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Downhill struggle

Ross Clark loves cross-country skiing – but it doesn’t love him

20 November 2010

12:00 AM

20 November 2010

12:00 AM

Ross Clark loves cross-country skiing – but it doesn’t love him

I was 40 before I strapped on a pair of skis in Val d’Isère, a habitat of bronzed piste-bums in Oakley sun specs. I never got off the nursery slopes, tormented by knee-high French kids in orange bibs showing off as I sprawled on the ground. Even if I had mastered skiing, I couldn’t see much merit in being whisked to the top of a mountain in a lift. If skiing and I were going to get on, I was going to have to get out into the wilds.

In the hills above Lillehammer in Norway you quickly realise that in Scandinavia, downhill, or Alpine skiing as it is locally known, is a minority interest. For most locals skiing means cross-country — tramping up as well as downhill, either on prepared tracks or on virgin snow. There are no ski-lifts, so no queues, no bars or sun-loungers — once you are more than a mile or so from a car park you can ski all day without seeing a soul, save for the odd grumpy Olf in a bobble hat.

Nor was there much going on in Nordsetter, the village where we stayed. It was the first week in April, the sun was blazing, the snow a metre deep. But the season proper had ended the week before. The hotels had shut their doors, with a few stragglers toughing it out in log cabins, fed by a little shop and café which served alcohol-free beer and closed at 5 p.m. It wasn’t so much après-ski as après the end of the world. If you like getting away from it all, it was pure bliss.

Theoretically, cross-country is easier than downhill — at least when you are going along the flat, or even uphill. Carried away with our progress on the first evening, my son Theo and I ascended a smooth peak with fantastic views of the Hardanger glacier, more than 100 miles away.

Then came the descent. The slope looked gentle enough, but with thin, lightweight skis, you can’t slow down or turn like you can on downhill skis. You can speed up. After a few yards I gave up trying to keep upright; I was just looking for a soft place to land. Trouble is that when you fall the skis are still hinged to your feet, and it can take an age extricating yourself from the snowhole you have created. In the tracks it can be worse. Every morning a snowplough prepares the trails and creates a couple of deep ruts either side of them. Put your skis in these and it is like running on rails — extremely fast. After a couple of skiers have done this, the ruts compact into ice. That is fine until you reach a long hill, at which point you go faster and faster until the tracks run out and you find your skis splaying out of control and yourself rolling down sheer ice. This went on for about three miles.

We booked a lesson. Our instructor, Rune, insisted we would only need 50 minutes — there was nothing more to learn. He spent most of that time picking up my wife, who kept going over backwards. But Theo and I seemed to pick up a few tricks. We learned how to brake, how to shift our weight on to the right-hand ski and then jump out into the middle of the tracks — necessary to overtake stragglers. And we learned how to negotiate an open slope: no fancy turns, just lots of snowploughing.

Over the next few days I seemed to master it. I was skiing 20 miles a day and no slope seemed too frightening. Then came more snow, which acted as natural braking. The sun came out and I managed to ski up and down two deserted mountains — without going arse-over-head once. I felt so confident that Theo and I decided once again to tackle the mountain that had overcome us on our first evening.

I have never felt so let down. It was like learning the flute and arriving on the concert platform only to find you can’t play it after all. Nothing I had learned seemed to work. Splat — we were both back to square one. The temperature suddenly dipped below freezing and a thin layer of ice formed on the snow so instead of cutting our skis in and snowploughing, we accelerated until one ski penetrated the ice into the soft snow underneath and then went over the handlebars.

No wonder the Norwegians had mostly gone home — the freeze-thaw cycles which come with spring can make cross-country skiing lethal. But I’m trying it again. Next time, I might go somewhere a bit flatter.

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