Top 5 Cross-Country Skiing tips

The Sūtra of Cross-Country Skiing

Photo: Alexander Kayiambakis

Cross-country skiing is what a Norwegian would argue is the fixie bike on snow, the Sūtra of frost — Asthanga, Norse style. A Norwegian will tell you that cross-country skiing involves the highest endurance levels of all sports, as its motions makes use of every major muscle group, and that it burns the most calories.

The way to really get a Norwegian is to try to understand their obsession with cross-country skiing (langrenn). For the unenlightened, this is the skiing technique in which the sportswoman (or man) propels themselves across snow-covered terrain using skis and poles. This is not the same as alpine skiing (slalom), where the skier takes a chair lift up a hill and then skis down again, repeatedly. Purists think that is cheating. You need to struggle hard to ascend the mountains — on slippery, properly waxed skis of course — then walk straight on into the woods for hours, before, finally, whizzing down again. (An accepted alpine discipline for purists is the off-piste randonnée skiing, that is, in simple terms, climbing up a mountain before skiing the hillside down again.)

The descending is often worse than the climbing up, because the skis are uncontrollable, thin and light; so every bump or imperfection can send you rolling into a ditch in a flurry of powdered snow, or, even worse, crashing cartoon-style into a tree. On top of this, don’t forget that all this pain and suffering takes place in an unbearably cold climate.

Chocolate, buns and philosophy

If you get the hang of it, and find a rhythm to slide on the skis smoothly, conquering the mountains, you might understand what all the fuss is about. While most normal human beings wait for the spring to come, the Norwegians conquer the winter by all means possible, a fantastic way to overcome this season’s harshness with Cinemascopic delights and fauna that includes lynx, beaver, deer, howlin’ wolves and even the sovereign of the forest itself, the moose. (Plus numerous off-the-leash dogs and their untrained owners.)

The best thing about the whole experience is the cabins (hytter) spread evenly throughout the mountains and in close proximity to the cities, where you will be served boller (sweet buns) and kakao (hot chocolate), when (or if) you reach them. Also handy is the floodlighting of many tracks after dark (which is not very late in the wintertime), making skiing possible straight after working hours. Norwegians themselves are not known to be very talkative, not at least in winter, and not while skiing. But just as when they drink alcohol, they are remarkable perky when meeting up at one of the many cabins after dark.

Waxing slightly philosophical, as many Norwegians do when it comes to skiing — some great skiers have indeed become philosophers — what makes it so intriguing has to do with escapism, the notion that you can just put on your skis and leave the strains of daily life. From the last metro stop in outskirts of the capital, Oslo, you can in theory follow the woodland all the way north to Lillehammer, or if you are very frisky, walk further north all the way to the North Cape Plateau above the Arctic Circle and on to the border with Russia. The mountains of the west of Norway is the starting point of the massive Taiga, the world’s largest terrestrial biome, a subarctic forest that stretches all the way through Siberia to Vladivostok on the Pacific Coast. Just the idea of this is enormous, and not only for Sir David Attenborough and his BBC crew, but also for a simple Norseman.

Cross-country skiing overload

On the other hand, all this fresh air, sportiness and wilderness can often prove too much for some people. One thing is the Norwegians’ obsession with their Viking heroes, their polar explorers and their modern winter sports heroes, which all blend in to one mythical mush of national pride and self-confidence — on skis. But in recent times a collective fixation has evolved around competing in long amateur ski races. Everybody wants to be a skiing hero. The most significant race is Birkebeinerrennet from Rena to Lillehammer; the longest is Wasaloppet in Sweden (90 km), and the fanciest is Marcialonga in Italy. (Fancy because it’s on the Continent and you can drink wine.) Companies have their own teams (you need a good reason not to join) and your achievement in the tracks has become as important as your CV. Financiers, politicians, media celebrities and royals alike — they’re all in it to win it. The most famous participant in both the Wasaloppet and Birkebeinerrennet is British socialite Pippa Middleton, younger sister of Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge. Now you all know the secret behind her famous bum.

There has been so much focus on these races that the non-sporty few have started to worry about the intellectual life of the nation. Nobody is left in the bodegas to discuss French postmodernism and drink absinthe. This could ruin the discourse, some argue. On the other hand, what intellectual life are they referring to, exactly? It is nearly non-existent anyway, or, to put it more civil, the intellectual life of Norway is so intertwined with the philosophy of skiing, it’s hard to differentiate.

If there’s one person that has come closest to try to explain the skiing phenomenon, it’s the Cambridge academic and author of biographies of polar explorers, Roland Huntford: While in English one differentiates between ‘fairy tale’ and ‘adventure’, there is only one word for both in Norwegian: ‘eventyr’. Maybe this is the key word to understanding Norwegians’ intense relationship with their skis?

Cross-country skiing for beginners

1.Stuff a soft drink and a chocolate bar in your rucksack, preferably the Fanta-like Solo and the Kit-Kat rip-off, Kvikk Lunsj. Norwegians just love milk chocolate!

2. Do not worry, everybody falls. Even the pros.

3. Remember, a Norwegian will always lie about the distance you will be travelling. When out skiing they will tell you the distance is shorter than it really is. Once safely back home in front of the fireplace, they will exaggerate about the same distance.

4. Get a pro to wax your skiis. The line between success and disaster is thinner than most people think, it’s often just a thin line of wax on your skiis. (Or just cheat and get new types waxless skis.)

5. The most important advice is from Frank Zappa himself: ‘Watch out where the huskies go, and don’t you eat that yellow snow.’

Sondre Sommerfelt is an Oslo-based anthropologist by training, travel writer and cultural critic by trade sondresommer@gmail.com