None of this is instinctive. We are not born accomplished skiers. It is an acquired skill. Technique is the driver. Without it we flail, energy wasted. Our enthusiasm may know no bounds, but bad technique is an open window as the furnace runs hot.
Technique comes with time and with work. It is malleable, changing form as our experience grows. We may be born to ski but we are not born competent skiers. With good technique, we perform a sleight of hand; we make a difficult task look easy. The carnival sideshow pales in comparison. We work hard on technique, force things, try to make it all work. Ironically it is only when we are able to relax that technique works and the sleight of hand is achieved.
Waxing, another great mystery, also is an acquired skill. We are not evolved to wax skis. We learn waxing as we learn most tasks: over time and through trial and error. Try, fail, try again. Learn as you go. Waxing combines fact and gut feel, the marvelous alchemy from which magic comes. Practitioners of the art of waxing take on the appearance of wizards of an unknown realm.
A thin base melted on a plastic ski base, iron runs, then scrape and brush. From this comes glide. A ski left untended bogs down. Once waxed, the ski slides like wind on snow. Grip wax, rubbed on and corked in – Presto! Grip comes against all odds, like magic.
And none of it is instinctive. All learned. All honed to a fine point over days, years and countless kilometers. If we step back and take a good look, we may say, “This is what it’s all about. This is what unites us. This is what bonds us together. This is what we all share.”
This may or may not be true. Good technique may set us apart from one another. A lot of skiers – the slow, less ambitious – may not seek improved technique. The may, in fact, see it as unattainable but unenviable. And waxing? There are a lot of skiers who watch that act with a sense of bemusement. They wonder what’s the fuss all about? Skis glide. No-wax skis grip. All is good.
So what do we have in common? What do we all share? There must be something.
I’m thinking it’s the little things. I’m thinking that when we step from inside to out, from heat to cold, from sidewalk to trailhead, we immerse ourselves in a common experience. I think we learn to read snow, by sight and sound. In that we have a common language and shared experience.
It’s a simple thing, whether you are a first-time skier or have decades of experience on the boards: When we encounter a ski trail with one track skied in, we automatically step into the tracks. The glide there is better. We see it and adapt to it. Simple.
A more complex response comes when we see two sets of tracks, both skied in. One has a slight grayish hue. Experience tells us that track is packed more firmly and glide will be better there. If we want glide, that’s where we go, and avoid it if we do not. But we recognize the subtlety of it all because we’ve experienced it before.
Or we see the track with a vaguely blue tint, recognize it as glazed over; faster but with less to grip. We adjust our line accordingly.
On a downhill run we look ahead, see where snow is snowplowed off the trail, knowing that means that the base is hard and un-forgiving. Knowing ski edges will not grip on the hard pack, we again change our line to adapt. If we do it right, we make the turn. If we have not yet learned to read the snow, we find ourselves off the side of the trail.
Another basic lesson comes from stepping out of the house and hearing the snow squeak beneath your feet. In that one knows all one needs for the day. When you hear the snow squeak, as if in protest, you know that it’s cold. In that simple sound, unique to the subzero snow, you know what you must wear; you know what you need to wax with (should waxing be your strength). You know that glide will be slow, that grip will be easy, that skate and stride skiing will not be much different speedwise.
I heard that sound in late November this past year. That sound, so unique and specific, on an early winter day. Early cold bites the hardest. One can never quite prepare for it. Intellectually you know it’s coming, but when it settles in, it’s always a shock.
Early cold has pedestrians walking hunched against the wind and chill, shoulders stooped as if carrying a burden of some weight. You tell yourself, “Soon this will be normal. Soon I will by used to this. In January, this will seem warm.”
Now it’s January and the snow squeaks under foot and that sound telegraphs all you need to know. Now that sound falls on the ears of skiers and they all recognize it for what it is and what it means. That is what unifies us, that recognition of our world: its sound and its sight.
The experienced skier is aware of all of this. We read the snow like a river paddler reads the flow. We follow it like a mountain bik-er follows singletrack. We are aware of what is around us. We hear the snow and see the snow for what it is: a changing material, full of subtleties and nuances.
We will ski this month on cold snow that speaks to us. We will look at snow and see not only white but shades and variations. We will listen to our skis run across the snow and hope for that thin whisper of sound; the same sound the wind makes, the same sound a woodworker hears when the plane blade cuts just right and a thin sliver of wood comes from a board, for that is the sound of a free running ski.
This is what we will experience this winter, at different levels, for none of this is born to us. All of it acquired. All of it unifies our world as skiers.
Mitch Mode, a Nordic skier for some four decades, still skis the American Birkebeiner but no longer races. He is co-owner of Mel’s Trading Post in Rhinelander, Wisconsin – a sporting goods store named after his late father who started the business in 1946.