Cross-country in the Mountains

Learning to Ski!

I bend my left knee, push out the heel, and put as much of my weight on left ski as possible. Round the outside of this corner, I imagine the various immovable, sharp, and potentially dangerous objects lying in wait for any sign of my faltering, hurtling body.

I put them to the back of my mind, and slowly but appreciably the metal edge of my outside ski begins to grip, then bite. Hang in there, I say to myself. Almost round. Made it. My whoops of delight shatter the quiet of the forest.

It has been a long day, but one which has given me some insight into the Norwegian fascination with Nordic, or cross-country skiing. The fact that I have skied 43 km today would not have been possible without the inventiveness of Norwegian national hero, and creator of modern cross-country skiing, one, Sondre Nordheim.

It was only Nordheim’s genius in developing a ski binding in the 1880s (made of birch-rope) which allows me now to have a certain amount of control over my skis. And boy, do I need it? It’s all downhill to the hotel in Espedalen, the light under the pine trees is fading fast before my very eyes, and another sharp right hand bend is approaching quicker than I would have liked.

The trip is the culmination of a week’s cross-country skiing, in the Peer Gynt Ski Region, about an hour’s drive north from Lillehammer. I am on my way back from Fefor, one of a number of small settlements in the area. During the day I have skied along some of the Peer Gynt Trail, just part of the 630 kilometers of ski tracks and trails to be found high in the mountains to the west of the Gudbrandsdalen Valley.

Though we have come in late March, towards the end of the skiing season, snow conditions are good, and our party has benefited from the warmer sun and the longer days. The snow may be beginning to disappear in a few places, but especially high up on the flanks of mountains such as Ruten, 1517 metres above sea level, there’s more than enough to go around.

Though the weather has been benign, this is not always the case. What starts out a perfect day can quickly turn to blizzards, and even white outs. Then you can lose all sense of where you are. That’s why it is always best to carry spare food and clothing, and to travel with others. On some days you may not see another living soul.

Getting away from it all is part of what brings me to this area of high snow clad mountains, birch woods, inland fiords, and quiet secluded valleys. One day high above it all, I was lucky enough on to see a huge herd of reindeer moving in the distance. At first to my un-trained eye, they resembled the shadow of a cloud passing over open mountainside. It was only later when I came across their tracks in the snow that I got an idea of the herd’s true physical presence.

Another time I saw a white plumaged ptarmigan. Going off-track, I have seen the criss-crossing tracks of numerous animals, including foxes, and hares. And if your luck is in you could spot the presence of elk. Should you come face to face with one, recognising it should not be too difficult. The males stand up to 270 centimeters high, and weigh up to 700 kilograms. Don’t get in their way!

But to listen to nature on skis, first you need to slow down, even stop. Modern outdoor clothing may keep you warm and dry, but the rustling of the synthetic materials means that while animals for miles around can hear you, and are running for cover, you can certainly not hear them. So take a few minutes rest every so often. Have a quick drink, and some high-energy food. Stand quietly, and just listen. Let nature come to you.

You may be glad of a rest for other reasons. Cross country skiing in Norway can be tiring. Most mornings begin with a climb of at least an hour out of the valley. One morning our first stop is Frederikseter, the next Tonebu. The former is just a disused farm cabin, but the latter is a mountain hut, complete with cooking facilities, water, and a wood-burning stove. It even has sleeping facilities, should you get snowed in.

But on this trip, there appears little chance of that. Most days we ski under a cloudless blue sky. By mid-morning most of us have jettisoned our warm fleeces, and are down to just two layers of clothing. No, for me, too much snow is not the problem. It’s staying upright (or more accurately not staying upright) which is causing most concern.

Perhaps it is my tiredness, or because the tracks are icing up, but for a twenty-minute period, I am barely able to keep on my feet. My legs buckle at the slightest undulation. After every fall, the effort required to haul myself up becomes greater.

Learning to ski in my late thirties I have come to accept that a certain amount of falling is inevitable. Everyone does it, I tell myself. Even, dare I say it, the occasional Norwegian. Still I don’t like it. Not one little bit. At times like these, I find it is best to brush myself down as quickly as possible. Then just carry on regardless, more determined than ever never to do it again. Until the next time that is.

For despite the occasional bruises, there will undoubtedly be a next time. In every sense, I have fallen for cross-country skiing in Norway in a big way.