rabble in the sunny end of winter. But they're around to some degree any time. And trust me, you want to smack 'em.

I also get to deal with certain members of the Jackson staff who will come in dripping with sarcastic comments about their boss one day and stab me in the back to gain his favor on another. I start to think I'm in the government of some superpower during the Cold War rather than selling toys to fun-loving recreational athletes.

Many time-honored traditions of the ski area, Nordic or downhill, can't survive in the modern economy. Take the Wax Grunt, for instance. Traditionally, people who never wax their own skis could show up at a ski area, hand their planks to the Wax Grunt, who would lather them up for a couple of bucks and send the happy skier out the door. The skier was oblivious to the fact that one quick and crappy wax job every year or two really does nothing for their bases. The Wax Grunt would go back to whatever other grunt duties occupied him until the next needy skier pulled in with some crusty, abused bases and an inaccurate notion of their proper care and feeding.

Wax Grunt economics are based on quick turnaround. Good waxing takes longer than someone slapping crap on a cold wet base in ten minutes can really devote. The instawax is dying a slow death. I wish I could speed it on its way to oblivion. I'm doing my best to jab lances into its scarred white blubber.

Ah yes...blubber. Don't get me started about the excess avoirdupois lugged around by certain luminaries of the sport well past their prime. To be fair yet again, because I have trouble being any other way, many top-notch bicycle mechanics have such lousy personal habits that they probably couldn't survive a long, hard bike ride. Many technical experts and coaches learned so much about good performance because they themselves were never able to produce one. In studying their own failures they became adept at advising those with the real talent on their way to the top echelons in whatever activity they pursued. The thing about teachers being those who can't perform has some merit.

We're all burnt out at the end of a long season. I would say it had been a strenuous one, but since many on the staff at Jackson Ski Touring think the retail crew is a bunch pampered slackers, I will lay no claim to have worked hard. In fact, one weird thing about this long, incredibly snowy season is that customer volume has not been that huge. I look forward to seeing regional and national industry figures to find out if the volume was dispersed over a large number of available outlets or if everyone noted the same curious shrinkage.

Hard to say right now what next year holds. I am truly ready for anything up to and slightly beyond the bounds of reason. Not to say I would comply with unreasonable demands, just that not much would surprise me from the administration of clown college.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

The kick is actually two kicks

More experienced skiers than I am have said that they never stop learning new things, noticing new details about their sport. So I feel safe in saying that I constantly notice things about technique as I slide along.

Maybe I knew them once, forgot and rediscovered them. No matter. It still feels fresh and fun.

Since I really developed any refinement as a classical skier only in the last eight of my 24 years skiing I'm constantly looking at different ways to slice and dice the movements.

In classic much more than in skate, things have to happen in opposite and simultaneous rhythms of balanced movement. A skier this week said that his experience as a swimmer helped because his brain was already accustomed to coordinating bilateral movements of this sort.

One difficulty in conveying technique to a beginner is that you have to tell them where to start when it all really starts at once. Even the tried and true method of skiing first without poles demands balance and an element of timing. it also requires that the skis be fitted well enough to allow grip.

Next a skier will be taught about the kicking leg and the gliding leg. That's where the description becomes inaccurate for the sake of clarity. The kicking leg is generally initially described as the one stomping down into the snow as the weight shifts to the other ski on the "gliding" foot. But the key to smooth, strong classical skiing, even up hills, is to kick the gliding foot forward as the stomping foot kicks down. So there are two kicks that have to happen simultaneously.

Kick the gliding foot forward before you shift weight, but only a moment before. It works best when you feel like you are slightly behind your gliding foot and shift forward onto it from the ground up. At the same time your opposite hand is shooting forward as if it pulled the foot. As this happens, your weight rolls forward to the ball of your stomping foot as your heel comes up because you have shifted your weight to the now-gliding ski. The pole on the stomping side has swung back as your hand swings back and reaches the end of its arc as your weight is fully committed to the gliding ski.

Once you master the basic shuffle, an instructor will give you various tips to help you remember how each portion of the motion should feel. "Pretend to kick a ball down the track." "Pretend you're sliding on a hardwood floor in our socks."

In poling, the teacher might say you should swing your hand forward as if you were tossing a horseshoe, in an underhand motion that ends with your hand fairly low compared to where you might think it should be. One also suggests bringing the hand forward as if gently tugging a recalcitrant puppy on a leash to get people to think more of bringing the hand smoothly forward than of jamming the pole tip in the snow and shoving themselves along.

The key to kick is proper weight shift. That's why so many instructional exercises force the skier toward full commitment to the forward swing of the appropriate appendage. If your weight is in the right place, you will have positive kick and can therefore throw yourself forward again with a strong glide.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

That's more like it!

Last night after work the trails in Wolfeboro were a hacked-up death slab covered with blown-down debris and the frozen decisions of previous skiers. It had its humorous moments, like when I hooked a piece of debris with my left ski while blowing a snot rocket at speed. But for the most part I was just getting it done to get the workout.

Conditions were challenging, but not in a fun way. All the obstacles, the sidewalk-hard formerly granular remnants of corduroy, the continuous carpet of pine needles, branches, beech leaves, bark and frozen tracks, combined with a blasting wind gusting near 50 above the treetops as factors that eroded control. Glide varied as the surface changed from raspy ice to sticky pine needles. I wasn't about to step onto anything remotely steep. The mostly flat, rolling terrain of Sewall Woods provided all the gravity thrills I wanted to handle.

I finished a short hour bathed in stinking sweat from the exertion and the stress of clawing my way around in such unrewarding conditions. It was made worse because I had heard from several people during the day how excellent it had been before the sinking sun allowed the cold to sink its talons into the formerly loosened snow.

It was better than Nordic Track, violent vomiting or having a culture swabbed from my urethra, but it wasn't a ski memory I will savor.

Today I was able to get out in Jackson during the day. The temperature remained in the mid 20s for most of the day. The wind moderated much more than the forecast predicted.

Grabbing the opportunity for some high-grade classical skiing, I applied a modified version of the officially recommended wax of the day. George had gone out earlier, in colder conditions, on the straight-up version: blue klister binder with blue hard wax over it. Even he hedged the bet into Blue Extra. I went further and pushed it to VR 45 for the top layer. I should have done two layers of 45, but it did a fine enough job anyway.

The funny thing is, every classical skier I asked was using a different kick wax and every one of them was happy with it. It was such a nice change from days we've had recently on which no one liked their kick wax. And today's offerings included universal klister, the aforementioned blue klister binder with several different hard waxes on top, straight blue klister, and some leftover KR 50 violet klister with a thin smear of KR 70 on top. That one should not have worked at all. But there it is.

At the same time, the skaters were having fun, too. And the sun was bright, the sky was blue, and so forth and so on. It made several incidents of petty bullshit that happened during the working part of the day much easier to take. Go endorphins!

Friday, March 21, 2008

Ski to exhaustion

If the winters were like this all the time, first of all we would build our structures and arrange our roads to manage it better. Second, we would be more blase about whether we skied every possible chance we got.

With snow dominating the landscape we have no choice but to ski. Cycling is not a good idea yet. Most side roads and driveways are blind. Cars and bloated SUVs push their noses out into the narrowed lanes as the drivers try to see to pull out. To get into their sight line as soon as possible, a cyclist would have to go out to the middle of the road. In places, the middle is still all there is. So those of us who ski ski. Pathological runners scamper down the slushy margins of the roads and leap for the snowbank or arrogantly play chicken with the motor vehicles. Go figure.

With daylight pushed to evening and the rest of the work schedule unchanged, sleep is the loser. Close at a normal hour. Ski an hour. Drive home an hour. Include prep time before skiing and cleaning up after. Next thing you know it's racing toward midnight and the alarm clock goes off when it always does. But who knows when we'll see this much snow, or even a reasonable amount of it, again? And it's the only game in town.

On a day off, there sits the snow, gleaming in waves up and up toward the forest edge that hides the known attractions farther up the slope. Can't ignore that. It's a perishable feast. You have to eat too much now, because you won't have any later.

One morning we'll wake up and realize May has arrived, or at least late April. What? How did that happen? In the time warp of endless winter the weeks pass looking strangely similar until suddenly they don't look the same at all. Rush rush into the next season, still glancing back at the one that vanished, more unbelievable in retrospect.

Right now, it's still here.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Planning a stomp in the slushy snirt

Last night's kick wax experiment was a failure. New snow in the mid 30s just stinks. Forays at end of day leave no time for major revisions if the first theory fails.

Since almost no one has showed up today, I should be safe going out to skate. It won't be like arriving late at the buffet after everyone else has eaten the best stuff and leaned in the rest of it, leaving it to congeal as the flies gather.

The cellist says this is how musicians playing a gig always find the buffet.

Funny, that. In the stereotype of rock stars, they despoil the buffet and leave the dregs for the roadies. But most musicians are treated like any other servant, expected to produce on demand and stay out of the way the rest of the time.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Skinny on Short and Fat

Hoping to have cream cheese for brunch, we set out after 11. Instead we found a lot of freezer-burned, gristly cheap steak.

I'd put my music teacher on Pavos, a discontinued model of Karhu compact BC ski. Supposedly, short skis are easier to maneuver, but this is often not the case. With her height and yard of leg, the short skis were too squirrelly. The short forward section did not support her weight shifts as she traveled across changing snow. The skis accelerated or slowed down, tossing her back or forward. A longer ski gives a skier somewhere to go when that happens. On a short ski, the skier's weight goes beyond the end of it quickly. It can be harder to lurch back into position and grab the controls.

We switched. She got on the 200 cm Traks and I snapped into the 175 cm Pavos. They were squirrelly even for me until I adjusted my technique.

On a short ski the skier needs to maintain a close stance in the Telemark position. Depending on the length of your upper and lower leg, you may not be able to sink down deeply without offsetting the skis too much. The tip of the rear one can fall completely behind the other ski, and certainly behind the boot of the leading foot. In this way a skier on short skis is much more likely to cross one ski behind the other. In ungroomed snow, all kinds of little lumps and blobs can lead a rear ski astray.

The tight stance and quick, shallow dip comes from a racing technique of the 1990s referred to as the "squirt Tele." Even on the long, narrow skis of the time, an aggressive, fast drop would compress a fairly stiff, shallowly sidecut ski into its tightest radius for the instant needed to come around a gate. On shorter, shapelier skis, you can't stay down in the lowrider position for long anyway. You end up firing off squirtlike Teles by default.

To get a short ski to feel somewhat like its longer ancestor, it needs a very fat shovel to provide the flotation and resistance the long forebody did. Then the ski has to taper to a narrower waist to make it flex as readily as a long, soft ski did. It still won't stride or run straight as well as the long ski did, but most people seem willing to give up that feature for tight-radius turning. But the actual Telemark turn becomes more of an affectation on skis that will turn more comfortably in a more upright parallel stance. The squirt Tele led to many infractions on the race course because the skier was not in the Telemark position when passing the gate. The Tele moment had passed in the brief moment of compression going in. The skier was already changing leads by the gate.

Just as skis and technique mutated originally when they moved to the Alps from Scandinavia's generally more rolling terrain, so did skis evolve again when the Telemark crowd wanted alpine levels of performance from freeheel gear. This has slopped over into the BC arena by two channels: the compact touring ski and the short, shaped downhill ski. Early entries like the Trak Bushwhacker and the Karhu Catamount have given way to a whole galaxy of shorter, wider models that might or might not ski like you hope they will.

You have to shop around or nurse old gear if you want to use more traditionally shaped skis in terrain that favors their versatility.

Yo-yoing on a Short String

Snowshoe scouting the terrain park

Mine! All mine! Sort of...

From an earlier year, this shot shows some of the pitch and variety

How are back-country skiers different from passengers on a cruise ship?

The skiers want to get the runs.

In the small, wooded mountains neglected by hard-core gravity addicts, glades and small clearings offer line after line of short runs, and longer courses of slalom between the trees.

Suit the tool to the task. A single-cambered ski with climbing skins works in a place offering long runs in return for the work of climbing. But an area with lots of short runs will have you putting the skins on and taking them off over and over.

Spring snow often means thawed hardpack. Around here, an exploring skier may move through several seasons in the course of a day. Not much will grip the frozen hardpack, but as it softens a patterned non-wax grip zone will provide traction without requiring sticky klister or the process of gluing or buckling skins and removing them again. The waxless ski goes slower down the hill, but allows you to climb and drop at will. Climb angle on some waxless skis, like many models from Trak and Karhu, rivaled skins in some conditions.

Climb strategically. I like to climb through thicker tree and shrub cover that would be hard to descend through so I don't mess up the snow for turning in the more open areas. However, use the climb to scout lines for descent if you can.

It's funny how your perspective changes as soon as you put on skis. Walking on snowshoes through the terrain park in the logged areas behind the house it all looked wide open. When I went back on skis I noticed all the little sapling whips sticking up through the snow. Plenty of open lines remained, as well as strips and patches of the old beech glade that had not been cut, but some of those sunbaked open slopes looked a lot trickier on 200 cm touring skis.

I still like to use traditional skis for a lot of exploring so I don't lose the techniques needed to maneuver them in tight and steep areas. Someone with less regard for personal safety, on sportier skis, could certainly blast through there faster, but if we're going somewhere and the terrain levels out, who's going to be plodding and bitching? Not the guy on the long, skinny skis.

While I was out yesterday, a small, winged insect flew up my nose. This is the bug equivalent of first tracks.

"Yay! First nasal membrane of '08!"

Monday, March 17, 2008

Skiing Late

Skiing at the end of the day after everyone else is like drinking the dregs in all the abandoned glasses after a party.

"Hm. Interesting."

"Not bad."

"Eww! Backwash!"

"Achk! Ptoo! There was a cigarette butt in that one!"

Skating is more annoying than classical. I proved that yesterday when I went out on klister after several afternoon-evenings skating on the gouged-up remnants. Skating, I would seethe with resentment the whole time. Endorphin peace wouldn't set in until after I finished. A classic case of "it feels good when I stop."

Skaters can't help damaging the trail surface. You can't skate light-footedly. The lightest touch still leaves a diagonal slice. If the trail surface is soft, as with freshly tilled granules of last night's crust before they set firmly, or the slushy depths of midday and afternoon, even the most courteous skater will leave angled trenches. And courtesy does not seem to be the mark of the skater. They routinely trash the classical track beside even the widest skate lane, and cavalierly leave their slashes in the corduroy as if Zorro's name was Vorro.

Although last night's klister performed no better than adequately, I felt less stress in the classical tracks. The marks of other skiers didn't slap me in the face with how many of them had used the trail before me. I could preserve some sense of personal expression, rather than being forced to paint by numbers in the pattern laid down by every other skater from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Classical takes much more art than skating, which is why skating is so much more popular. When I feel like hammering like a brutal meathead, I skate. I even enjoy it. There's a little meathead in each of us, some just more than others.

The art of the skate is in the choice of tempo, and the use of glide. Constantly gliding, the skater directs this motion and sustains momentum by pole timing and cadence. I resent the earlier skaters most because I can't lay down my own interpretation for followers to see how well I maintained glide and how much terrain I could flash in a narrow V2. And I hate dragging my feet up out of their trenches, or tripping over the ridges as they harden. If enough skaters have used a section, you have to do as they did because the hacks in the trail prevent anything else.

As the temperature dropped last night, the klister stuck better to the firming track and I glided farther straight ahead down it. The susurrance of skis on soft slush gave way to the rasp and then the clatter of sliding on parallel luge runs floored with ice. It did not all freeze at once, however, so I had to shift my balance for slower and faster sections. As each day pushes further into the evening hours, keeping the trail soft enough to skate over and obliterate the marks of the earlier Vorros I will mix techniques for the conditioning benefits each provides. But as long as I have to go out during the evening freeze I will prefer classical.

Winter Loosens its Grip

A sense of relief pervades March as the sun grows stronger and temperatures warm from the depths of winter. This year those depths were seldom deeper than March's worst, but the days were shorter. Harsh conditions lurk like a beast in the gloom. They could pounce at any time during the cold darkness.

Everyone seems to have a sense of accomplishment this time of year. The lovers of winter enjoy the best part of it, with settled snowpack and ample daylight. The lovers of only March have the part of snow season they want. The only unhappy people are the ones who shouldn't live in a northern climate anyway.

March can still serve up subzero nights and bitter days. It also commonly delivers big snowstorms. We just missed one that formed too far offshore. By the satellite view, it would have been a blockbuster. Shake the jet stream a little differently and one of those could romp right over us, as happened with the blizzard of 1993. That was described as "monumental" by one meteorologist at the time. Its cloud shield covered most of the eastern seaboard of the United States at one point. But it was just one of two or three big storms that March.

An event like that could be disastrous with the snowpack we already have. The blizzard of '93 dumped almost four feet of snow here. In addition to roofs that might fail, all that extra water would join the spring flood that can't be too far in the future.

The mountains will still pick up snow. This time of year, the highest ranges might get feet of snow from a system that brings rain and glop to lower elevations.

On the groomed Nordic trails, patrollers and groomers work around sinkholes forming as the earth warms and water flows below the snow. Early snow and a mild winter kept the ground from freezing deeply. Many of these sunken areas formed during the January thaw. The groomers have simply been blading snow into them. Now the annual shift to warmth moves faster than human mechanical devices can act to reverse the effect.

Elsewhere on the groomies, the base is solid down to the ground. The surface changes in the normal spring pattern, hard as a sidewalk at dawn, plush cream cheese for an hour or two and then slush and applesauce until sunset stiffens all the gouges and digs into a treacherous obstacle course for skiers going out too late. There's a subject all its own.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Van Winkles Awaken

My new term for people who act like they came out of a two or three decade coma and headed straight for the ski area on their archaic gear is "van Winkles."

Someone on a forum referred to "van Winkling" the upcoming election. I knew exactly what she meant. I've been tempted to van Winkle the entire political process from now until my death. Anyway, I love the term for someone so out of touch that they appear to have slept the years away.

Of course van Winkles are full of questions. Stuff more than a decade old looks like the latest to them. They're trying to get their heads around bindings that are about to be swept aside by a new system. Don't go back to sleep yet, my friends!

Astounding amounts of old ski equipment attached to skiers in out of date clothing from several eras seems to have emerged from basements, garages, attics and crawl spaces to bask in the baking glory of late winter sunshine. Perhaps these blinking, tousle-headed lost souls in cross-buttoned pajamas presage a new Nordic boom. Their gear certainly dates from the last one. But it isn't worn out as if it had been used hard and continuously since 1982. Much of it looks pristine, as if it had sat, boots in their box, skis in the corner, while the owner lay inert. It signals to me a resurgent interest in self-propelled sport. Maybe that crowd will attract a bigger crowd, as more people gather to see what's going on and to sample the fun.

It would be too much to expect the commercial custodians of the technical and educational side of the sport not to blow it as badly this time as they did the last time. On the plus side, the vast expansion of media and information outlets kills fads in less than half the time it used to take. From this Nordic skiing will probably extract a few new adherents, just as cycling managed to garner a few actual continuing cyclists from the carnage and debacle of the mountain bike boom.

DST a boon to the half-day skier

Late afternoon sunshine favors the kind of people who will never show up at the ticket counter before 2 p.m.

Late winter brings out the skiers we see no other time. Many --perhaps most-- of these are downhillers for whom a little cross-country goes a long way. They consider themselves all-around skiers, experts at everything except perhaps jumping. They just refuse to pay a lot of dues in the cross-country season. No hunching shuffle through a January gale for these patricians. They wait for March's glare and settled snowpack to floodlight and support their bravura performance.

One was asking me about kick wax conditions now and in the next couple of days. I explained the nuances of transformed snow and cold klisters in the complex scheme.

"I have a couple more days to ski downhill before I have to go cross-country," he said. "Things may be simpler by then."

Have to go cross-country? Don't put yourself out. You're not doing us any favors slithering around our purgatory looking down your nose at all of it. Why suffer? Stay on the dang lifts.

The people who will never pay more than a half day rate for Nordic skiing get plenty for their money now that sunset has been pushed an hour later. They don't have to scamper around in the chilling afternoon to get their cut rate's worth. They can push it right to closing time and delay my own escape.

Mind you they do so at their own risk.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Animals and Nordic skiers live by the sun

Since the forced move to Daylight Relocating Time, I have had to drag myself out of bed in the dark. As the night pales to dawn, I see birds and animals beginning to move around in the forest. No matter what I do, I seem to get moving when the light says I should, so I have been running later than usual every day since the time change.

At the touring center, skiers don't show up until what would have been 8 or 8:30. The ten o'clock rush comes at eleven. They're coming in for lunch around 2:30. And no one can believe it when five o'clock pops up.

We've all had decades to get used to a certain pattern of light. When the time changed after the equinox, with day length already well over twelve hours, the shift did not change the impression of time as radically as it does now.

The animals have the advantage. They don't know what time it's supposed to be.

You don't become a better skier by walking down the hills

Cross-country skiing will never shake its wussy image as long as instructors tell beginners that they can always walk down a hill that intimidates them. Do you see people walking down alpine slopes? Almost never. In fact, I think it may be against their rules.

I walked down an alpine slope once, back when I was just starting to learn Telemark and broke some equipment in a crash. I had to trudge right down under the lift line through moguls the size of Volkswagens. Jeers rained down on me from the lift-riders headed up. It was the first and last time I walked down a hill carrying my skis.

In the back-country, skis may be the only thing holding you up on the snow that may be knee deep, chest deep or over your head. If you don't like the looks of a slope, traverse around until you find one you can manage. This isn't an option at a groomed Nordic area, but remember that you may have to dodge someone skiing that hill you're walking, and you owe them that right of way.

On busy weekends, even the easiest trails have more footprints than ski tracks on every hill. Even something only eight or ten feet tall will be stomped with postholes. And no one pays attention to the thing the instructor tells them just after saying it's okay to walk down hills: walk off the side of the trail where you will not interfere with people skiing it.

I know I'm just shouting into a closet here, but it feels good to say it anyway. I'll remember it the next time I'm maneuvering around someone stomping along with an armload of skis and a defiant look.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Beachier than the Beach

Whatever else is happening, spring or late winter skiing days have a relaxed feel unmatched by anything else. The climate seems milder under sunny skies at 36 degrees on solid snowpack than at 50 degrees under endless late April rain. So take the healing effects of the rising sun and dropping consumer demand. This is our time.

Even temperatures below freezing lose their bite under the rising sun of March. Sure, the clouds can close over us and the wind bite hard, but its days are numbered. Lather on the sun screen and go out into the sunniest weather of the year. Leafless trees don't shade you, while the reflective snow throws light into ravines and hollows that might not see it any other time. The landscape is lit from above and below.

When the snow is gone, even longer days feel shorter and darker. The earth sucks in the graying slush. Brown, gray and tan absorb the light the snow used to give back at full value. Enjoy the bright world now.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Shin-Deep Sugar or Death Cookies

All the grooming resources at Jackson Ski Touring went to the race course for the J2 championships, so the trails for the rest of us suffered from less than meticulous attention today.

I was going to skate up to look at the stadium and race course, because I would rather climb on skate skis and the connecting trail from the touring center to the race venue is a nasty wall. But George reported that the nasty wall was a frozen sheet of armor plate unscratched by tilling equipment since yesterday's deluge and freeze.

I would rather ski than watch skiing, so I opted to skip the spectating and head out the Ellis. It had been skate groomed the day before. Secretly I believed it would not be, today, but I hoped. If it was double-tracked I could puke my way up the connecting trail to the South Hall and back down again. I've been slighting the hill work this year.

Unfortunately, the A-list groomers were all devoted to the race course. The surface on the Ellis and Connector were what we politely call "variable."

Beginning right on the golf course outside the lodge, the trail was somehow formed into a series of close-set waves, like pillows laid side by side. My skis bounced over these as I threaded the leisurely pods of day tourists on my way to the covered bridge and tunnel to get over the river and under Route 16.

The Riverbank Loop was double-tracked, so skating was forbidden. I had to take the inland side, which makes me feel like a salmon leaping upstream. Most people, myself included, prefer to go out the Riverbank and come back on the inner side. But on weekends skaters are required to follow the left side out to the connector to the South Hall Trail. The current runs the opposite way.

Back on the main line the surface had been tilled to several inches depth and immediately gouged and stomped into a chaotic mess by abusive skaters and waddlers who fear the set track. It was a slow trudge out to the Connector.

The Connector wasn't bad at first. I decided to climb via the new Whifferdill and descend on the Connector. The groomer had scratched a faint pattern into the lower portion of the Whifferdill, but then apparently gave up, leaving the armored crust from the previous night's rain. It was okay for climbing. It would be deadly for descent.

At the Connector I'd had enough. Two other skaters stood at the junction and agreed with my analysis. The Connector was all trenches and death cookies, but at least it was somewhat broken up. I launched down it.

Snowplowing didn't do much. It was also very hard to link turns in the ditches and chunks. I screwed down the brakes completely going into a hairpin turn and slithered gingerly around it to find a family group, Mom, Dad and Lad, herringboning up into it from below. I stopped to point out that the trail here was as good as it was going to get, and that they would have to come down what they went up, since the Whifferdill's wider course had not been tilled at all.

As we discussed this, the first skater arrived from above and had to ditch it to avoid collision. He laughed about it, fortunately, before yelling a warning to his wife coming down behind him. To break the clot, I launched again into the remaining turns to get to where the trail levels out.

The chunks continued to jolt my skis until I reached the deep sugar again. At least going downstream I could hammer on narrow V2 options to maintain a brisk pace. The gradient going upstream is often barely noticeable until one turns back southward and effortlessly shifts up a couple of gears. But the deep granules made quick maneuvers a little trickier.

Any skiing is better than no skiing. But today could have been premium with better grooming. With more trail available, skiers could have dispersed over a wider area. Today the Ellis had a bit of the ambiance of a drying waterhole in the desert, with desperate life wiggling in a pile in the shriveling shallows.

A Little Less Silver, a Little More Swamp

Unsanctioned wax experimentation continued on Saturday in wet and frozen granular trail conditions.

Swix Universal Klister (K22) covered the range, but we didn't have an open tube. So we put on a mixture of Swix Silver Universal (K21), which has the same basic range as KR50 Flexi Violet (23-38F) and KR70, affectionately known as Swamp Gunk for its range from 36 to 52 F.

George reported adequate but less than stellar performance from it. It was hardly a fast day, but we could do better. I skewed the mix a little more toward Swamp, but not enough to achieve perfection. All in all, I can't complain, but perfection IS the goal in underground wax chemistry.

The kick was positive enough to launch long strides. The slush arrested the glide somewhat, but you could find a rhythm.

Torrential rains overnight ushered in a moderately hard freeze, so all that stuff had to come off the skis before we put them away. Fortunately, we had plenty of toilet paper. It's nice to freshen up the kick zone now and again.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Like Magic

In a surge of conscientiousness, I have remained faithfully at my post in the retail shop on solo days for the last 2.75 seasons. But today was too much. Beautiful sunshine, firm trails softening beneath March's tropical glare and racers beginning to gather for the weekend's competition kicked too much sand in my face for me to sit idly.

After a nice lung-hucking 40-minute sprint on skate skis I was no longer counting the minutes until quitting time. Efficiency and attitude improved.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Anticipating Spring

I heard a rumor that Jackson Ski Touring might try to stay open until April 20. Sheer depth of snow might make this seem like a reasonable course of action, but meteorological reality usually proves otherwise.

By mid April, the snowpack should have degenerated to a state of deepening slushiness that would only be offset by solidly freezing nights. While the latitude and elevation of the touring center suggests this possibility, skier interest usually drops off sharply at the beginning of April. The casual trippers want to trip in other directions, and the hard-core skiers have gone into their favorite haunts off-piste. Don't go away mad, just go off-piste.

Groomed surfaces will probably offer premium conditions for approximately 20 minutes of each day. On the other hand, a settled snowpack offers a good surface for fat boards in the great wilderness of your choice for hours of fun. Slow snow is not such a problem if you match it to the right steepness of slope. Trudge up and let gravity do the work.

You see, deep snow will not turn April into March no matter how much you wish for it.

For the devoted few, April's unrelenting slush probably offers consistent kick with warm klisters or sporty non-wax skis, but I'd really rather spend a nice half or full day out dodging trees in a few spots I know. Others flock to Tuckerman Ravine to join the lemmings hurtling off the headwall. Ravine devotees who know the territory also venture off to the less accessible steep and treeless venues. Less known and more strenuous to reach, these are therefore less spackled with dubious humanity under the influence of gravity (if nothing else).

Jackson Ski Touring!

Monday, March 03, 2008

Back in action...mostly

As I lay on the couch last Wednesday I realized that I had to force myself to go back to work or I would simply call in sick each day for the next month.

Might as well get paid to feel like crap. Besides, I had clearly turned the corner on this illness. It seems to be a strain of flu overlooked in the flu shot formula for this year. I've clammed out the Mucinex guy's couch dozens of times in the past week. By the way, I have not used the product. But I suddenly imagined an advertising account executive clamming in the sink and going, "Hey! I can do something with this!"

At least I've had a great answer for those chirpy bastards who ask, "How ya doin'?" when they come into the shop. With sinuses and upper chest full of congestion, I have a whole arsenal of noises with which to answer. As an additional benefit, it makes them back away.

By Friday I had resumed skiing. Loafing along in an easy classical stride I could use strategic clams and snot rockets to gain elbow room in the crushes of tourists with no concept of trail etiquette. This may sound like a breach of etiquette in itself, but most people active in the cold winter air have to deal with phlegm disposal issues. That is a minor component of trail etiquette.

Most beginner to intermediate skiers not only appear to forget most of what they learned in their basic lesson as soon as they leave the practice field, they also don't know who has the right of way in simple passing and meeting situations. They also clump at trail intersections, ski in disorderly wads occupying the entire trail and stop for gear adjustments or picnics wherever the fancy strikes them, such as on blind corners and drops or dropping blind corners. Or they might set up a lunch pit six inches to the side of the set track and then give dirty looks to people who actually use that track, whose pole tips fall a reasonable distance left and right of the ski track.

Then there are the worse violations of decorum.

Incidentally, skiers coming down hill are supposed to have the right of way over skiers climbing. Descending skiers will sometimes waive this right if they aren't fanatically into the downhill and the skier climbing is stomping up the track at a good pace. Also, on sections with poor visibility, such as curves or increasing slopes, skiers may come upon each other with little warning and make a snap maneuver to avoid collision.

Skiers should make every effort to avoid completely blocking a trail. Slower skiers should yield to faster skiers. Skiers using different techniques on a trail that allows both should do their best to accommodate each other. Skaters poaching a classic-only trail should realize that they have waived all their constitutional rights and must kiss everybody's ass until they reach a trail where they are allowed to be. They may then resume their typical savagery.

If you insist on relieving yourself right beside the trail, try this new product!