February 13, 2011

Adventures in cross country skiing

When I last left you, I was headed off to the Microbrasserie de Chamonix (MBC) to sample some locally brewed beers. It ended up being about a mile’s walk from my B&B along a pretty cross country ski trail, where I saw lots of people schussing along. It looked like fun! I’d never cross country skied before, but I knew it was supposed to be an incredible workout, and with the beauty of the Alps all around me, I decided that on Sunday I’d give it a try. But for now, it was biere time!

I arrived at the brewery and quickly scoped out the scene: only about a dozen people in there, several who were families with tables, and a few couples sprinkled around the bar. Unfortunately, all of those groupings meant that it was unlikely I’d find someone to talk to – but I optimistically sat down next to the friendliest-looking couple I could find.

Unfortunately, they were too wrapped up in each other (and then in what I realized were their kids that were running around) to talk to me. A bit later, the wife got up to go sit with the kids, and it was just the guy alone at the bar, but I was kind of afraid to talk to him in case the wife thought I was hitting on him. I swear, I’m just here to make friends! Anyone else ever get that fear when you’re talking to someone who’s taken?

So I sipped my beers in silence, wishing I had brought a book. I figured the apres-ski scene would be a lot busier than this! I contented myself with half-watching the soccer game on TV between Italy and the UK while I took in the sights of the bar.

It was after my third beer that I realized the game playing on the TV was rugby and not soccer. HA – guess I was more tipsy than I thought! I wanted to sample all the beers though, so 1/2 pints were definitely in order. And, you know, maybe some seasoned waffle fries. In my defense, I had skipped lunch, been skiing all morning, and needed something to help take away the effects of the beer!

When I finally stumbled out, it turned out that I had timed it perfectly, arriving back at La Bagna just as the sky was turning to dusk.

I still had a bit of time before dinner, so I headed for my bunk to watch Top Chef Desserts for a bit (I stopped watching about halfway through the season, but had a visit to the restaurant of one of the contestants coming up, so wanted to see it through). The time passed quickly, and soon it was time for dinner.

On the menu: tartiflette. I had no idea what that was, but it turned out to be the most delicious and horrible for you thing ever: basically, a dish of melted cheese with some sausage and potatoes added, and then broiled to give it an au gratin top. French cooking = amazing! This was literally one of the best dishes I have ever eaten in my entire life. I was so glad I had chosen to stay at this particular chalet!

After dinner, one of my flirty housemates invited me to go with him and his friends to MBC, but I was still feeling the effects of my earlier visit, and decided to call it an early night instead. Now, I regret that choice, as it would have been neat to see the Chamonix nightlife! But my body was desperate for sleep, so that’s what I gave it.

The next morning, I woke up bright and early at 8am – no alarm clock needed, and perfect timing to get breakfast at 8:30am and be out the door by 9am. I wanted to get in as much cross country skiing as possible before I needed to head back to Geneva for my flight! I headed back for the rental shop in the village, and requested some cross country skis.

First mistake of the day: choosing the kind of cross country skis where you stay in the the grooves pre-cut into the snow, instead of getting the kind where you skate along with your skis in a v-formation. The guy at the rental shop asked me which I wanted, and after not getting much advice from him, I decided on the former kind, figuring they’d be a bit easier for a beginner.

From the shop, I walked about 1/3 mile to the start of the cross country trail I had seen the day before. I had been told that I would need to buy a pass in order to use it, but that I could just do that on the trail when stopped (no need to do it in advance). As it turned out, no one stopped me, so it became a free ride. Having only paid about $10 for the skis/boots/poles, this was a lot cheaper than my downhill expedition yesterday!

My first problem came when I tried to attach the skis to my boots. I had thought it would be just like downhill skis – you slide your toe in and then put weight on your heel to lock it in. Nope, not at all! With cross country skis, your heels lift up as you ski, so that mechanism wouldn’t work. However, I couldn’t figure out what I was supposed to do! Finally, I flagged down a French couple to help me, and the man kindly reassured me that all cross country skis were different so it wasn’t my fault for not knowing. (Now, whether or not he believed that is a different story…)

Once I had the skis on, though, things were fine for a while. Even great! I enjoyed the tranquility of skiing through the woods, and it felt great to be getting such a nice cardio workout at the same time. It was a bit colder than yesterday, but I was still sweaty from the exertion of pushing myself along. While the tracks helped, I definitely couldn’t just glide along without any effort!

I reached the end of the trail, where I had turned off for the bar yesterday, and turned around.

This was actually the beginning of the trail, since I had started in the middle, and now there were signs indicating the different trails I had to choose from: beginner (3k), intermediate (8k), and advanced (15k). Not really knowing much about cross country skiing, I assumed the difficulty was purely based on the distance of the trail – that is, that the longest one was only the hardest because you’d be out there longer. Anyone who cross country skis is probably laughing at me now, because they know what’s coming.

The first few miles were great, with a few slight uphills to provide a challenge. For example, the trail crossed a stream at one point, and I had to go over a little footbridge – very pretty, and just difficult enough to keep things interesting.

However, what I found was that the ground was pretty icy – when I came to sections where the tracks ended and there wasn’t a pre-cut surface into which my skis could go, I was really floundering. My skis slipped and skidded over the icy ground, unable to gain traction, so every time those tracks disappeared, I was in trouble. Fortunately, it was only for short stretches that the tracks would go away, so I could mostly make do.

Finally, I reached the end of the intermediate trail, and I took the signs directing me toward the advanced trail. I hit a long uphill section, and was proud to make it to the top, sweaty but pleased with myself.

Unfortunately, I forgot a lesson I learned in marathoning: what goes up, must come down. I saw the gentle sloping downhill stretching out in front of me, and didn’t think twice before continuing down it. I started to pick speed, which was exhilarating… until I realized I was now going a bit too fast. I tried to slide my skis up against the edge of the tracks in an effort to slow down, but that didn’t really help things. Being in the icy tracks, there was no way to “snowplow” my skis like you do in downhill, turning the tips together to create extra resistance that causes you to stop.

And then, I saw that up ahead the tracks were about to end  – and there was a short section of the hill that didn’t have any tracks and was just smooth snow/ice. Having learned on the flat parts just how little control I had when there were no tracks to follow, I started to panic, but there was nothing I could do but watch it approach… and pray.

I came out of the tracks and did my best to use my legs to steer. When that failed, I then tried sticking my poles in the ground… but that also didn’t help. Finally, I fell over – landing with a thump, but luckily with nothing really hurt. Where I had stopped was just about the end of the downhill, so I managed to get myself up (much harder than it sounds!), and then cautiously continue on. When another downhill inevitably came, I again tried valiantly to figure out a way to stop… and again, fell on my butt with a thump. I was going to have some nice bruises from this adventure! I thought it was hilarious that I hadn’t fallen once on the steep downhills the day before… but now on the small slopes of the cross country trail, I couldn’t stay upright to save my life. More than anything, I wished I had opted for the “skating” style of cross country skis, which are designed to provide lots and lots of traction.

Further on ahead, the trail divided – with one route going back to the start, and the other heading up the biggest uphill yet. At first I got all excited about the big uphill, but this time I finally remembered that a big uphill would mean a big downhill later on. If I couldn’t even handle the gradual downhills, there was no way I could handle the downhill from this mountain! So I headed for home.

As I turned to do so, I found another downhill waiting for me. It wasn’t massive, but I could see that the tracks stopped halfway down, and to make matters worse, I had to turn sharply left to stay on the trail. This was not going to be good! I decided to try to inch myself down sideways, planting my poles firmly on the downhill side to ensure that I wouldn’t slip in doing so. I was in the middle of taking baby steps down when I saw some other skiers approaching from the downhill side. Mortified by how terribly I was at cross country skiing, I stopped what I was doing and started pretending to root around in my pockets for something. See, I didn’t suck at skiing; I was just taking a break for a minute! Riiiiight.

After they had gone, I finally gave up on the baby steps approach and decided to just take the plunge – of course, falling over like an idiot halfway down. Good thing I had waited until they were gone! From there, fortunately, the rest of the trail was mostly flat, and I was able to make it without further incident.

When I got back to the flat beginner part of the trail where I had started, I decided to do an extra loop to make up for the mileage I hadn’t covered, and I was rewarded for my efforts with a really cool view: of a parasailer landing not too far from me! I had read online to learn that the ride from drop off to landing was 30 minutes to an hour, but all the parasailers I had seen so far were really high in the sky, so it was neat to see one close by and landing.

I finished the loop and then headed back to return my skis – realizing as I did so that no one had ever stopped me to pay for a pass. Free ride! What a great ending to the vacation. I headed back to La Bagna and awaited my bus to Geneva – it was time to be homeward bound. Switzerland, je t’adore!


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