Why Ski Cross-Country?

I would like to attribute my defection to cross-country skiing to a Peter Principle lateral search for incompetence: that I had done everything one can do while wearing skis and was in search of new worlds to conquer. This, however, was not the case.

It all began one November morning two years ago when my sister entered my room wearing my ski boots and a canary-eating grin. It seems, I was told, that the boots no longer fit me but that they fit my sister just fine.

A week later my beautiful Kneisel skis followed suit and I was left with a pair of ski poles that my father--Ten Commandments not withstanding--coveted.

Thus it was late November and I had visions of a whole season's snow going to waste on the other members of my family. Something had to be done, and that something turned out to be a pair of cross-country skis, some Bonna boots, and bamboo poles. Even before stepping out into the cold, cross-country skiing has a lot to recommend it.

Low cost, for example. While one can easily spend over $100 for downhill skis, $50 for boots, and $20 for poles, fully equipping myself for cross-country skiing cost under $90. Of course, the wrong equipment is no bargain at any price, and the right choice of skis and boots is especially important for the beginner.

Your first decision is to choose the width of ski most suitable for the type of skiing you intend to do and the condition of the snow where you will be skiing.

The widest ski available is the Touring ski. The greater width provides stability and is an advantage in deep powder where the extra surface area keeps you from sinking into the drifts. Those who intend to carry large backpacks should probably opt for these wide touring skis.

The next width is the light touring ski and has the advantage of being faster and lighter than the regular touring ski.

Although initially more strain on the neophytes' ankles, the loss in stability is more than compensated by the reduced weight and added speed once you have mastered cross-country skiing.

So, unless you were one of those people who started walking at age eight and are still having difficulties, I would recommend the light touring ski. It is more work at first, but after two weeks this is the width you will wish you had purchased.

The narrowest ski--the racing ski--is closer to a pair of ice skates than to the downhill skis of your youth. A good deal of work for your ankles, these skis are recommended for people with Norwegian (preferably Swedish) last names who foresee skiing only on packed and grooved racing tracks.

Sealskins

After choosing a width for your skis, the second and a more difficult decision lies in choosing between three alternative ski bottoms. The first option is a pair of inlaid Mohair strips which allow you to glide forwards but provide traction when you push off on one ski to slide forward on the other. This is the first commercial waxless ski and is America's improvement on tying seal skins to the bottom of each ski.

The drawbacks of the mohair strips are that they tend to ice up in some weather and may fill up with klister if someone ahead of you is using wax.

To solve this problem, the last three years have brought us the "fish scale" bottom which, as its name implies, is a large tractive area (usually the entire ski bottom) resembling fish scales that allow the ski to slide forward but not backward.

Fish scales are at their best in loose snow and slush but are slightly less effective in their glide. Also, in hard-frozen crusty snow a slight--and extremely obnoxious--buzzing sound is created. If, however, you are one of those who have avoided central heating all these years as "unnatural," then you will also reject these recent attempts to make life easier and insist on waxing your skis.

A veritable art, the correct choice of wax depends on two factors: one, the history of the snow (has it melted and refrozen?), and two, the water content of the snow.

Briefly, the colder the snow, and the more recent the last snowfall, the more "tooth" the crystals have and the harder the wax you should use. In contrast, older snow and higher temperatures demand a softer wax.

The hard waxes generally come in small foil cans while the soft waxes, or "klister" in Swedish, come in tubes, like toothpaste. (The hardness of a wax is determined by the proportion of wax to resin, and the klister is almost entirely resin.)

The waxing chart above is a demonstration of how snow conditions and temperature combine to determine the optimum wax.

While you may be anxious to begin skiing and want to rush out and outfit yourself with Norway's finest, the temptation to buy immediately should be fought.

Most winter sports stores in Boston and Cambridge will rent a complete set of boots, skis, and poles for roughly nine dollars (shop around, the price does vary). And best of all, the cost of rentals can be used towards the purchase of equipment when you decide what you want.

Where to go

Now that you have rented or purchased "ce qu'il faut," where do you go to cross-country ski? The answer is anywhere and everywhere there is an inch and a half of snow.

Front yards, unplowed streets, golf courses, Central Park, and The Yard are merely a few suggestions. During the brief time that snow remained on the ground this fall, scores of enthusiasts raced up and down the banks of the Charles.

For day and weekend trips, the Division of Forests and Parks of Massachusetts will provide a list of maps of cross-country trails in more than twenty state and MDC parks. For information, write to:

Dept. of Environmental Management

100 Cambridge St.

Boston, MA 02202

Nearby Lincoln also has an extensive cross-country trail system and maps are available at the town hall.

If you haven't been able to tall your roommates into joining you out on the tundra and would like company, both the Sierra Club and the Appalachian Mountain Club run cross-country trips of varying degrees of difficulty.

If you explain that you are a beginner, they will in turn be honest in describing the level of competence desired for a particular trip.

Wherever you go, however you go, the important thing is to enjoy yourself at a sport that doesn't require ten-dollar lift tickets, two hour rides in search of "skiable snow," or equipment that would bankrupt the U.S. Treasury.