A CROSS-COUNTRY SKIING TECHNIQUE GUIDE
DON’T BE AFRAID… IT’S ONLY SNOW!
It occurred to me about halfway down the hill, when I realised I was no longer in control, that everything truly useful I know about driving, surfing, climbing, white-water, flying and now cross-country skiing, I have learned in a state of gibbering, pop-eyed terror. The greatest and most useful of all of these things is knowing when to quit. Balanced delicately on the edge of panic, knowing when to bale out is the key to a successful future. Or any kind of future, really. But more of that later; the hill was getting steeper and there was a bend coming up. Decision time!
So, how did I come to be lying stunned in a snowdrift with one leg in Slovakia, one leg in the Czech Republic and frighteningly close to the big stone marking the border? Our Dog and I had set out in the morning full of energy, trying to get up onto the Beskydsá Magistrála (Beskydy Highway) in time to catch a break which had been forecast in this perpetual cloud.
The transition from valley roads to mountain roads comes surprisingly quickly as you pass through Ostravice. Down there the roads are salted and clear of snow but as you pass the reservoir, the road begins to climb quickly and almost instantly becomes a layer of compacted snow some 15 cm thick, liberally sewn with coarse grit and potholes where passing vehicles have lost traction and stripped the snow away down to the road surface beneath. Due to the country’s strict pollution control laws, salting roads is prohibited around water sources like, for example, large mountains covered in layers of treacherous ice and snow.
Having negotiated the roads, our next challenge was getting in to a car park. More precisely, helping the lady blocking the entrance to dig, push and swear her car out of the snow. Supervised by Our Dog, I dug, pushed and swore until she was moving, whereupon she immediately stopped and I had to repeat the pushing and swearing bit until she was on a gritted part of the road. Through her profuse apologies, thanks and thick Ostrava accent, I gathered that she had mistaken winter tyres (designed for driving on roads during the winter) with snow chains (designed for driving in snow). The clue’s in the name, really.
Finally, still supervised by Our Dog, I was ready for the off. Our Dog is always ready for the off and has trouble understanding any delays, like weedy humans who need special clothes to keep out the cold and different footwear for walking and skiing. She celebrated my eventual fitness to get on with it by leaping all over me and knocking me into a snowdrift, thus causing another delay.
The window in the cloud was rapidly passing but at least the clouds were broken and showed a bit of emotion, rather than the drab, featureless grey of the last couple of months. Between bursts of blue sky, there was a definite sense of menace going on above.
The main purpose of this trip was to have a look at some of the less-frequented trails and practice what little I know of cross-country technique; specifically, going down hills under some kind of control. Everyone I’ve spoken to has told me that the only possibility is the snowplough position – you have to get your feet as far apart as possible, like you’re doing the splits, and then twist them inwards to get the ski tips closer together. By leaning forwards slightly and sticking your backside out to balance yourself, it is possible to dig the edges of the skis into the snow and, in theory at least, control your speed and direction whilst not falling over backwards or forwards.
On the internet (http://explorexc.blogspot.cz/2007/01/fast-and-thin.html) I read about a technique of transferring your weight from one ski to the other in order to travel across the slope rather than straight down it and it was this technique which I wanted to practice.
When the sun’s out and there’s snow on the ground, I really love these mountains. This trail is great to hike on in summer and if I get the time (and money!) to rebuild my bike, I’m going to come out here for a ride in the spring. If I could just drag my eyes off the scenery and concentrate, I might learn to ski as well!
The first hill looked deceptively easy… it was fairly gentle and straight, only a hundred or so metres long and had deep snow banks on either side. Granted, I couldn’t actually see the end of it due to a slight left bend but there were no cliffs or anything marked on the map so it looked perfect for starters. In the splits position, with ski tips almost touching, I gradually started to creep forward. The blog said that if you start the side to side movement before your speed gets out of control, you will be OK. It also says that this is not a suitable technique for Nordic groomed trails but as I had no idea what that meant at the time, I didn’t let it bother me.
Very quickly, I realised that the trail was too narrow to turn across far enough to kill my speed so I focused on really digging those ski edges in and forcing myself further into the splits. To my utter amazement, it worked! My speed didn’t increase and although I couldn’t increase the effect enough to actually stop, I knew I would be under control when I got to the bottom of the slope, just before the left hand bend.
Now as it turns out, “Nordic Groomed Trails” is English for “udržované běžkařské trasy”, or to put it another way, exactly the kind of trail I was on. I didn’t know this because as anyone knows who knows English weather, the only kind of skiing you’re guaranteed back home is water-skiing. I’ve learned all of the very little I’ve learned from Czechs in Czech, so I don’t know the English terminology.
It also turned out that the flat piece of trail before the bend was neither long enough to stop in, nor the end of the slope. Rather, it was the beginning of a longer slope with dirty big trees on either side and some people walking uphill towards me.
I did not panic, skiers coming down have right of way and I’m British; panicking simply will not do. I called out a warning and began a zig-zag snowplough descent… the people walking up stopped to watch me, right in the middle of the trail, like idiots. I hit a patch of ice and accelerated, arms flailing wildly as I fought to remain upright, still resolutely not panicking.
Our Dog, meantime, was galloping along next to me with her tongue hanging out, looking at me instead of the trail and thoroughly enjoying this new game which I had evidently invented solely for her entertainment. She matched my increasing speed effortlessly and completely failed to see the idiots in the path as they dived for cover. When the trail straightened out so that I could see that I was going to stop safely and I let out a triumphant Tarzan call, she leapt on me and knocked me sideways off the trail and into a bush.
The second hill was much friendlier and I had things well under control when Our Dog, running a few metres in front of me, suddenly doubled back to sniff something which by then was under my skis. Three-Nil to Our Dog.
The third hill looked too good to be true. About two hundred metres long, dead straight, fairly smooth, ending in a hundred or so metre long saddle with another hill going up at the other side. The only fly in the ointment was the ski-lift crossing the trail just before the saddle, i.e. at the point where I would be moving the fastest and have the least influence over what happened. There were about five metres between the chairs which were full of kids coming up and the empty ones were going down like some kind of Eighties video game – steer your skier between all of the obstacles without having a fatal accident. I didn’t even try it, I took my skis off and walked. Knowing when to quit…
After the lodge, the path became much better suited to my needs, meaning that it didn’t have ski-lifts crossing it. It still rose and fell and on the steeper uphill sections it’s best to take the skis off and walk because if you try to get out of anyone’s way in a hurry, you will start a very interesting, if short and painful, reverse-skiing experience.
The best technique for not so steep uphill sections is the ‘Herringbone’, or ‘Christmas Tree’, if you’re Czech. Point the ski tips out at about 45 degrees, dig the inside edges in, transfer your weight onto one leg then lift the other forwards. Be very careful that you lift the trailing edge of this ski over the other one, otherwise you will get tangled up and fall over. How far you move the ski depends on the steepness of the hill and your self-confidence! As you progress up the hill, you will leave a series of ‘V’ shaped impressions in the snow, hence the names ‘Herringbone’ and ‘Christmas Tree”.
Once at the top of the hill, you can start your classic cross-country skiing technique; a sort of loping slide. Start by pushing one ski forwards and transfer your weight on to it, using the opposite pole for balance and power. Before you run out of momentum, you need to bring the other ski up and transfer your weight onto that one, again pushing with the opposite pole. As you build up a rhythm, you will find that it’s not so difficult. It’s an extension of the normal walking movement, with the legs and arms moving in opposition. Your weight transfers from the flat to the ball of your foot as that leg moves to the rear and then you kick off using the toes and opposite pole… a beautiful, flowing movement which causes absolute agony until you get used to it!
As I worked on my beautiful, flowing movements, I noticed Our Dog was falling behind and starting to limp. We stopped for a paw inspection and I found balls of ice, formed from compacted snow, stuck in between her toes. I couldn’t pull them out because of the hairs frozen into the ice but I managed to crush most of them and break off small pieces. The rest I melted using water from my drinking supply and dried her paws with a spare jumper. All this time I’d spent learning about how to ski and survive in the mountains and I’d never come across this problem before! How do you evacuate a dog 6 km back to the car-park? How do wolves deal with this problem???
I pondered this problem as we turned back. I could probably use my knife to cut some branches big enough to make a sort of travois and tie it together with spare bootlaces from my Emergency Bag Of Useful Things but dragging it through the snow fast enough that Our Dog wouldn’t freeze before we got back? I wasn’t so sure.
Fortunately, Our Dog’s condition improved the instant we turned back. I put this rapid recovery down to either a miracle, or her desire to get back to her sofa! Despite her brush with potentially fatal lameness, she soon outpaced me and I discovered that it is possible to ski uphill as well. Slopes which I had previously herring-boned up were actually ski-able.
Now, there’s a whole science of waxes for cross-country skiing, which I don’t intend to get into now because I don’t understand it yet and the skis I’ve been using are the so-called ‘waxless’ variety (they have a pattern known as ‘fish-scales’ machined onto the bottom under the foot which grips the snow). However, the end result is that if you keep moving, the skis maintain their grip beyond what I had expected.
Soon I was racing Our Dog up the hills as well, managing (just!) to keep over to one side whenever anyone came down without slipping backwards. The ski-lift at Kminek had stopped and filled with new-found confidence, I zoomed along the trail, almost out-pacing Our Dog. The speed built up into a thrilling, tingling rush. One false move would spell instant disaster but I knew, deep in my soul, that everything was perfectly balanced. Like the first good wave I ever rode, the first powerful car I ever drove, the first time I abseiled off a cliff or the first (and let’s be honest, last) time I flew solo, I could feel that everything was right even though I was scared stupid.
I never saw the patch of ice that brought me down to Earth with such a bump. Not that I could have avoided it anyway, I suppose. It was like hitting concrete, or catching a breaking wave full in the face. One moment it was all poetry in motion, the next it was a flailing mess of limbs, skis, poles and Our Dog. It was all over before I realised what was happening and the first thing I clapped eyes on when I could focus was the dirty great border stone between my knees. Time, I decided, stop pushing my luck and just get back to the van.
So there you have it, cross-country skiing is my top recommendation if you want to see these beautiful mountains in their winter glory! Do you fancy a go? Get in touch with us at Discover Moravia and we will help you plan an active holiday to remember.
Whatever your level of experience we can arrange your transport to the mountains, a hotel to suit all budgets and of course, the local knowledge to help you get the best out of your visit. If you are a beginner like me, we can find you a coach and guide so you can learn more quickly but if you are already a cross-country skiing expert then this is a beautiful place for an independent holiday; what are you waiting for?