Cross-Country Skiing Part 1

As I mentioned yesterday, I’m lucky to be able to say that I’ve worked in some fantastic ski resorts during my career overseas. Although they are usually called ‘ski’ resorts, though, it’s not all about the skiing. One of the benefits of my job was that I got to try out some of the other winter sports that go on in the mountains and add lots of ‘new activities’ to my list.

First and foremost, I am an alpine skier. When I first learnt to ski, snowboarding was becoming increasingly fashionable, but I decided I wanted to learn to ski first as people told me it’s easier to go from skiing to snowboarding than vice versa. I have since learnt to snowboard, I wouldn’t call it ‘snowboarding’ but I can at least get down the mountain on a board. I just don’t like my feet being strapped to the same board, though, and I have to say that personally I prefer to be on my skis.

Snow-blading proved to be a good way to improve my balance on my normal skis. If you lean too far forward or too far back on these, there’s nothing to stop you cartwheeling down the hill, as demonstrated by my colleague Simon when we guided a snow-blading day together. We also had two snowboarders in our group, who proved the theory right that it’s easier to go from two boards to one than the other way around. They so weren’t used to their feet moving independently of each other on the snow, and ended up looking like Bambi on snow-blades!

Whilst working in Seefeld, the snow-shoe guide Mary asked me to help her guide an unusually large group of guests one week. It sounds like the easiest thing in the world, a sport where essentially all you have to do is walk. You’ve been walking since you were two years old, right? How hard can it be? I was supposed to be assisting anybody who fell over, but I was too busy laughing along with the guests and taking photos of them to be of much use. It was so much fun!

Snow-shoe walking in Seefeld – it’s not as easy as Mary made it look

Putting me in charge of anything with an engine probably isn’t a good idea, but I have also tried skidooing/snowmobiling. Tearing around the countryside in the dark, trying desperately to follow the tiny light on the back of the skidoo in front of me, I felt like I was in a James Bond movie. I also apologise profusely to Inghams for breaking their ten-year safety record by crashing my skidoo into a stream. Don’t worry, nobody was hurt and a helpful Irish holidaymaker came past and helped me to pull it back out again.

The one winter sport that I surprised myself by really liking is cross-country skiing, or langlaufen as it is known in German-speaking countries. As an alpine skier, I’d always considered langlaufen to be something people did who…. Well, to be honest, I’d never really thought about who did it or why. They just always seemed to be there, usually at the bottom of a valley, skating round in circles. There are two types of langlaufen, classic and skating. Classic langlaufen is where you propel yourself along in specially prepared parallel tracks in the snow. Skating, as the name implies, is a much freer style. Skaters ski alongside the tracks on groomed snow. Langlaufen skis are very different to other types of skis. They are long, very narrow and lightweight. You wear small, sneaker-like shoes that clip into the ski binding at the front of the shoe, and you use very long ski poles to help you keep yourself going forward. Langlaufen has never been the most fashionable of winter sports, but I imagine that since Pippa Middleton’s participation in a langlaufen race, it may suddenly experience a resurgence in the near future.
Before working in Seefeld, I’d had one experience on cross-country skis. I’d previously worked in a ski shop in Whistler BC, Canada. Part of my job was to rent out cross-country equipment, in particular for the cross-country taster that was held every week in aid of a local charity. I’d confidently guide the customers on how to use the equipment and advise them of the conditions of the cross-country track. In all honesty, I did not have a clue about cross-country skiing. To this day I could not even tell you where the cross-country track in Whistler is. Whilst not really paying attention in a weekly staff meeting, my ears pricked up when I heard my boss mention the company’s famous annual cross-country race. As I’d never heard of this famous race, I was even more surprised when my supervisor assured our boss that our team had been in training for weeks. More than a little concerned, I pulled my supervisor aside and explained that I’d never actually been on cross-country skis. He told me not to worry, and was so confident in my abilities that I didn’t put a pair of cross-country skis on my feet until the start of the race a couple of weeks later. Unfortunately, to add to my challenge, we’d had very little snow that season and the actual cross-country track was already a cycle path. Don’t panic, my ever-confident supervisor announced, we’ll use one of the slopes instead. It wasn’t even a nursery slope that they picked. We drove halfway up the mountain and sneaked onto an intermediate downhill run that was pretty icy even for an alpine slope. One of my colleagues put me into my equipment and before I knew it I was in the middle of a cross-country relay race. I tried desperately to at least keep going forward up a very steep, very icy slope that was only ever intended to be used to go down. Think trying to roller-blade on ice and you’ll get the picture.
Once I reached the turn around point, I was given a drink to down, and then one of my colleagues literally had to turn me round on my skis. Those things have no edges, how are you supposed to turn on them? He pointed me downhill, told me to keep my skis straight, and let me go. I did as I was told, and thankfully another colleague caught me at the bottom before I disappeared off into the back-country. It would be a few years before I put cross-country skis on my feet again.
Finding myself working in Seefeld, a mecca for langlaufen, it would have been rude not to give it another go. I got the equipment I needed from the ski shop, booked myself into a beginners lesson with some of my guests, and I was all ready to go. Well, almost. My colleague Gabi, an experienced cross-country skier, looked at me in despair.
‘Do you not own any leisure pants?’ she asked.
‘Do I look like someone who would own leisure pants?’ I replied. As a freestyle skier, a helmet and belt were higher up on my list of things to pack.
‘Well, at least try not to look so baggy.’ Gabi advised. ‘You’ll only get yourself caught in something. Remove some layers as well, it’ll be warm out there.’
Twenty minutes later, I was glad of the advice. No wonder cross-country skiers always look so slim. It feels like you sweat your body weight after the first 100m. Even with Gabi’s advice, though, and no matter how hard I try to fit in, I think I’ll always look like an alpine skier on cross-country skis.

Some graceful skaters in Seefeld village. Please note: I definitely do not look like this on langlaufen skis.

Coming up in Cross-Country Skiing Part 2… A giant leap forward in my langlaufen training – Gabi decides I’m ready for an intermediate loipe (cross-country trail) and I answer the question ‘Is it possible to wipe out on a cross-country track?’

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