Apr 01

White snow - black arts

ANDREW BOYLE, Comments: 0
Easter - and Norwegians are desperately trying to find the last patches of snow where they might squeeze out the season's final cross-country ski trip. Once again I'm too broke to leave the lowlands. But I was recently looking through notes I made during the first winter I was in Norway, and thought I would share with you THE THREE ARTS that ever since have seemed to me the unattainable pinnacle of winter fun. For a new-beginner, they are the black arts of the white wonderland! 

(Photos from 1980, the latest in cross-country fashiion!)


In that first winter of mine in Norway, 1980 to be precise, my enthusiasm was so irrepressible that I soon picked up basic skills by the try-and-try-again method, sufficient for whole days out in the woods. Nevertheless there were certain more demanding techniques that I really ought to have mastered before becoming quite as reckless as I was that first season. They became for me The Three Arts.

1. The Art of Pronouncing the Word: LØYPE.

This was at an early stage in my sweaty wrestling match with the Norwegian language. So early in fact that many days were overshadowed with the despair caused by Æ and Ø and Å and SKJ. But worse than these, surprisingly, was the letter Y, in Norwegian pronounced with a straining, pained sound, shoved high up into the soft palate. It has no equivalents in English. I can still wake from a baleful dream, my brain feverish and my tongue in knots, and know that I have been fighting a losing battle with the word løype. It looks so neat and tidy, but for foreigners it is a troll of a word to get right. And what was worse, a flawed pronunciation could be a health hazard.

Løype means "Clear!" or "Clear the way!", and its function is much like "Fore!" in golf. It is the warning exclamation you shout to skiers coming up a snowy slope as you speed down it. Helpful to the success of this time-honoured alarm is a clear pronunciation. Unfortunately mine was so misjudged it was rather a thing of wonderment and fascination to other skiers. Løype!! I shouted as best I knew how when I caught sight of a group of condom-clad enthusiasts having a chat at the foot of the hill I was unsteadily hurtling down. They looked over their shoulders into the forest deep, puzzled by this strange bellow. Was it an elk? Hmm. Very peculiar! It didn't end well.

I later found a better solution to the pronunciation problem. To clear a snowy hill as rapidly as possible I would shout: ENGLISH! Never failed. (I appeal to my ancestors of the tartan persuasion for understanding and forgiveness....)

2. The Art of Changing Track.

Along the forest roads of the Nordmark the ski trail is prepared by a track-making machine pulled behind a snowmobile. One set of parallel tracks is created for skiers going in the one direction, another set for those going in the other. To overtake a slower skier you had to master the art of changing tracks. I would gawp in admiration when I saw Snow Gods execute that nifty manoeuvre, it was like a sudden glimpse of Torvill & Dean. Lift the first ski – put your weight on the other – skate out to the side with the first ski – lift the other ski and push off with it in the new track – glide away again. In precise, rhythmic actions, so elegant, so simple. One-and two-and three, oom-cha-cha, you wouldn't be surprised to hear the tones of An der schönen blauen Donau lilting from a brass octet among the pines.

Long after I had become rather proficient in forwards, and pretty gutsy when it came to downwards, the challenge of sideways would immediately expose me for the relatively fresh kid in the tracks that I was. Most attempts at changing track ended in an unplanned sojourn in a snowdrift or a brutal stop at the foot of the nearest fir. In The Art of Making The Cock-Up Look Deliberate, however, I was a virtuoso. Even before the sound of splintering ski tip died away I had a bar of milk chocolate up from my pocket and my face folded in meditative appreciation of wonders of the winter.

3. The Art of Applying Klister Where Klister Should Be Applied.

So much enjoyment I had on this adventure that I tried to prolong the season into the green zone where klister is king. Klister is a special wax needed to give the ski grip when all that is left underfoot is hard-packed snow and ice. Only this once did I ever try to wax my skis with this substance of the devil. It is more jelly than wax, and has to be squeezed from a tube. With a warm smoothing plate mounted on a Primus gas burner the klister is spread out along the soles of your upturned skis. Or so they say. What they don't tell you is that klister has extreme properties of stickiness and stringiness that can make it seem animate, yes in the wrong hands it comes alive, a gelatinous monster that embraces everything in its path with syrupy arms. My hands - they were the wrong hands.

I can't recall the exact chain of events now. Details – excised from my mind. Let us just accept that the following is not an optimal combination of objects to be gathered in a small kitchen: 1 dilettante; 1 can of turps; 1 open flame. I hadn't secured my skis properly, and suddenly they slipped and I was juggling two long planks, a gas burner, turps, and great gobs of Voldemort's wax of choice. Even before the turps-soaked kitchen cloth took fire I had klister in my hair, on my clothes, on the kitchen wall, on the kitchen lamp. By the time I had doused the fire I had singed my eyebrows, melted parts of my skis, and coated every surface in the kitchen with the greasy layer that comes from turpentine smoke.

Since that day I have had a heartfelt loathing for klister. And for sausage skin-clad Snow Gods who can command the monstrous syrup to dance for them along the soles of their skis, the most deferential respect.

Have a great Easter! 


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