Travel theme: Winter

Ailsa’s travel theme this week is Winter. It definitely feels like winter here in South Wales. There’s only one thing we’re missing – snow! I love snow, especially when I can ski on it.

Unfotunately, snow here in the UK is not usually as fun. It still makes a nice change of scene for a few days when it does arrive, though.

Click here to see what everyone else’s definition of Winter is.

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Cross-Country Skiing Part 2

One of the downsides to being a travel rep is that days off are rare. When you do get time off, you can never have more than one day at a time. Therefore, if the langlaufen course runs over three consecutive days, you’ll only ever be able to attend the first lesson. Although I still looked like a freestyle skier who had accidentally picked up the wrong equipment from the locker room, my first day on langlaufen skis had gone well. Unfortunately, due to the nature of my job I’d then had to miss parts 2 and 3 of the course. These had included minor pockets of knowledge such as how to stop, how to get out of the tracks when you pick up too much speed and what to do if you get into trouble. So my next outing on my langlaufen skis was a few days later with Gabi, my colleague who was already a confident cross-country skier. I’d made a deal with Gabi that if she learnt to alpine ski, I’d learn to langlaufen. So far she’d stuck to her end of the bargain, so I couldn’t really back out when she told me I needed to progress out of the beginners area and onto a more challenging loipe. Astrid, the head of the langlaufen school, looked horrified when Gabi told her which route we would be taking that day. Langlaufen loipes are graded as blue, red and black (the same as alpine slopes) with black being the most difficult. The loipe that Gabi was proposing we take was a black. In Gabi’s head, none of the langlaufen loipes were as difficult as any of the alpine slopes. So by her logic, as an alpine skier I should have no trouble with a black loipe. To this day I am grateful to Astrid for stepping in, and she persuaded Gabi that maybe a red loipe might be more suitable. Well, how hard could it be? I thought. It’s all on the flat, right? The outing got off to a good start. Once I got into my rhythm I was confidently making my way around the loipe. Cross-country skiing is a bit like working out on a cross-trainer in the gym, it’s easier to stay in rhythm if you don’t pay attention to what you’re doing. I should have learnt from my alpine skiing experience that it’s never good to get too over-confident, regardless of what winter sports equipment you have on your feet. Gabi warned me that we were coming up to a steep downhill part of the loipe, and suggested I may want to come out of the tracks as hills are easier to navigate from the smooth, groomed snow that the skaters use. As I’d missed the lesson where I would have learnt how to ski outside the tracks, and my langlaufen skis still felt like a pair of really long, unstable ice stakes, I decided I felt more comfortable staying in the tracks. Don’t worry, I told Gabi, I’ll just keep in the tracks until it flattens out again. After all, I am an alpine skier and therefore used to going fast. How steep could a langlaufen track be anyway?
As I reached the bottom of the hill and the snow beneath my skis began to flatten out, a huge sense of pride came over me. I could handle this cross-country skiing malarky. What was all the fuss about? My triumph was short-lived as I realised that the ground was starting to slope downhill again. The slope that I’d just conquered was only a pre-cursor so a much, much bigger hill. Gabi glided past me and smiled, completely missing the look of terror on my face. A few seconds later, I overtook Gabi again, travelling as a speed that would have scared the hell out of me on my own skis, and completely incapable of doing anything about it. The best course of action, I decided, was to stay upright for as long as I could. That point turned out to be about three quarters of the way down, when I popped up out of the track (literally) and rolled the rest of the way to the bottom, destroying most of the nicely groomed loipe on my way. Yes, I had done what I had previously thought impossible. I had wiped out on a langlaufen track. I can still hear the tuts and other noises of disapproval from my fellow skiers as they skied over me.

A word of warning – If you are thinking of trying cross-country skiing, the most common injury is a bruised coccyx/tail bone. I wasn’t convinced of this fact until I fell on mine and couldn’t walk properly for six weeks. So when you’re buying your leisure pants, maybe choose some with some extra padding in that area.

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?’

Winter is most definitely here

Over the past couple of weeks, we have definitely noticed the sudden slide into winter and the beginning of the run-up to Christmas here in Cardiff. Outside temperatures have dropped a good few degrees, everyone has turned their heating on at home, all the teams at work are busy organising their staff nights out and the TV is flooded with Christmas movies. All we need now is for the Christmas Coca Cola commercial to be aired and it will be official.

More importantly to me, though, the start of winter marks the start of the ski season. I love skiing. Since my dad took me on my first ski holiday to Andorra when I was fourteen years old, it has probably been my favourite sport to take part in. During my time working overseas, I was lucky enough to be able to work in some fantastic ski resorts such as Kitzbuehel, St Johann, Whistler, Seefeld, Scheffau and St Anton to name but a few. I literally was living my dream, working mainly as a travel rep and doing the job that I’d wanted to do when I was a child. Although I worked long hours, I had the mountains on my doorstep and could go skiing on a regular basis.

Since moving back to Wales, I miss being able to go skiing without having to book time off work and catch a flight to Europe. We do get (sometimes a lot of) snow here in Wales, and we certainly have lots of hills, but unfortunately it’s not the right kind of snow and we can’t ski on it. Nicole over at thirdeyemom posted some pictures of her neighbourhood this week and talked about how their local ski season will be starting soon, and it made me sooooo jealous. Don’t get me wrong, I love being back in Wales. There are lots of things that I get to do here that I couldn’t in the Alps in the winter like rock climbing, spending time with my godchildren and generally doing normal things like going to the cinema with friends.

I don’t know yet if I’ll get to ski this winter. For the mean time, I thought I’d share with you some of my photos from my time living in ski resorts.

Rosshutte, Seefeld
Enjoying the sun in Saalbach
The first hint of winter in Interlaken
Llama trekking on the Austria/Germany border – well, it’s not all about the snow