Is it possible to get up and going and achieve something noteworthy in cross country skiing in Scotland? Well if you are the Musgrave family or Andy Young, then you would hear a resounding yes! They have made it their sporting career and compete at top olympic pro level based in Norway, the home of the sport.
Firstly though in Scotland you should really decide if you are going to do back country touring, full mountain ‘randonee’ or sports style XC because they have diversified styles and of course equipment. Snow does of course gather above 650 m very often in Scotland, from nbot just the highlands but the southern uplands too, as anyone gazing southward from Lanark or Morningside will tell you.
In a nutshell, back country skis tend to suit a slightly hard base or shallow snow where they dig in a bit and allow for reasonable progress, even if that is often more akin to using snow shoes. Randonee skis are more for the downhillers, with skins put on to work purely as snow shoes up hill. These are much better at deep snow. You can get broader BC skis, often refered to as Telemark skis, which kind of are half way between the two. These are what NATO use for artic training and are good for a wide range of skiing in unprepared runs. Both these classes of skis lend themselves to those who have experience in downhill and especially off piste conditions it has to be said. However less adventourous routes with gentle down hills can be achieved by new beginners.
The next category is sports skis for prepared tracks. Sorry to complicate things here, but we have two main styles here which have their own specialist equipment. There is classic kicking style skis, and there is the newer style skate ski which came to be used by Biathalon shooters as well. In Scotland from what I have seen of prepared tracks and os on, it would be a better choice to opt for a skate ski, and to start on a slightly broad model compared to the narrowest, circa one inch broad race skis. THis is because they do not rely on well prepared tramlines, rather they are quite good in shallow snow which has been rolled, or deeper snow along roads whcih is even and has become firmer. It seems most folk at the Huntly club use these type. Certainly with this type of ski you can visit also any ski centre with prepared downhill green and transfer sections, and get used to the rather metronome like propelling style and the feel downhill in step turning and ploughing. Please do this in good, soft conditions and avoid icey days! You want the ski to have good bite and good ability to plough, because this type has no steel edge available.
The plateau sections of Aviemore, Aanoch More and Glen Coe are all ideal when conditions are good, to get up and going, but I would advise a bit of instruction from the clubs, huntly ski centre, or the commercial actors in Braemar and Aviemore. ALso just to mention it, Leadhills also has a ski tow and machine now, so it is an option in snowier years than this to get down and get out. You want to learn uphill propulsion as soon as you can do horixontal because this will make for more fun, being able to come back up from areas outside the rope or pomma tows.
Skating style will lend itself most to those who have either rollerbladed before or are quite agile on slalom skis with the use of poles to skate over flatter bits. It is an elegant and quite simple set of closely related propulsion techniques. Poles are important but it is always best to learn balance without using poles while on the flat or a very slight down hill section.Instruction is worth its weight in gold, followed by yourtubing things like V1 V2 and ‘paddeling’.
Some winters they do run good classic runs now in the Huntly, Braemar and Aviemore areas. That is to say miles of tramlines! When I say kicking style I should really kick myself, because in fact it is more about pressing and striding than a backwards flick from a kick when you do it correctly and most efficiently. Once again avoid icey conditions. You can attempt to learn on your own, I would say two things – dont use ski poles the first couple of hours, practice plough then half plow with one ski in the tramline and one in a Vee against the slope, and then try striding on the ski and getting all your weight onto one ski which will then glide in the track. The agility you can learn from skat skiing though is a big advantage to balace, as in effect, classic is really a case of parallel skating with a vertical only push rather than a down and outwards swipe in skating.
Once again instruction is the key, and in terms of hirign or buiyuing equipment, begin with a waxless, plastic etched solution if you dont have a pal who can wax skis. Waxless plastiic creates a lof of friction noise, and does not grip in absolutely all conditoons wax, or the UHU like clisters do, but otherwise it provides a good starting point. Skis are generally sized by height, but you do need a ski which will glide by holding your weight a little aloft the snow in the mid section under the sole of your boot. On a very evem indoor floor you shoudl be able to stand on both skis at once and get a pal to pass an A4 sheet of paper atlease from your heal to your toes if not upto about 15 to 20cm forward of your toes. Shorter than that and you should ask for a longer and/or stiffer arched pair of skis for the day or purchase. A slow, draggy ski will be ok to get up and going with, but they will severly hinder your development later. Very hard spring skls are not for new beginners.
There are now the new fancy skis with a mohair insert machined into the ski so to speak,. These are the type I use for most of my skiing, atomic skintec 4000s to be exact, and although a ski with the right arch tension of this type will be great for a new beginner, they are almost three times the price of the plastic etched out waxless patterned skis. They do give better glide and often better grip, sio if you are planning on taking them abroad then they can be a good investment, on the other hand paying a hundred quid for your skis on the plane is daft when they are around fifteen to twenty a day to hire on a short week hol.
The narrower touring skis, often called BC or ‘Markaski’ ie moorland skis in english, are wider than sports skis with tips around 42 mm and a centre of 32 odd. These are available with steel edges, which is a huge advantage if you are doing any hills where there may be icey or hard packed conditions. In my experience, ones without will be a handfui on icey base layers, and the plastic edges can get very worn in the course of a couple of seasons. BC skis of this kind of width will fit happily in the tramlines, if sometimes braking the ski a little in fresh laid tracks, while also being suitable for any depth of firm snow, and upto six inches of new snow on a base by in large, discalimer own risk! For deeper, new snow then you need to get more mountain oriented skis, Telemark style, or if you are intent on enjoying down hllls after a trudge up a mountain, then the locking heel Randonee ski is for you. Plus good ski skills before you start this escapade!
BC skis also lend themselves to carrying a rucksack because they support the weight better and are easier to balance on, being broader. Ones with steel edges are even more helpful here as they are easier to steer on down hills when the snow is firm or icey. Sports skis are only to be used really with a ruck sack that fits neatly into the small of the back and is less than 18kg IMHO.
Ski poles like I say are something to be avoided for the first hour or three on skis, so that you teach your brain the balance on the feet without striking out with your polkes, from which you will struggle to learn manoevrability and efficient style in any form of the art. Poles get longer as the job gets sportier, from the kind of nipple high BC poles (adjustable telescopic ones are best for real touring where any down hills are expected to last a mile or more) while classic beginner ski poles are a little higher, and full sports classic ones are just above the arm pit to the centre of the forward shoulder muscles. Skate style are the longest of all, coming up to nose level. The type of bail or cup on the end is determined by the type of skiing and hardness of typical conditions, soft requiring a bigger, broader bail. You will inevitablty bend or break your first set of poles, so fancy light ones and carbon ones are worth avoiding untiol you can stay upw withour striking out with your poles for support.
Safety first> go with some one experienced or a guide or instructor on trails you know to not be steep or otherwise dangerous. The level of down hill control by ploughing on sports skis is no where near that of slalom skis for example, you need to exercise caution at all times really, least you be thrown into a tree ! Learning to plough, then half plough then do a Christie sideways skidding stop are worht getting insttruiction on, and practicing in prigressively harder conditions. Being able to bomb out and stick your skis across the hill to stop is also something you need to learn, and I had to do that yesterday when I suddenly saw I was going to come up in a speed higher than I may have had control over the next bend at!
Roller blading is an ideal sport to have done before XC skiing, Here you could introduce poles with rubber tips, and use a set whcih come to mid shoulder to start with, then going up to full nose length ones later. This will make your roller blading much faster btw! Caution! It will howevver help immensly on those annoying uphills where you started to lose momentum using legs alone. There are specialist roller skis and the Huntly ski centre have an asphalt track with a hill in it, and will offer instruction too. I believe part of the former London olympic village also has such an offering witha longer track, but am not sure if there is a hire option there.
In the right conditions for BC skis and with some skill built up in plouging, traversing and fishboning safely, you can attempt pretty much all the easier grade hill walks or bealach crosses you would manage on foot. Just be prepared to take your skis off and buy boots accordingly which tolerate this. The broader telemark skis and NATO “planks” have a toe cap and heel spring for taking army style boots with no binding concession so that can be something to look at if you intend to do steeper up hills with youut skis off, and expect deeper snow ahead.
On sports skis you want to limit yourself to about 10km per half day and vary your style. As said your first morning out should be without pooooles, and ideally with a flat or slight slope leading to a steeper ‘fish bone’ slope for you to waddle up and plough down on to develope these essential skills. Stick to an area and dont attempt a longer tour, because there is a danger for injury or exhausting little used muscles as I discovered to my cost ! If you get good at the stride glide or skate style on day one, they as a physically fit person you should manage 10km on your next day out, just find a route which is gently undulating and practice plough and half plough, On any steeper or icey sections you can always side step down, or with discretion being the better part of valour, take your skis off and walk down. The same is partly true of uphills where a slip in fish bone can become a nasty slide down into a ditch in firmer conditions on a steep hill.
In classic style, every day you should go out and try the snow without poles, even after lunch on a longer tour, because this will give yhou a real impression of the push needed from the legs, the glide achievable and the feel for true balance on your feet. The latter varies greatly, especially when there is a lot of air or water in the snow. Skate style you rely more on your poles, but it is worth a few swings of the legs without the poles now and then to get the same feel for conditions, and to feel how far you can get your weight onto the outside of the gliding leg, which is around the pioint of maximum glide efficiency for the ski underneath that leg. All on youtube
When you want a faster ski for which ever style, with less irritating whirring noise and better glide then you need to learn to wax. Help is at hand though with those skin skis, which only need glider wax and skin sprays, or by using Start or Rex Gripe Tape which goes on like double sided sticky tape and does almost all snow types barring very icey, with a very good degree of grip and glide.
The first part of waxing or taping your new smoother skis, is to get the shop to help you establkish the wax area, and explain how this will be shorter for clisters or grip tape. You should get these marks placed on the front of the ski, and remember how far back towards the heel each should go.
As a rule of thumb as the snow gets warmer, the wax gets softer, with the exception of ice which needs a hard sticky clister. Wax is bult up in layers ontop of a lightly sanded, cleaned area marked as above. You start with a base binder like the green swix spray or clister base binder, or a hard green wax you cork on. For these a good shop can offer to do this job for you, and the first glide area texturing and waxing too. Since high density polyethylene bases are very slippy actually, you can choose a Kizmum style scrape down to a flat surface which will work in all but wet conditions when it needs to have narrow rilling patterns put in. Kizmum is proiven concepts in skis, but you need a ski horse to do it yourself.
After your base wax is nicely on, you can do your wax for conditions for the day or week ahead if they are due to be stable, Here we will usually start with a blue, medium hard application of two corked in layers. Make sure the wax is cold, and having corked in one layer on one ski, leave it to chill outside while you do the other. These will be full length applications to the marked kick wax area as above. Flourinated carbon products are very much more resistant to emulsification and last a lot longer, but are maybe not that safe for wildlife, the jury is out on that one. I find they work much better than standard petroleum wax m terms of durability. As you build up layers of wax ontop of this green. blue. blue base, you move like a pyramid intowards the centre of the sole of the binding area. The rule of thumb is softer wax on to hard, not the other way, and clister only onto green or blue.
Clister as mentioned is horrid UHU glue like stuff, but if you get used to it, it can sovle many of the problems of hard ice crystals, watery easter time snow or concrete like bases in the tram lines, A simple tip is to put it in the oven at a low fifty degrees centigrade, or if in the car driving up to see if conditions are clister in fact, then over a vent with hot air coming out. It will then flow out of the tube, and you can spread it quickly in a nice, even layer with the plastic kit spatula having laid on a herring bone pattern pointing each side forwardd and intowards the centre groove, but not over into it. You only need one layer with clister. Top tip 2, then place your skis on the cold ground for five minutes such that the clister hardens, otherwise it may well strip off in the first 100m of kicking1
That is it then, your starter pack in XC. An morming or afternoon of instruction in good conditions, with prepared tracks most likelyu therer, is well worth the investment on a down hill ski holiday or at the Huntly, Braemar or Aviemore centres and shops offering lessons. I would suggeest tyring skate style first if you are interested in the sports style or more agile skiing in the BC. For the serious Scotland and rUK based sports skier, then a pair of roller skis and poles will be a good investment and once again, these require instriction to be safe on. I would recommend sticking to wider cycle paths or quiuet roads with these, as in skate style you can take upto four meters in breadth as you zig-zag your way along,