I finally crested the top of the vast incline I’d been climbing and surveyed the long downhill sweep of a curve through the snow-encrusted trees beneath me. My friend, Caroline, who was my guide on this first foray into cross-country skiing, was away round the corner, urging me to follow her.
I set off confidently. However, a little anxious query soon bubbled up to the surface of my mind. “How the hell do I stop?”
As I plunged through the track in the trees, I instinctively tried to get my ski edges to bite into the snow. But Nordic skis don’t have the width or sharp, edges of alpine (downhill) skis. They’re long and skinny and sit snugly in the grooves of the trail. I was going too fast and there was a bend towards the bottom of the hill that I knew I wasn’t going to be able to take at my current speed. Right about where I was likely to plough off the path and into the forest, a big pine tree stood. I really didn’t want to be wrapped round that.
My brain, by now severely panicked and obviously confused, ordered my legs to try to execute a parallel turn, another manoeuvre best attempted on alpine skis. My skis skipped out of the grooves, I lost my balance slightly, and one leg aimed directly at the sky. As I tried to right myself, one of my hamstring muscles overextended and twanged, and I tumbled ignominiously into a huge pile of snow to the right of the trail, the fire of pain already consuming my left leg.
From the trail ahead of me, I could hear Caroline chuckling at my misfortune. “I told you – you can’t alpine ski your way through a nordic course,” she reminded me, rather unhelpfully, I thought, as I lay in the snow wondering how on earth I was going to get back to my car, a kilometre behind me. And that was the end of my first cross-country skiing lesson.
I’ve always enjoyed alpine skiing – its speed is addictive. But Nordic skiing never really interested me. It just seems so pedestrian.
Since we moved to northern Sweden in 2012, I’ve often seen Nordic skiiers criss-crossing the frozen lake at the bottom of our garden. I’ve also seen them on trails by the side of the road. And every time I’ve thought, “Crikey, that looks boring. Why would you go for a walk with a couple of planks of wood on your feet?”
In the summer you also see skiiers on the roads, training with these weird long skates. I’d long bracketed cross-country skiing with buggy racing and handball (the only sport in the world that makes basketball seem low-scoring). They were activities for people who couldn’t play the proper version of their sports (alpine skiing, horse-racing and football, in that order).
But one day I met my neighbour Mats on his way back from a ski. We get on very well and poke fun at each other. I ridiculed the planks of wood on his feet. He became serious. “No, no, cross-country skiing is as close to a religious experience as I’ll ever have. You can ski right out into the wilderness. You can reach places you cannot reach on foot in the winter.”
That last sentence piqued my interest, so I asked Caroline to take me out on a gentle run. It’s fairly easy making good ground on flat terrain, so within five minutes we were in the middle of the forest. Snowflakes glistened on the forest floor like giant sequins and when I stopped, I was surrounded by silence. It really was magical.
I suddenly totally understood why so many Swedes love this activity. The only other way of reaching such beautiful, tranquil places in the winter is by snowmobile. And, as much as I love snowmobiles, they are noisy, dirty beasts.
With cross-country skiing the only noise is the “schuss” of the skis, the snow falling from tree branches, and, of course, the occasional shriek of an Englishman with an overextended hamstring.