February 21, 2016. The recent delay in snowy days gave Matthew and me a chance to “upgrade” our ski equipment … yet again. Despite numerous tries last year, we’d never gotten the hang of correctly waxing our brand new skis. (I think the ability must be genetically preprogrammed in most Norwegians.) That’s why we decided to go back to waxless skis, which the locals say are “best for beginners and old people, who shouldn’t be speeding.” Ouch. There went my pride.
As with last year, it took several searches to find waxless skis for a midget like me. (Excuse me. I mean “vertically challenged,” to use a more PC term for exceedingly short.) After searching six stores, I finally found one that theoretically possessed a pair with the magical combination of shortness and stiffness required for a person with my “condition.” As the clerk kindly informed me, “You’re too fat for kids’ skis, and too skinny for adults’ skis.” I couldn’t decide whether to be offended or elated.
Correctly reading the expression on my face, the guy tried to take the sting out of his words by explaining that children’s skis were the right length for me but were too supple. My greater weight would press down excessively on the “bowed” section of the skis, which would cause them to grip the snow constantly (not just during push-off), thereby rendering me “slow” — the most dreaded fate a Norwegian skier can imagine. However, the clerk claimed to have a single pair of the only adult waxless skis that would work for me, as advertised: short enough to provide control, but stiff enough to keep me moving along at a socially acceptable pace.
Unfortunately, the testing procedure designed to put the final seal of approval on our perfect pairing still gave me doubts. The clerk placed a sheet of paper under the bow of the ski and asked me to bend down and apply my weight as I would during push-off. He then repeatedly tried to rip the paper out from under me, and about half the time he succeeded. His final analysis: “Well, they might be a little too stiff. To get enough grip for climbing uphill, you could consider wearing a backpack with some weights in it.” Great. Tackling Norwegian hills with a 20-pound weight on my back sounded like fun.
Two days later, Matthew and I took our new skis out for a test drive to Ullevålseter, a distant hikers’ café housed in a cute log cabin. At first, all seemed just ducky. Our skis gave us enough traction to help us push off, and not so much glide that our feet shot out from under us. I heaved a huge sigh of relief that I no longer stuck to the snow like glue, or zipped across it like a greased hockey puck.
However, I celebrated too soon. We came to the first enormous hill, and I began doing the typical skier’s shuffle to hike upwards … but kept sliding backwards. So I switched to duck-footing it. Turns out, the skis were still too long, and I ended up with sore hips from the effort of turning my legs out far enough to get a purchase on the ground, but yet keep my feet spread wide enough that my skis didn’t crisscross and tangle in back.
In an effort to distract myself from the pain and catch my breath, I stopped frequently to take photos. The ruse also helped save my pride a bit, as the 80-year-old Norwegians beating me up the hill thought I was stopping only to admire the scenery. And what a sight it was: The pine trees looked like Christmas displays, their branches bent beneath their load of snow. Three-foot-long icicles dangled from rock outcroppings. And every now and then, the treeline parted in spots, providing intermittent views across the Nordmarka forest and down into the fjord.
At various points during my Herculean labors, passing Norwegians listening to my English curses examined my progress and shouted comments like: “Your skis are too long, you need shorter skis!,” or “You need more wax!” One truly observant guy confirmed the sales clerk’s prediction: “Your skis are too stiff for you, you need more weight!” So Matthew dutifully transferred his pack to my shoulders, which helped only marginally. I longed for flat terrain.
But the path continued steeply upwards and onwards — three miles to the Ullevålseter Cafe. The thought of their delicious goulash was the only thing that kept me going as families towing sleds filled with small children left me in the dust. On more than one occasion, I had a hissy fit and whined like a two-year-old about my skis. I swear I came within an inch of lying down on the snow and having a full-blown tantrum, kicking and screaming.
Eventually — sweating, panting, and cursing — I made it to the lodge. My ire was temporarily forgotten as I seated myself in the crowd of wool-clad Norwegians enjoying a siesta in the sun. After my uphill battle, I felt I’d earned my right to number among them as a fellow Scandinavian. It’s the same feeling I get when I go to a Cubs game at Wrigley Field; like I’m a true American because I’m participating in the age-old cultural ritual of baseball (even though I really don’t follow the game).
When the family sitting next to us realized we were speaking English, they asked where we hailed from. Our answer of “Chicago,” brought astonishment first, and grudging admiration second. The no-filter grandmother chimed in, “Oy, I’m surprised an American is fit enough to make the trip up here. We thought you spent all your time in cars eating fast food.” Yeah, we Americans have a great reputation worldwide as fat, lazy slobs.
Of course, I then proceeded to confirm her impression of us as “big-eaters” by snarfing down a huge bowl of venison stew (which beat out goulash as my final choice, since it was new on the menu and I wanted to give it a try — delicious!) After a hot cup of coffee, Matthew and I headed back outside to admire the scenery and scout which path looked the least lethal for the downhill trip back to the T-bane train stop.
Ten minutes down the trail, I realized my legs were shot. My muscles quivered so badly from my previous exertions that I knew I didn’t have the strength to control my descent on the steep runs. Little kids littered the path, and I imagined scattering them like pins on a bowling lane with my unchecked pace. Off came the skis as I elected for the safer route of trudging along the edge of the trail.
However, ten minutes later, hundreds of folks came barreling by, attempting to make it back to the train before darkness fell. My presence along the trail perimeter elicited several angry diatribes in Norwegian that I can only assume meant, “Get the hell out of the way.” So I took off to look for a shortcut through the forest, while Matthew continued along the ski run.
Eventually, I came to the far end of Sognsvann Lake. By now I was limping from my plantar fasciitis acting up, so I put my skis back on with the intent of crossing the frozen expanse. Even though I’m terrified of falling through the ice (too many viewings of “It’s a Wonderful Life”), I decided I had to pick my poison. Skiing a half-mile over flat frozen water beat out gimping up and down over forest hills for another mile.
The trip over the ice turned out to be pretty magical, as the setting sun fired up a hazy fog over the lake. I felt like one of those crazy explorers who attempts to ski across the Antarctic. Fortunately, I made it to the other side of Sognsvann and met up with Matthew without mishap. No crevass crossings, no polar bear encounters.
As I collapsed onto a comfy T-bane seat, I began contemplating laying out $150 for yet another pair of skis — the child-sized waxless kind this time. Slow will suit me just fine. It’s better than walking miles through knee-deep snow while carrying skis and poles.