A favourite past-time around here, so I’ve noticed, is cross-country skiing.  I decided to take it up last year whilst out for a walk with Our Dog.  I had a rare day off and decided to take a hike through the woods to get some rare fresh air.

The woods were OK, with snow no more than 30 cm deep but once I got out into open country the drifts varied from a few centimetres to a metre with no reliable way of telling the difference.  Our Dog, being a mere 30 kilos, managed to do all right on the frozen surface but I’m a bit more generously built than a Labrador, so I regularly went through the crust and into the ploughed field beneath.

I had just extricated myself from one of the deeper drifts and was brushing the snow off when a couple whizzed past me on skis.  I didn’t understand what they said to me but the way they said it left me in no doubt that they were having a jolly good laugh at my misfortune.  In seconds, they were gone.  I tried to take a picture of them but my camera was so cold the batteries had given up.  As I trudged back to the relative safety of the woods, I vowed to learn this obviously valuable skill.

Our Man of the Antarctic… over 15000km from the South Pole and heading the wrong way.

Now as any self-employed person will tell you, you either have all the time in the world but no money or plenty of money but no time, so for the rest of the snowy season I was working like a one-armed paper-hanger and thought no more of it, but THIS year, dear reader, I made up my mind to make time.  This year I vowed to beg, borrow or rent some skis.  This year I promised myself that I’d get out there and be like the laughing couple who passed me by with such ease last year.  This year, as it turned out, there was very little snow but I spent a good deal of time lying in what little there was trying to untangle myself from skis.

I might’ve guessed it wouldn’t be as easy as it looked but I had no idea that teaching myself would be so difficult. The first skill you need to develop is the ability to twist your feet in to some unholy degree so that your knees are soon in agony and the skis are parallel.  Holding yourself as if you’re out for a walk means that your feet (and therefore the skis) point away from each other and after a few metres your feet are so far apart you will either do yourself a mischief or fall over into the snow.

Having deformed your legs sufficiently, the next skill to master is a sort of shuffling gait, something like trying to slide over a polished wooden floor.  The skis start to make their own tracks and if you just shuffle along without lifting your feet too high whilst remembering to keep the knees bent and twisted painfully inwards, you will do fine.  If not, you will fall over into the snow again.

This shuffling is all you need to learn if you are on flat ground and going in a straight line. If you need to turn for any reason (like going back the way you came instead of going round the whole planet), you have to learn to put your weight on one ski, pick your other foot up out of the groove made by the ski, point the ski in the direction you want to go, transfer your weight to that ski, do the same with the other leg, resume the twisted knee position and carry on shuffling.  If you get any of that wrong, you end up in a twisted heap in the snow once more.

Going uphill isn’t so hard to do; just point the tips of the skis outwards, bending your knees painfully in the other direction as you do so, and walk up the hill.  As long as you remember to lean forward, plant the ski firmly enough into the ground, keep the knees twisted, lift your feet high enough that one ski doesn’t get caught in the other one, don’t get the skis tangled in the undergrowth and keep moving so that you don’t slide backwards down the hill, you should be able to avoid falling in the snow whilst going uphill.

Going down the other side of the hill presents its own unique set of problems, however.  If the hill isn’t very steep, you can just lean forward and hope that friction stops you before trees, rocks, other skiers or roads do.  If it’s any steeper though, you’ll have to come up with some plan, like skiing down in a zigzag pattern to avoid picking up potentially lethal speed.  Zigging is fine but before you can zag you must turn and as only the toes of the boots are bound to the skis, any attempt at a fancy parallel turn usually leads to the back end of the skis trailing lamely before one crosses over the other and you end up rolling around in the snow again.  At the moment I have no conclusive answer to this except to take the skis off and walk down the hill.  I found this to be much quicker, safer and generally warmer and less humiliating than the alternatives.

Are we nearly there yet?

If you have the determination or sheer bloody-mindedness required to try again, you will soon find that the knees stop hurting, the skis start to keep themselves parallel and shuffling along with bent legs starts to become comfortable.  It becomes a fun way to see the countryside and if, like me and Our Dog, you have spent the winter getting fat, you’ll find it burns a lot of energy too.

On the last day of cold weather, when the surface of the snow had become harder and the skis were moving along the top, not buried in deep grooves, I even managed to do parallel and snowplough turns whilst going downhill.  I successfully avoided a dog, its owner and several trees and reached the bottom unscathed.  If it snows next year, I’ll keep you posted on my progress!

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