Outdoor Adventure: Skiing on a cold day
Understand this: In cold weather, skis run slow. This is contrary to what most people think; they assume in cold temperatures skis are very smooth and very fast. No, they’re not. They are very slow. The snow is so dry as to be like sand. Think of skiing across sandpaper; that is how skis run on cold snow.
Another fact: Snow temperature rises far slower than air temperature, so that when the midday temps reach a balmy 5 above or 10 above the snow is colder. Assuming, that is, that the overnight low was below zero. Snow temperatures might still be below zero when the air temperature reaches 10 or 15. What you see is not what you get.
One more: Because the snow is cold and thus slow, it takes more effort to cover a given amount of ground. You work harder; you gain less for that exertion. Pushing a rock up a hill; that’s what skiing on cold snow is like. You work very hard and get little. I wonder sometimes why I do it.
In warmer snow, say upper teens to upper twenties, your skis glide well as if running over ball bearings. That’s when skiing is fun, pure fun, and you feel you can ski forever in the same way that when you ride a bicycle with the wind behind you; you feel you could ride with Lance Armstrong even when he was running on dope, which he was most of the time it seems.
But cold snow-that’s a problem and in January you will inevitably have a cold night and a cold day, and when you ski, you will have to work harder and the only thing you’ve got in the tank is a cup of coffee. No dope.
I do it anyway, ski in the cold. I do it because I like to ski. I do it because on a day off in winter I’m going to ski, no matter what. I do it to log some miles to get my sorry self in some shape to ski the Birkie. And I do it because on cold days you often have some of the most beautiful days of all winter, days that sparkle and shine like a cut stone.
Then there is this: When you depend on snowfall for your recreation, you are at risk in a time of atypical weather. So if you have a chance to get out, you’d better take it.
I know that I can hunt deer regardless of weather. The same for grouse and ducks. I can ride my bicycle in any year, month after month. I can run or I can paddle or I can hike. There is a lot I can do, that we all can do. But if you count on snow, you put your odds on the wrong end of the table. If your season is built on a foundation of snow, you don’t have much these days to work with. Ask any skier you know, ask anyone who rides a snowmobile or lives for the time stomping in the back 40 on snowshoes.
I’ll ski on a cold day and take it as it comes.
Last Thursday I woke to a minus 15, and a clear sky and a bit of new snow. I dawdled; the temperature climbed, slowly, as if all things move slower in the cold. By late morning it topped zero, and I waxed the skis and headed out.
I drove north to find good snow; there was none here, only hardscrabble of crust, remnants of a thaw, hard, icy snow that was unforgiving and unpleasant. So I drove an hour, which I do not like to do; it seems only proper that we have good snow here. Not this year. This year there has been very little that can be called out as quality skiing near here, not, at least, for stride skiers who need more snow than the skaters.
I drove through the chill cold of a January day, drove north, drowsy in the warmth of the truck, with the heater blowing hard and steady like a breath of July come to the cold of January. When I drive that far in a warm truck, I get lazy and lose the desire to ski. Always have; that’s one reason I don’t like to drive any distance.
I was the first one on the trail at midday and skied slowly in the cold air. It had warmed to five above, but only a few hours earlier it was below zero. The snow was very cold and very slow, and there was a skiff of new snow, less than an inch, in the tracks. New snow is slow in any temperature. Ski over it a few times, and it gets faster and the glide improves, but the first time, especially when it’s cold, it is very slow. I plodded on; there was no other way. It wouldn’t get faster because I wanted it to.
I skied out and turned around, for this was an out-and-back trail here, not a loop. On the return, skiing on track I’ve skied in, the skis glided better. Still not good; it was too cold.
There was a breeze on this day, but in the woods I was sheltered for the most part. On one long, open area the wind hit me, not hard, not a gale, but enough to bring a chill. Then I skied past that and into thicker woods again, protected from the wind as if on the lee side of an island in summer.
I saw other skiers, a handful of like-minded citizens of winter, splashes of color and movement on this sunny day. I stopped, visited, then skied on, pushing slow skis, celebrating the glide for whatever it was, working harder, ever harder than I would if the temperature was warmer and the snow friendlier to glide. I had no regrets for I had not skied in two weeks, unheard of in a normal winter, but this winter has been anything but normal.
After an hour and a half, I felt a chill come down like a shadow. I felt the extra effort catch up to me, a burden on my shoulders like a pack grown heavier with the miles.
There is always some risk on the cold days; the cold is unforgiving and uncaring and if you are out too long, out too far, away from warmth for too long, if you do that, you are at risk.
There are only two significant decisions one makes in the cold: When to go out and when to come in. All else pales to that pair of calls one makes. I’d gone out and stayed out. Now I felt the chill come down and spread over my back and I knew I was at the time to make the second decision-when to quit.
When I feel the cold settle in, I get very analytical: How bad is it? Is it getting worse? Is it all-pervasive or does it come and go? Can I pull my jacket tighter, my hat lower? I think of all of this as I ski on that cold afternoon. When to quit?
I quit after I skied two hours. I quit and I was tired and I was chilled and I was glad to get into the warmth of the lodge, to kick off my boots, to replace thin ski jacket with heavy down parka, to trade the thin hat for a thick one, a warm one. I was glad to quit.
But more than that, I was happy to have skied on a cold day when the sun lit up the world and the sparks of light danced on the snow like notes of a song sung for any who would take the time to listen.
An assortment of outdoor products is available at Mel’s Trading Post in downtown Rhinelander; call (715) 362-5800. To comment on this story, visit StarJournalNOW.com.