Monday, February 25, 2008

Light Carnage

Massachusetts Vacation Week brought a somewhat subdued version of its maximum carnage this year. Good snow in the southern part of New Hampshire may have waylaid some of them who decided to drive less and play more. The economy can't be helping, either. When economic news is bad, even people who haven't really been hurt by it get nervous and frugal. It's mostly a good thing in the grand scheme.

Lower traffic helped me and others at the touring center battling a truly evil head cold. This illness progresses like a series of muggings. Symptoms will come on, then abate almost completely, then come back harder over the first several days. For instance, on Monday I had a tiny, pinhead-sized tickle spot in my throat. By the end of Tuesday I felt like I had snorted the contents of a vacuum cleaner bag. But that suddenly eased up during Wednesday, only to slam back Wednesday night. So it went, into the weekend. Fortunately, between the big holiday weekend and the closing weekend crowds thin considerably.

I am barely-living proof that addicted skiers will rise from their death bed to take advantage of great ski conditions. During the mid-day flush of near normalcy I went out on the classical skis to thread the traffic jams on the Ellis River Trail. And Denise, who has had the cold for going on two weeks, continues her streak of continuous days of skiing. It has to be over 100 by now.

Skiing sick and injured forces me to focus on efficiency and energy conservation. Since complete bed rest wasn't an option, active rest was. I actually felt better after skiing. The slump didn't start until near sundown, when many creatures naturally slump anyway. And the big symptoms conveniently waited until bed time. But I'm just as glad now to have a day or two in which the most strenuous thing I have to tackle is 12 days of stinky ski laundry. The clothes can crawl over to the washing machine by themselves. Too bad I can't get them to hang themselves up after they're washed.

The nice thing about being sick is that when you get over it it makes the level of mediocrity you were at before the illness feel like Olympian strength. I look forward to feeling that mediocre again soon.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

The Talisman

It's snowing again. By tomorrow afternoon we should be dealing with another eight inches. Another storm lines up for Wednesday.

Every winter people come up with reasons for the weather.

"I just bought new skis. Of course it isn't snowing," someone might confess ruefully in a year of mud and disappointment.

"I didn't bother to get snow tires this year. No wonder we're buried," another weather maker might say.

This year, the prime mover of the jet stream is a decorative plate that says, "Let it Snow," owned by a woman named Joan. She gets it out to decorate for Christmas every December. No one can say why it should suddenly start to work in such a big way now, but here's the story as reported to me by the director of the touring center.

Joan got out the plate in early December. Snow began. She left it out through the holiday as snow piled up. Then she put it away and a thaw hit hard. Half in jest, half in superstition, she got the plate back out. The snow resumed. It has continued almost without interruption. She has instructions to leave the plate up until after March 9 when the New England Nordic Ski Association will hold its J2 championships.

Thought you'd like to know.

Snow Advisory

The snow pile next to my garage now has the same square footage as the garage itself. It isn't as tall, but it covers the same area. And that's just one snow pile,with half the winter still to go.

All this has accumulated without any real blockbuster storms. Six, eight, maybe twelve inches at a time, snow has been piling up since early December with only a couple of interruptions.

You'd think this much snow would be a pure blessing for skiers, but much of it has fallen right around, or slightly above, the freezing point, making it heinously sticky during and just after the storm. The snow isn't necessarily gloppy, but flirting back and forth over the freezing line turns it into a kick waxing nightmare.

To give you an idea of it, Swix's VR kick wax line,which was supposed to have fewer waxes with wider ranges than previous formulations, has about five waxes out of nine devoted to temperatures between 30 and 36F. Two more apply to new snow in the upper 30s.

Above the freezing point, new snow quickly melts and squashes down in the tracks, while remaining treacherously grabby where no one has been on it. Waxless skis work better than anything in conditions like this, but without some sort of chemical treatment applied to the base, people come plodding in with a wedding cake on each foot.

Nothing stays the same. The snow transforms with time and temperature. But just when we seem to have a stable surface we get another storm. Another one is due this afternoon into tomorrow. Predicted high temperature? Twenty-nine to 33F.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Learning Curves

Everything I know about skiing off-trail I learned in my own back yard. More or less. I wander far over the back line, up and over, but it all starts just outside the back door.

Within the property lines, a novice skier can find pockets of moderately steep terrain in the generally easy slope from back line to road. Going beyond, the slope steepens and cover types vary. With recent logging, some is even mostly treeless, though slash and stumps make the ground anything but smooth.

My music teacher now ventures into that schoolyard. When I tell her that what she has already mastered in music is far more demanding than what I'm trying to teach her, she counters that hitting a wrong note, however embarrassing, never hurts as much as hitting a tree.

Yesterday's fresh, heavy snow provided a slow turning medium. This can make things harder, because the skis don't turn when they aren't moving, but we managed to move steadily enough to lay down some shallow arcs on the varying slopes in the nearest clearcuts. After an initial disclaimer, the musician sight-read numerous runs with greater success than I had.

Getting frisky off one of the steeper knolls, I decided to continue into the uncut tree cover of our own land. Skiing into hemlocks, I caught a tree branch in the arm. This knocked my weight back and opened up my stance. Before I could crawl back forward and grab the controls, a snow-laden hemlock bough hit me in the face, knocking my hat and glasses off as I cratered.

"Okay, don't do it that way."

Fortunately, she wasn't even looking.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008


Watching people ski over the weekend in the uncompressable sneet, an observer could see the fusion style of skiing people have in mind when they ask for combi skis.

The ski industry created the crippled mutant they call the combi ski, but teachers and coaches still envision skiers using it for one technique or the other, not both at once. Most models are skinny, built like either a classical or a skating race ski. Further down the line you might find progressively wider skis with softer and softer flexes intended to go further and further out of bounds.

The fusion, or sklassical ski is wider than a performance ski, and has a softer camber. A range from 48 to 52, maybe 55 millimeters at the tip is probably best, though you can assume the position and go through the motions on any ski.

The sklassical skier is one who has not developed strong technique in either skating or classical, but feels comfortable on skis as an eternal intermediate. The sklassical skater can manage V 1 and that's about all. In classical, the sklassicalist does not shift fully from one ski to the other. This is what keeps them from advancing in either technique. But the sklassical skier feels the drag of the kick zone when skating. This is what sends them to the shop in search of the mythical combi ski.

Sklassical skiers can be quite competent crossing terrain safely. Often they have good downhill skills, beyond the anxious fixed snow plow. Downhill skills are completely separate from propulsion skills. So, much as they might fudge it on the rolling ground and climbs, they can often come down with the best of them.

A sklassical skier could advance in skill by purchasing progressively more challenging skis. This is an expensive, long road, but if you just like to get out in the winter and learn things for yourself, it can be an enjoyable one. Lessons on technique-specific gear will advance your skills faster. But sometimes personal exploration yields deeper understanding of the principles. Or it can lead to well-solidified mistakes, repeated over and over. The danger is that the sklassical skier remains fixed in this mediocre wasteland, wanting things the equipment will only rarely provide, when aided by the most perfect conditions of weird snow. Sklassical works best when everything else works as haphazardly as sklassical.

Sklassical can be a good back-country technique. On one trip using waxable, double-cambered metal-edged skis, we skated on a Forest Service road because the wax wasn't gripping very well and the surface was firmly frozen. It wasn't much of a skate, since we had three-day loads in our packs, but we weren't going to move forward any other way. When we peeled off the wide road onto a narrow trail, we pulled back in to classical. It was more of an arduous stomp, since we were tromping through the mixed mess of snowpack and debris that followed in later January after the big 1998 ice storm.

On other occasions I have skated on wide, traditional-length exploring skis in upland beech forest and down along river floodplains. The snow was firm, taking an edge better than it held a track. In the best of conditions like this, one could take a real skating ski on some wild rides. I always worry about my poles in stuff like that, though, because real skate poles are way too long for comfortable fast descending through trees. I'd hate to bust my nice, light poles banzaiing like an idiot down some steep glade when I know it would be more fun with more turnworthy gear. Besides, I'm a wuss.

Real back-country skating is a complete topic all by itself. We may get some this year, with a good snowpack made dense by mild temperatures and plenty of moisture. Stay tuned.

Monday, February 04, 2008

The Weekend's Excitement

Arriving in Jackson on Saturday morning, I saw vehicles blocking the road in front of the touring center and a volcanic plume of smoke billowing up.

"Hm," I thought. "This could be a very short work day indeed."

I soon determined that the fire was in the condos beyond the touring center. A two-unit building had caught fire at the far end. One unit was already well on its way to being a total loss. The beleaguered fire department worked hard to try to contain the fire to that area, but it spread through the attic into the other one. That one is owned by a very enthusiastic couple of season pass holders who got out safely, but watched with concern, discussing whether the fire would get to the closet where the skis were stored. Let's focus on what's truly important.

No one was injured. I have not heard yet whether any skis were harmed.

It was a weird start to a weird day. The winter storm that had arrived Friday afternoon had brought a strange, granular sleet that did not cooperate fully with any method used to groom it or to ski it. Some form of klister provided the closest thing to successful grip for classical skiing, but even that demanded some adaptation much of the time. I kept varying my stride length and feeling for grip before committing to a kick. I've been in worse. Sections were quite good.

Sunday's conditions were fairly similar to Saturday's. We all thought the sneet might have stabilized somewhat, but the groomer turned it into bottomless dry sand again. Higher elevation trails with less traffic on them held up to a firmer surface, but you had to get there. I wasn't going to, in the time I had available. But again, it was better than no skiing at all, and better than a lot of skiing I've done.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Leaving a trail of flames...

A big storm brought a thick mat of clouds hours ahead of its snow, sleet and freezing rain. Knowing that the warm, moist storm would turn everything slow and sticky, we resolved to go out early, skating on the fast, granular snow left from the last cycle of thawing and refreezing.

Thursday night the skating was fast and raspy. Friday morning it was just fast.

Succumbing further to addiction, I put on a layer of Swix HF 7 BD before heading out the Ellis.

When I have limited time to ski, I prefer to take a trail that has few steep climbs and descents. A steep trail demands high output going up, but only tests the reflexes coming down. A flatter, rolling trail promotes more continuous output. Since part of the objective is to burn off dietary excesses, sustained moderate output does the job better than clawing my way up something and screaming down it again.

Problem is, on trails as fast as Friday's I couldn't keep anything moderate and low key. The first three strides before I even put my hands in the pole straps told me conditions were rocket fast. How could I resist?

The Ellis River Trail climbs gradually along the river for which it is named, going over a few minor hills on the way, ending up with a bit more undulation as it approaches its northern end at the Rocky Branch Trail parking area on Route 16. For my typical getaway, I don't get nearly that far along it. I just need something to keep me going in case I ever get to do more.

The trail feels basically flat going upstream, but cumulatively gains perhaps a couple of hundred feet from low end to high end. The climbing is easy. The return trip is easier. If you feel like putting something into it, you can really fly. And today was a day for it.

I made it to the river crossing near the Dana Place Inn in the time it usually take me to go two-thirds as far. On the return leg I felt like I must be leaving flaming tracks behind. At moderate speeds it would have been effortless. Putting out the excited energy I was, it was ripping.

I actually enjoy the skiing more when I feel the speed as a direct result of my effort, not just the pull of gravity. Push! Whoosh! Push! Whoosh! Rip! Rip! Rip! On the wooded Ellis trail, the scenery goes by on either side, sometimes quite close. This is better than in an open field, where the sense of speed can be lost to the distance to the nearest marker.

To put it in perspective, however, my zippy rippy trip took about 20 minutes LONGER than the racers took to double-pole it on classical skis in the race the week before. And for them it was just the second half of their race. They already had about 12 kilometers on them before they started the Ellis. Good thing I have no delusions of racing speed and prowess. It's all just for fun.