Monday, 23 February 2009

Not-so-steep learning curve

Some Norwegian friends of ours invited us to join them for a weekend of cross country skiing and promised to show us the ropes of this, possibly the most traditionally 'Norwegian' of winter activities. Our only skiing experience up to this point was a day at an alpine resort, just before Christmas, where we spent the day, without supervision, repeatedly and painfully skiing (read: falling) down the nursery slopes.

We arrived at Utaoset, a couple of hours outside Bergen, on Friday evening, on the weekend ski rush hour train. There was a real party atmosphere through the carriages as the weekend revelers got stuck into a few cheeky drinks and looked forward to a weekend in the nature. Our hosts met us at Utaoset train station, 1000m above sea level and resplendent with ten foot high snow drifts, and took us to our hotel apartment just a short walk away. After a fantastic dinner and a box of wine we played cards until far too late in the evening/morning.

On Saturday we awoke with scudding headaches to scudding clouds, flat light and wind driven gritty snow. Hardly the best weather for learning a new winter skill but we spent so much of the first day looking no further than the front of our skinny skis that we hardly noticed. I have to say I found it pretty easy at first. The 'kick and glide' motion came fairly easily on the flat tracks around the hotel, the only squirrely bit came on a six foot deep 'ditch' that lead onto the main ski trail out of the resort. The drop-in wasn't too bad but the necessary 'herring bone' wide gait required to get up the other side was the most un-natural feeling action ever and took a bit of practice. M's learning curve was a little more severe and her first attempt at the ditch resulted in the first crash of the day. We'd made it to the end of the car park! Woohoo!

After an hour of practice under the helpful gaze of our hosts we overconfidently felt we had it pretty much nailed and told them that they could go off and leave us to practice around the fairly tame resort trails. Despite some wax issues with M's skis (I ran waxless skis, MUCH less hassle) we had two really good sessions, split by a lengthy lunch break, spending some of our time courteously waiting at the top of steeper sections for the locals to get out of the way before careering down and endangering only ourselves. Not point wiping out competent five year olds and pensioners, effortlessly skiing up and down the trails with our 'drunken spider' efforts.

Trout and salmon for dinner and another box of wine. We talked with our hosts about the possibility of going on a little excursion the following day, out of the resort and we looked at a couple of maps and found some trails that were possibly within our skill level. We hoped.

Sunday morning was BRIGHT! Damn! Even with a coloured filter film over the windows there was no mistaking sunshine blazing through the cracks in the curtains on the east facing side of the apartment and I was nearly blinded when I pulled them open. It was still pretty breezy and even more snow had fallen during the night leaving a waist high drift on the first floor balcony outside the living room window. The mountain range in the background looked pretty intimidating with it's cloak of white cloud streaming over the top, hinting at vicious winds higher up. We loaded up on a hearty breakfast, prepped skis and headed outside.

Just a few minutes from the hotel is the train track underpass which caught M out a couple of times yesterday with it's steep entry and double speed bump base followed by a short and steep exit up the the other side. Despite improved confidence and better tuned skis M managed to take a tumble and took a good dinger to the head on the underpass stone wall and managed to stab herself in the throat with the ski tip too. After composing herself for a moment she got back up from her kicking and kept on ticking. That'll be the 6 pints of hardy Norwegian Viking blood flowing through her veins. After another scary but fun downhill, where I took my first faceplant of the weekend, we were on the vast frozen lake. The ski trails, marked with plastic poles or birch branches, crisscross this perfect 'learning' area but fierce winds were blowing straight towards us and with communication all but impossible we retracted into our hoods and goggles and strode out across the nothingness, the whiteness, the endless...ness.

After a kilometre or so we were aware that we were slowing down our hosts and we waved them on and I tucked in behind M and let her set a more comfortable pace. At the strange crossroads of trails on the middle of the lake we took a left and headed towards the shore where we got to put our poor impression of the 'herring-bone' gait into practice to climb the shore line.

A few hundred metres later we were glad to see a hand painted sign offering hot drinks and warm food just off the trail. A few minutes later we were enjoying fresh warm waffles and hot coffee. We then had to decide on a plan for the rest of the day and, after checking the highly detailed and FREE maps, offered by every hotel and petrol station (are you reading this Ordnance Survey!?), plumbed for a wee excursion back across the lake and across to the lumpy, wooded island of Uggen that promised groomed, rolling trails and a connection back to the resort's trails.

After using the coldest toilet I have ever had the pleasure of frequenting we made our way back to the trail and then headed towards the lake enjoying a long, gradual downhill that allowed us to try important, technical skills known as 'stopping' and 'steering' that we were informed would be useful in any future backcountry adventures.

Back on the lake we crossed straight over at the 'crossroads' and into the teeth of the wind. We followed the birch branch road signs towards Uggen. It took a long time to cross the lake, maybe an hour and a half on flat, glide-able terrain and by the time we got to the other side and climbed the shoreline we needed another break.

In the shelter of one of the little hills that covered Uggen we sat in the warm sunshine and recharged. The trails over here were a lot softer and less travelled than elsewhere and progress was slow which allowed us to soak in the quiet, stark but pretty landscape. After making our way across the main road (that leads to the resort) and fighting our way up the steep hillside , through deep snow we suddenly started losing signs of other skiers. We knew we were heading the right way on the right path, back towards the outer trails of the resort, but the lack of other ski tracks, probably a combination of it being a quieter trail and the wind blown snow scouring the surface clean of tracks, worried M. With darkness and our departure time approaching we decided to turn back and ski home on the side of the road. The road turned out to be a good surface to ski on in such a tired state, just enough snow and well packed by vehicle tyres to be smooth and almost effortless. 45 minutes and a couple of Honey Stingers later we were back at the hotel and a steaming pan of fish soup with warm crusty bread was waiting for us. An hour after that we were back on the futuristic NSB train with hundreds of other skiers and snowboarders, picked up from various resorts, and two hours after that we were back in Bergen but already planning our next trip. In 48 hours we'd gone from complete beginners, falling over around the hotel car park to being on our own for hours at our time in some pretty spectacular countryside. I get the feeling we'll be trying this cross country skiing lark a bit more. The ratio of 'face/ass/snow interfaces per hour skiing' is much more endurable.


Martin Rye said...

What a great way to enjoy the hills. Would you go out ski touring and wildcamping? Be something that!

Nielsen Brown said...

Back country skiing is the best, and wild camping makes it so much fun. Mind you face planting with a pack on your back is interesting.
Holdfast, you have not said how the muscles were on Monday? I know it took me a couple of days to recover after one early trip.

Great story as always.

Holdfast said...

Martin - yep, ski touring is our long term aim. Hut-to-hut seems to be M's preferred style but I'm sure we'll get in some wild camping too. Using a snow shelter would be the ultimate aim I guess.

Nielsen - Muslces on Monday? They weren't too bad to be honest (apart from the inside thigh - ouch!) but I run/hike/bike at least every other day and stretch and do yoga daily to try and ward off injuries.

ptc said...

That looks fantastic.

Sorry, but you know what movie I'm thinking of...