Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Wax on. Wax off. Get bent. - Why I *heart* waxless skis

Blasphemy. High treason in this country. I shunned waxed skis right from the start, after a single session on some borrowed waxed skis. Waxed skis are 'the law' here it seems, where cross-country ski racing is as commonplace on the national TV stations at the weekend as football or motorsport is back in Blighty.

Waxed ski have their place. For racing the ability to fine tune your skis to the conditions can gain you seconds where grip has to be balanced against glide. The snow conditions can be fairly accurately predicted for the short time frame of the race and the best wax applied. This task is not even done by the elite racers themselves but by the wax alchemists, masters of the dark art of choosing between 'extra blue' and 'special violet'.

All day touring means you can ski over many different snow conditions. Hard and icy in the morning, wet fresh snow in the afternoon, wind blown crust on the plateaus and deep powder in the birch forests. On some of my first days out skiing with locals I remember having to stop several times while they had to clean off the wrong wax and re-apply fresh as conditions changed. Even with 30 years of experience the snow started building up under their skis or they'd be slip sliding backwards when the trail rose by even a few degrees.

And then there's the mess. Working as a ski guide last winter I had to clean and wax the clients skis every morning and often during the day too. Klister was even worse. That shit gets everywhere. Gloves, pants, hands, backpack and jacket all streaked with the black gunk. And the weight. Having to carry a scraper, cork, cleaner, several waxes and a tube of klister adds up to a fair old chunk of weight and volume.

But waxless skis. Clean. Idiot proof (thankfully...). Always ready. Or nearly always ready. I can think of only two occasions when they failed me. Once at the beginning of Winter when some fresh dry snow decided to clump up under my feet and once last Spring when a particularly cold morning turned the thin compacted trails around the lodge where I was working into ice rinks. But that's not too bad. Two days out of 3 seasons. Sure, the waxless pattern base gives a little noise and a tiny amount of vibration but only under certain conditions and it's not going to ruin your day. And if you start on waxless skis then you just accept the 'feel' right from the outset. Slower? Maybe, but we're not racing here. We're enjoying our day out or dragging a pulk.

So I urge those of you thinking about buying your first cross-country skis or indeed replacing a pair: Go waxless. Unless of course you enjoy cleaning gunk from your clothes, spending decades mastering the dark art of choosing the right wax or you enjoy carrying all that extra crap around. Or maybe I'm just lazy.

Let the arguing begin...


Anonymous said...

You sound damn persuasive Joe, my problem is my fiance is from Norrland, she would gut me if I had waxless skis. And she's a progressive kind of chick, I can't imagine what her Vikingesque relatives would be like.

Actually the guilty truth is I'm enjoying the wax, there are two things I love about it so far. Firstly I hate noise when I go off on a trip, and that sounds very slight, but I really get irritated by the rattle of scales on crust. No big deal for a short while, but a day of it can be trying. Secondly there is a lot to learn about the right wax for the right conditions and that kind of chemistry is fascinating to me. It's a bit of a dark art, endless tips and tricks to eke out the slightest advantage. The big briefcase full of hundreds of coloured swix-sticks, wax candles, vials of weird gloop and solvents, it's very attractive to a gear-fetishist like me.

What about grip-tape? Seems like some area of middle ground, lasts a long time, handles most conditions and leaves no mess, it's what I am trying out right now and seems to work well.

Joe Newton said...

Tomas - a perfect rebuttal to my arguments! Enjoying the waxing hoohaa is a perfectly legitimate reason for doing so. My gear fetishes lie in other areas! I have no problem with people who have the desire and patience to learn the dark art. That shows up my laziness perfectly. Having close relationships with people who demand you run waxed skis is also legitimate if the potential outcome for refusing is divorce on the grounds that you don't like klister :)

The noise issue though? It doesn't bother me in the slightest but then maybe I was too quick to switch to waxless that I never built up enough deep memories of silently skiing across crust. I'm used to the 'feel' of the fishscales, like I'm more used to the 'feel' of knobbly bike tires on pavement than slicks despite the slicks being more efficient.

Grip tape, short skins (like Åsnes use), etc are also options, I haven't tried enough to comment. I would appreciate hearing how you get on with the tape.

Dave Hanlon said...

Aah. Unholy noises from the pagan north!

I'm (kind of) with you on this one Joe. Not yet used waxed skis but for reasons beyond our control we will have one set of wxing skis in the group this time out. Followed a waxing course for the hell of it and have to say I do quite like doing it. Just another excuse to play with gear but I'm certain it's much more fun done at home in the warm than when out and about. Looks practicaly impossible to get right in a winter camp situation and I realy hate the idea of resorting to klister. Yuk. I may purchase skis for next winter. My choice of ski will depend on the outcome of this trip but I'm already 100% certain they will be waxless. As much a anything else I'll want to use them on the odd opportunity I get here in NL and we inevitably get wet snow for which wax is as good as useless.

They say there's no such thing as waxless skis. Glide wax is always required right? I wonder. There are boffins who think otherwise:

I was also introduced to these by my "wax instructor" (grand wizzard and swix pusher more like!):

They realy appeal to my lazy 9/10ths and may even help for those rare occasions when waxless struggle with the inclines? Just another take on the kicker skins so popular amongst the randonee racers in the rockies?.

On balance my take is speed's not important, if your spending more time waxing than skiing there's something wrong, more non-edible s**t to carry when on a multi day trip is a bad idea, if they work go for scales if it doesn't stick on skins, if you need to feed a wax fetish then get your fix with glide wax (at home in a heated garage).

Fraser said...

My ignorance on such matters precludes my from joining in, but waxless seems to make sense for me. I'll be keeping an eye on this to educate myself before next winter.

Anonymous said...

Dave: Thanks for the link to the article, there's a lot of interesting stuff there. This guy Kuzmin (from the article about how waxing is not good even on waxed skis) is fantastically bad though. I got all excited to see these lovely sounding papers on the science of skiing but I've got some copies now and they are atrocious! He examines the idea of wax soaking into ski-base pores with 'logic and secondary school chemistry', then says because water molecules are smaller than wax molecules and water doesn't soak into ski-bases, neither does wax! Looks like someone needs to move beyond secondary school chemistry and learn about solvent polarity :) (Tomas loves organic chemistry!).

Regarding the time issue, I totally agree with you, if you're spending more time waxing than skiing then something is wrong.

Joe: I will try and write something about the grip tape, I've been using it for a while and should probably have an opinion by now. It's just actually sitting down and writing about it is terrible, or it must be because I avoid doing it so much. I must have around 5 times more draft posts than I have published posts.

Haven't ever tried the Asnes short skins, have however spent a lot of time with my nose pressed up against the window of my local ski shop, drooling over the Amundsen skis.

Dave Hanlon said...

Tomas: I confess to having dug no deeper than the link and bow to your far superior knowldege of organic chemistry. The last time I concerned myself with the molecular was some time in 1989 after which I ran headlong into the warm embrace of the Ionic. I guess however, even if Kuzmins theories are rich in psuedo and misconception, that his speed over ground data can still stack up?

Mark Roberts said...

The hassle of waxing and cleaning was one of the reasons I pretty much stopped skiing in Finland. I got so irritated and covered in gunk as I was trying to get the right wax on or the wrong one off, and all the time other people were whizzing by happily. When you get it right it's perfect, but I achieved that maybe once. The rest of the time involved a lot of swearing.

Nielsen Brown said...

The last time I cross country skied was in Australia, yes they do have snow, waxing was not common there and the snow was much damper than around here. I only ever used hired waxless skis which were fine in the conditions.

Anonymous said...

So this is the way it is eh? Nobody else jumping on the wax-bandwagon? Everyone ganging up on poor Tomas?? Typical Irish guy, I can't help but be the black sheep. I'll be squatting at the edge of the track, covered in sticky multicoloured wax shit, desperately scraping off the klister with freezing hands while you guys all rattle past me on your fishscales. So be it!

Dave: I haven't read that far yet, working late (again) on my own research. I'm always very cynical when some small University has a paper that goes against the common knowledge, has no citations and is published in a tiny journal ("Set a thief to catch a thief", I have one publication just like that :). I'm doubly cynical when it has to do with performance in areas like skiing. There are people desperate enough to wear spandex body suits in order to shave a few seconds off their time in a race. Surely these kind of cutting edge sports aficionados would know from practical experience if wax was sabotaging their skis?

Joe: Congratulations on coming up with such a good post, Wax versus Waxless has been the topic of conversation in the lab all day! And in a while I'll get to see the rarest of rare sights, an angry Swede, when I show your article to my fiancé! Exciting!

Chris Townsend said...

I'll go for wax every time, even in Scotland where the temperatures during skiing season are often around zero. I rarely apply wax more than once or twice a day and it only takes a few minutes. Sometimes the same wax can last several days. Even so I'd be quite happy to forego wax if waxless skis worked well. But none I've tried do. It's like riding a bicycle with one gear. When the waxless pattern works it's fine, though still requiring more effort than a well-waxed ski, but when it doesn't work it slips or sticks. I have been with people who used my wax to wax their waxless skis! And with people who put on skins because their waxless skis were slipping when my waxed skis were fine.

A well-waxed ski glides and turns more easily than a waxless ski.

I only carry three or four hard waxes and, rarely, klister in spring (I find red hard waxes work in most "kilster" conditions).

The only advantage for me of waxless skis is for short trips from home - an hour or so, say - when I can just grab them and go and I'm breaking trail so wax or waxless makes little difference.

Zed said...

Chris's comment reminds me of how good a ski instructor his old editor, Cameron McNeish, was.

But here's what I wanted to ask about. Can you get wide ski boots these days? I tried cross country way back in the days of Favorit fish scale skis. The edges weren't metal so a day of telemarking finished mine off. I didn't bother buying anything decent because of the pain I was getting from the boots.

My feet are very wide. I had to use a stupidly long pair of boots to get the width and these skinned the tops of my toes by flexing in the wrong place. Can you get ski boots in a Clark's H fitting? At a sensible price.

Presumably, if it's a racer dominated activity, the boots will still be very narrow.

Chris Townsend said...

Zed, Cameron taught me to ski, back in 1983. I then spent ten years in the 90s leading and instructing Nordic ski touring, mostly in Norway.

I have wide feet (I'm not familiar with Clarks H I'm afraid) and Garmont ski boots fit me. I have Garmont Tour leather boots and Garmont Xcursion plastic boots/

Zed said...

Thanks, Chris

Anonymous said...

I used waxable "back country" skis but changed to waxless. The reason was not that waxing would be hard, it is quite easy actually and I carry a cork, two hard waxes and one klister in the spring. A scraper is must anyway if ice builds up to the bases (happens with waxless also) and if I'd need to remove wax I can use stove fuel for that. I applied was two times a day or occasionally only once in the beginning of a five day trip.

The major problem with waxless skis is that you need perfectly fitting ski regarding the camber and flex. Otherwise the scaly base will touch the surface all the time, slow you down and takes extra energy. With waxable skis you can fine tune the area providing the grip for example when the pack weight changes.

But the reason I switched to waxless skis are skins. The glue in the skins doesn't like wax and skins are necessary when pulling a sled with three weeks worth of supplies. But then again skins slow you down on level terrain or in downhill but waxless bases provide enough grip. Without the hassle of adding and removing wax.

But I still use waxable track/racing skis. They are a pleasure to ski.

Chris Townsend said...

I use skins with waxable skis and in recent years have undertaken several trips pulling sleds loaded with 7-10 days supplies. I haven't had a problem putting skins on waxed skis, though I can see this would be a problem with klister and perhaps the softest red wax. But with hard waxes like red special and colder using skins has been fine.

Wax did come in useful on my last trip when we went from cold shaded forest onto a warm sunny open slope. The skis, with wax in the forest and skins on the slope, were fine. But the sleds balled up horribly until wax was applied to the bases.

Anonymous said...

Chris: Thank you for the insight about wax and skins. I'm just doing as I'm taught. But then again with 70kg sled the grip starts to be all that matters...

The best sleds have the bottom covered with sintered polyethylene, the same material waxable ski bases are built of, and that can be treated with proper glide wax. There should be no snow balling on that. In addition the better gliding properties save remarkable amount of energy. But this is important mainly on longer expeditions. The only problem is that those sleds will also pull you backwards when going uphill. =D

Anonymous said...

Hey waxing is GREAT. And you dont have to be born on skis to master it (I know, I am Danish). After one season in the Russian North (years ago) I got. I loved meting the glide with my ligther, scraping, waxing etc. It was almost therapy. But yes, youa re t´right if yoyu want to go for a couple of days into the wild you will need a bulky collection of kit. still... Lars

Joe Newton said...

Thanks to everyone for adding their views on this topic. It has been educational and interesting.

Dave - it will be interesting to hear the outcome of waxed v waxless on your trip later in the Spring. Your comment on adding 'un-edible weight' got me thinking. I might not carry loads of waxes, tools and klister but there are times where I hump around synthetic skins...

Fraser - knowledge is power.

Tomas - Looks like Chris has weighed in on your side with plenty of experience and good reasoning to back up your camp's stance :)

I hope your girlfriend wasn't too mad with my post...

and I agree. I still think Asnes skis are the prettiest planks on the fjells.

Mark - would waxless skis have allowed you to keep skiing? ...and stopped you turning the air blue?! ;)

Chris - thanks for your input. It's great to hear another opposing view. I'm pleased that you have been able to decipher the waxing code. On waxless skis, not all fishscales are created equal it would seem. I will try and track down the article I read that compared the effectiveness of different company's patterns. I do remember Madshus being rated second and that made me feel good about my trusty Glittertinds!

Zed - I'm glad too that Chris was able to identify ski boots for the wider foot. Got my eye on some Excursions for tele skiing next year.

Korpijaakko - thanks for reminding me about pulk bases. I wonder if I should treat my Paris rulk base with some glide wax before my trip this weekend?

Karl - I'm glad you find waxing enjoyable, a few of you do and I guess that fits in with some people's desire to 'tinker'.

Anonymous said...

As a former XC racer in the '70s and '80s
(yeah, I'm old) I loved my aluminum honeycomb core waxable racing skis and carbon fiber poles. Even on the 2 day, 160 km. Canadian Ski Marathon I always found the correct wax. So yes, Waxable skis ARE the fastest.

But sometimes in changeable spring conditions as a Nordic ski patroller I needed to be able to jump on some fishscale waxless skis and patrol in any snow I came across without having to re-wax with a different wax every mile.

There's a time and place for waxless skis. And for backcountry skiing especially, where speed is less important, they really shine.

Joe Newton said...

Anonymous - you summed up my argument perfectly, for MY type of skiing waxless makes a lot of sense.