The Perfect Glide
Discovering Cross Country Skiing; Ski Injuries Can be a Blessing in Disguise
I’ll never forget that moment when I first felt the rush of self-propulsion, when I blessed the knee injury that had led me to learn something new.
Suddenly I could do it. I was gliding, admittedly a tad unsteadily, but gliding nonetheless. My lungs filled with exhilaration as I picked up speed across the glistening snow, rocking my weight left and then right and feeling the cold air rush against my flushed cheeks.
The instructor, Simon, was a tanned young man with a designer beard who looked rather like Zorro in red leggings. He was clearly impressed.
"Gut! Gut! Gut!" he cried, whereas he had previously beat time to my sweaty efforts with his catch-phrase "Falsch! Falsch! Falsch!"
To the right the sun smiled down on my progress and to the left, the handsome, snow-clogged face of the craggy Dachstein mountain seemed to nod its silent approval. Injudiciously I turned my head to see if my girlfriend was watching too, and, losing my precariously achieved balance, glided slowly and serenely into a welcoming snow drift. Face down in the Styrian snow, but still laughing, I had to admit it I’d been wrong:
Cross-country skiing was turning out to be a lot of fun. Youth is allegedly short on wisdom, but it is certainly not lacking in convictions. In the not too distant past, when I proudly described myself as "a gnarly free skier" and chatted incessantly about "getting radical," I had been very clear on my views about cross-country: it was for masochists and lycra-fetishists who wouldn’t know a good time if it pulled a 360 degree jump and landed on their heads.
However, an anterior cruciate ligament operation last summer, accompanied by a forceful warning from a stern Austrian knee doctor, forced me to reassess my anti-cross-country attitude. I’d been hasty and unjust, it seemed.
Now, stuck into freezing fog and clinging diesel fumes of the city in winter, I faced the choice between cross-country skiing or boycotting my beloved Alps, with their crystal clear air and deliciously stodgy meals. Not surprisingly, the former option grew on me with each passing week. As my friends were packing their snowboards and carving skis, I was lurking around the sports shop in dark glasses, finding out which skin-clinging lycra suits were ‘in’ this season.
The Ramsau plateau, in the southern Austrian province of Styria, is a great place to start your career as a cross-country star. It’s a fascinating place. In a region of narrow valleys and craggy mountains, the plateau is a comparatively level and wide stretch of land at an elevation of over a thousands metres – high enough in the eastern corner of the Alps. Winter lasts for 5 months and the area is so secluded that even the Counter Reformation forgot all about it, leaving Ramsau, even to this day, one of the few Protestant (those of the spiky Church towers) areas in a country overwhelming dominated by Catholics (those of the onion-shaped Church towers). It’s also dotted with friendly and modest inns directly on the 160km of cross country tracks.
The hotel we chose, the Pension Herold, is just a couple of kilometres up from the village and is owned by the same man, Albert Prugger, who runs the local ski-school.
"I’m a beginner," I informed him as I tucked into a fine meal of pork and dumplings on our first night, "but I’ll pick it up easily. I was almost born on skis, and I’m a great inline skater." His chiselled features crinkled into an indulgent smile as he told me to be in the village at ten the next morning for my first lesson.
"We’ll see how you get on tomorrow" he added, with a twinkle in his eyes. "It’s a little different from alpine skiing, you know."
He wasn’t joking. I felt as if I’d been given a pair of tight-ropes to balance on. The skis were not only a mere third of the width of my alpine carvers but also a good third longer, and they lacked the metal "edges" that skiers so unconsciously rely on. Moreover you’re only connected via a clip on your toes - a rather precarious relationship. As soon as I leant on them I tipped over. And far from "picking it up easily", I spent much of the first day with my backside in the air and my arms whirling as wildly as a French traffic policeman, with my poles, each almost as long as my body, flapping dangerous at all angles. Once equilibrium had been established, however, I quickly realised that we were onto a good thing.
There’s a lot of "country" in cross-country. Far from the pushing hordes of chair-lift queues and forced jollity of the alpine beer hut, Langlaufen, as it’s known in German, is both relaxing and beautiful. The tracks cut though wide swathes of untracked and sparkling snow. In the cold air, the scent of warm hay and peaceful wintering cattle oozes potently from the many wooden little huts you pass. Minutes later you’re breathing in the rich smell of sawn timber from a rural carpenter’s yard. I thought, with fondness, that this was the sort of Austria my sporty grandfather must have experienced when he adventured there in the 1930’s.
For the first three days we learned how to ski "classic" style. This is where you place you match-stick thin skis into prepared grooves and sliding one foot forward and then the other, basically by thrusting a slightly bended knee forward and almost straightening it, whilst thrusting the opposite arm backwards. The end result looks (especially in the Lycra) like a diagonal superman dive. And when you finally get it right, it’s even graceful - in fact admiring my elegant shadow into snow caused one of my more embarrassing falls.
It’s well worth taking lessons - although the movement is logical if you think about it, it takes an instructor to set you on the right path. Our charming classic instructor Jürgen, gleefully pointed out holiday makers doing it wrong and expending bucket loads of calories for minimum metres:
"Oh my! Oh my!" he’d mutter, covering his eyes and chuckling. It’s all about gliding and getting the most out of your physical exertion. The thrusting movement provides a great workout for the old gluteus maximus and the general work-out is an endorphin bomb (pro-racers apparently burn more than 900 calories an hour) that’ll keep you warm even in your skin-tight outfit. Yet, for my taste, classic style is too much of a sweat on the uphill sections when your skis want to glide, but glide backwards (I did say the plateau was only ‘comparatively’ flat, remember) and even on the level, with an adequate the speed of travel, can hardly be described as intoxicating.
From the very first day, we eyed the ‘skaters’ with envy. On tracks conscientiously smoothed overnight by the snow ploughs, they sailed past us seemingly effortlessly with a creaking noise made by their poles in the cold snow and a sort of whooshing sound of acceleration that we found horribly seductive. On the fourth day we lined up at ski school to start our lessons all over again: different skis, different boots and a pair of new instructors - Zorro-like Simon and a former Estonian champion called Kristal.
Under their guidance, we found that skating was even more exhausting than skiing classic style and also harder to pick up. But it’s much more satisfying, and you have that same wonderful feeling of shifting you weight from one side to the other that has made me so addicted to alpine skiing.
And I’ll never forget that moment when I first got it right and felt the rush of self-propelled acceleration, that moment when I blessed the knee injury that had led me to learn something new, something wonderful, something exciting – that treasured moment just before I glided into the snowdrift.
The physical exertion of cross-country skiing meant we approached the morning’s breakfast buffet with nigh-on military planning, animatedly discussing carbo-loaded and slow-release energy providers. But the rigorous exercise had a surprising hidden benefit. Used to a perpetual rush on alpine skiing holidays - from the first lift to the last, to the après ski hut and then frantically getting changed for dinner – I was surprised at how much time we had cross-country skiing. Three hours of langlaufen is quite enough to satisfy the fittest holiday-maker, which leaves hours free for lounging in the sauna (giving those tired muscles a well-deserved boost), reading books and generally relaxing – a concept I’d almost forgotten about on previous adrenaline-packed weeks in the Alps.
I can’t say that the experience has rescued me from my alpine addiction - as soon as that knee is better I’ll be back in the rowdy bedlam of a traditional ski resort. But I’ll never scorn the lycra-warriors of cross-country again. And I’m already absolutely sure I’ll be back to the unspoilt mountain and forest of Ramsau next year, trying – at least trying – to recreate that delicious feeling of the perfect glide.