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.


Allan F said...

Ouch. A bit bitter,are we? As someone who considers himself a reasonably able skier (a former racer), as well as someone who has spent a season working at a 'Big Time' resort (Royal Gorge), I find your comments a bit misdirected. I won't argue with you that a lot of skiing's malaise comes from a few poseur 'citizen racer' types, more concerned with image than actual prowess; people who feel the groomed trails belong only to people who take themselves too seriously. But to suggest that 'good' skiers are actually 'bad' people because they care about how fast they go is just ridiculous. And to say that "the people serving you will still mostly despise you"? I suppose if I were the groomer who had to go clean up after you making a mess of the trail by herringboning your fat head right up the centre of the grooves in complete disregard for those who have the technical ability to ski (rather than walk) up hills, I might be a bit annoyed. Maybe your experiences are different than mine. In CA I did notice a strange "skate vs. classic" mentality that doesn't really exist in my neck of the woods (Yukon). My best friend's father, who is a very able skier, doesn't go to our local club anymore because he thinks people look down upon his old gear and 'shuffle' technique. Fair enough, but thinking it doesn't make it real. I don't think people with lesser technique are lesser people, nor do I think that people with lesser technique are somehow greater, due to their 'purity'. Like you said at the end of your post, "It's supposed to be about having fun." But that means fun for everyone, which also means doing your best not to reduce other trail users' experience. Tracking too closely, wrecking grooves by snowplowing/herringboning on them, and blowing by someone on a steep descent that they are clearly having difficulty with are all great ways to piss of other trail users. Trails are for all of us, not just the racers or the tourers. I'm lucky to have a great variety of trails, including some that are almost always in perfect condition, thanks to being too difficult for most skiers. Our club held the very first XC World Cup ever held outside Europe (Whitehorse 1981), and the legacy of those races are some excellent (though tough) trails. The trouble with most ski areas is that they don't have enough variety; all skill levels use all the trails, and thus the issue of conflicts between beginners and advanced skiers. I guess if we were all so lucky as we are up here, with great trails and a virtually guaranteed 5+ month season, the situation might be different. Ski on, Nordic Brethren!

PS-once I get my woodworking shop set up, one of my first projects will be wooden skis. I can't wait. I'd like to get a wooden ski-only race going at some point. I grew up (briefly, however) on the pine tar, and miss it a bit.

cafiend said...

Allan F, you sound like somebody fun. And you do say that the guaranteed 5+ month season and great trail variety may serve to mellow things where you are. Where I am seems peculiarly afflicted with intrigue, gossip and treachery. What that has to do with having a good time skiing I couldn't say. There are also a significant number of bloated egos expressing themselves in various ways, from stories that always top your stories to unsolicited reminiscences of fabulous experiences in exotic locales and other preening and strutting. If I can get out on the trails enough to keep the endorphin levels up, it's not so hard to take. But when I'm incarcerated and treated as a servant by my "betters" I definitely chafe at it. The business side of fun adds many layers of complication to the basic enjoyable experience.

You seem like one of the good ones. We do get those. It's hard to hold onto the nice feeling when some high-maintenance whiner or self-proclaimed aristocrat comes stomping through. Or when some wax and gear aficionado decides to demonstrate his superiority over the shop grunts who might not keep up with the latest issue of Obsessive Compulsive Skier. Unfortunately, at least some of those people seem to have the ear of the overlords at BTN.

What do I know? I started skiing at 28, two dozen years ago. I've only ever skied on Nordic gear. I'm not one of these skimeisters who has done it all since childhood. So the hereditary crowd considers me a newbie and an interloper. I'm too much of a newbie to say for sure they're wrong. I'm just doing my best.

Thanks for chiming in. Keep having fun!