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Tim's Blog About Skiing Stuff

This blog is where I occasionally post entries about Alaskan backcountry cross country skiing news, issues, ideas, gear reviews and other random stuff that doesn't fit the format of my yearly trip report web pages.

Fall 2012:  Stand-Up Paddleboarding - Good XC Skiing Workout?  Good For AK?

The short:
Is paddling a stand-up paddleboard a good xc skiing workout?  Yes it is.  If you live in Alaska should you buy one?  If you are passionate about this sport and are willing to deal with cold water then yes, go get one.  If not, then use one when you travel to places that have warmer water than Alaska.  It will likely be more fun.

The long: Stand-up paddleboarding is the rage these days.  People are doing it everywhere.   It's an easy sport to learn on flat water.  And it's a good workout.  The main muscle groups that are utilized are the same core and upper body muscles that you use in diagonal striding.  It's a good cross-over strength activity for cross country skiers.  When you get comfortable on a SUP you can rock up on the balls of your feet and really attack the paddling strokes.  So it can resemble hard double-poling (with one pole).

If you are an Alaskan xc skier and haven't tried stand-up paddleboarding - you should consider giving it a try.  And in my opinion you should give it a try someplace where the water is much warmer than in Alaska.  Paddleboarding was made for warm water, and warm waves.  Sure you can layer on neoprene or dry suits and paddle cold Alaskan waters.  But to me that would be the equivalent of crust skiing in the rain.  It's not meant to be.

The thought of having a SUP in Alaska has excited me in the past.  But then I remember the time I got a whitewater kayak because I missed the kayaking I used to do in New England.  But whitewater kayaking in Alaska was miserable compared to the same sport in warm water.  So I sold the whitewater boat.  Seems to me that a stand-up paddleboard purchase would suffer the same fate.

Then there is the boredom factor.  Safe places around Anchorage to paddleboard are not plentiful.  And as you can probably tell from this web site - I'm the type that gets bored quickly from skiing at the same place more than a time or two.  So I'm sure paddling at the same small lakes would get old pretty fast.  What would keep paddleboarding from getting boring at the same place is waves.  Playing with a board on waves is addictive and the fun never seems to wane.  Maybe a good place to paddle with small waves would be Homer or Yakutat or Kodiak.  But I live in Anchorage.

So for now I'm not going to be getting a paddleboard.  They are cheap to rent at places where the water is warm.  Might as well save SUP'ing for visits to places where this sport is the most fun.

Stand-up paddleboarding uses core and upper body muscle groups similar to those used in xc skiing. SUP'ing is more fun when you don't have to worry about falling into 35 degree F water ... like in AK.
Early Fall 2012:  Got Wind?

Yep.  Anchorage, Alaska has got wind for sure.  I took this picture recently and I think it makes a statement about the wind that has been hammering and unraveling Anchorage.  Four windstorms in a row hit Anchorage during mid-September.  The first blow saw thousands of people lose power for up to 5 days.  Usually high winds hit Anchorage after the ground has frozen tree root systems into place and after wind-catching foliage has dropped.  But with trees being vulnerable this time of year these unseasonably strong winds took down a lot of trees, and many onto power lines.  The highest gust at my house was 98 mph.  Unofficially a gust of 131 was measured at Glen Alps.

Hmmm, it seems like I've seen this flag someplace before.

Late Summer 2012:  How Much Does It Cost To Produce XC Ski Gear?

If you buy your own ski gear, you are aware of how much skiing gear costs at the retail level.  But how much does it cost to make skiing equipment?

The cost of producing skiing gear is not readily shared by ski equipment manufacturers with the end customer.  This is understandable.  Ski equipment companies are out to get as much money as the market will bear.  They don't exist to give customers product at cost.

But nowadays the production costs of ski gear is a bit more transparent.  Now you can get a good idea of how much it costs to produce some ski gear.  And of course, the information that sheds light on these production costs can be found on the web.

A recent Yahoo! Finance article mentions that the Chinese e-commerce web site alibaba will likely have a higher total transactions value this coming year than both amazon and ebay combined.  Alibaba is an e-commerce web site that allows large quantity transactions to be executed with factories primarily in China.

The ski industry, like most sports industries, out-sources production of many of it's branded products to China.  Some ski companies these days, like Swix for example, have transitioned from manufacturing many of their own products to becoming a "brand" instead, and sub-contracting much of their product fabrication.  Instead of setting up a plant to make Swix velcro ski holders, it's much easier to contact a firm in China via alibaba and place an order for a million "SWIX" ski holders.  Companies like the Huazheng Textile Company in Guangdong, China can apparently churn out big orders of these ski holders for about 20 cents a piece.  And it seems like they have done these orders for Swix in the past, see this link.   Pay 20 cents a ski holder, retail it for $2.50 ($5 a pair) ... that's a 1250% mark-up per item.  There's bound to be good profits somewhere along the distribution chain with that kind of mark-up.

Alibaba searches can unearth lots of revelations on how much ski company "brands" pay to obtain their products.  Want to get into the roller ski business?  How about roller skis that are similar to Marwe roller skis, but of course with your own brand name painted on them?  Well, just use alibaba to contact the Yongkang Rattanlife folks in Zhejiang, China and they can make you Marwe-like roller skis for $8 to $15 each, if you order 1000 of them.  Then take the 30 dollar a pair roller skis that are shipped to you and see if you can make a profit selling them for $339 a pair, like Marwes go for.

Give it a try yourself.  Search alibaba for ski gear, or other sporting gear, and see what it costs to make the stuff in China.  Here are a few other interesting links I have found:

Carbon fiber poles with cork grips and wrap-around straps, like higher-end Swix, One-Way, Fischer, etc poles.   Cost: $4 to $20 a pole, minimum order 2000 pairs.  And this company can make 200,000 carbon fiber poles a month.

Waxing brushes.  Cost: 68 to 73 cents a piece if you order 3000 of them.

Roto brushes.  Cost: $1 to $2 a piece if you order 2000 of them.

Get SNS or NNN bindings manufactured with your brand name on them.

I wonder where the famous Finnish Karhu brand of ski boots are made these days.  Still made in Finland?  Or perhaps in China?

I wonder if they make xc racing skis in China?  Yep, looks like One Way gets their skis made by Weihai in Shandong, China.

In many industries, like electronics, business supplies and household goods, use of low-cost Chinese manufacturing has allowed companies to reduce prices and increase the size of their market while still maintaining or increasing their profit margins.  Apple is a good example of this.   I can't say that I've seen a downward trend in xc ski gear prices (though I have certainly seen a downward trend in quality).  Passing on savings in production costs via lower retail prices would lure more people to the sport and create more life-time ski industry customers.  On the contrary, it seems that ski equipment production costs have significantly gone down yet prices have continued to soar upwards.

Late Summer 2012:  Summer On "My" Ski Trails

When do you get to call your favorite ski trails "your" ski trails?  When do you get to say: "These are my ski trails"?  I don't know the answer to this question.  But after skiing in the lower Susitna River drainage for almost 25 years and not seeing another skier on these trails (south and west of Flathorn Lake and Susitna Landing)  ... what the heck, I'll say that these are "my" ski trails.

The defining feature of these ski trails, and the lower Susitna Valley in general, is the Big Susitna River.  The Big Su is a powerful glacial river that is born in the Alaska Range.  It carries so much glacial silt from the mountains to the ocean that the Native name for the river (Suyit'nu) translates to "sand river".

I ski the lower Susitna River  valley a lot.  Snowmobile trail skiing in mid-winter, backcountry cruising in late winter, crust skiing in early spring - these skiing forays usually involve time on the Big Su.

In the summer I boat the Big Susitna River frequently.  I use a skiff to haul stuff to my wife's and my cabin.  Though hauling freight by snowmobile in the winter is usually easier, I'd rather move what I can in the summer so I don't loose skiing days in the winter.

The Big Susitna is a beautiful river, in a raw sense.  When it's a nice day on the river, it's a great place to be.  But big, powerful and swift moving glacial rivers in Alaska have their challenges: constantly changing water levels and channels and bars, sweepers, floating logs, frigid and murky water and isolation - if you get in trouble here there usually isn't anyone around to help you.

Here are a few pictures of summer and winter on "my" ski trails.

Hauling a repaired 4-wheeler down the Big Su.  I like to haul stuff in the summer so I don't loose skiing days hauling stuff in the winter.  I ski this section of the river in winter. "Susitna River Monsters!"  When trees fall into the Big Su their roots often drag on the bottom and the trees head down river trunks first.  Strong currents makes these trees rock up and down on their root systems.  So one minute the tree will be underwater, the next it will be rearing above water like a sea monster.  It would be really bad to hit one of these head on in a boat while going full throttle up the Big Su.  When these river monsters freeze in place in the winter they turn into hazards to snowmobilers at night or in low light. Skiing near the mouth of the Big Susitna River.
As if there are not enough boating hazards in the Big Susitna River ... this was one I had never seen before.  The river had eroded the banks of Bell Island and exposed an old abandoned gas pipeline (that used to bring natural gas from Beluga to Anchorage and the Valley).  If the bank continues to erode (and it surely will) and the pipeline moves further out in the main channel - this will become a unsuspecting boaters death trap.  Especially if floating logs rip off the buoys (and they surely will). Skiing on the Big Susitna River. The Big Susitna can be a wonderful place in summer or winter.  But at any time of the year it can quickly be a very dangerous place.
Late Summer 2012:  A Tale of Two Bears And A Skier's Cabin

Two bears meet at a bar (a sand bar that is). They start talking ...

“Wanna mate?” “Nah, it’s not the season.”

“Wanna eat salmon and cranberries all day?” “Nah, I’m bored of doing that.”

“Wanna head up the hill and chew the crap out of the stairs on Tim and Tammy’s cabin?” “Hell yeah! Now that sounds like fun! Let’s do it!“



Late Summer 2012:  Nascent Glaciers of Anchorage, The Dawning of a New Ice Age?

When the Municipality of Anchorage removes snow from city streets much of it is piled up at snow dumps around town.  Thanks to record snowfall - last year was a big year for snow dumps.  The snow dump in south Anchorage, near O'Malley and C Street, grew to 10 stories high.  This new snow mountain was a feature you couldn't miss when looking out over Anchorage.

The C Street snow mountain was cut down by bulldozers during the summer.  The city likely figured if the snow didn't melt it would be a problem if we had another big snow year this winter.

The mid-town snow dump didn't get the bulldozer treatment this summer.  At least not yet.  As can be seen from the above picture the snow is still piled 2 stories high.  There is lots of gravel on top of the snow to soak up the sun and accelerate melting.  But when a summer doesn't offer much sun, and sets cold temperature records for July, snow dumps just don't melt fast.  This picture was taken in late August and nights are starting to see low 30's temperatures.  So this snow pile isn't going to melt before winter hits.

This snow from last year would now be called firn.  It's the compressed, intermediary step of snow on its way to become glacier ice.  Looks like Anchorage is leading the way in fighting back against global warming and the recession of glaciers around the world.  Anchorage is doing this by building new glaciers.  It's the dawning of a new ice age, a man-made ice age.  Bring it on!

Summer 2012:  Is Anchorage Losing Its "Bad Snow Year Ski Loop"? 

It looks like Anchorage will likely be loosing a reliable bad snow year ski loop.  The Chugach State Park is going to be building a new parking lot at Glen Alps.  And the new road that will access this lot will displace part of a ski loop that has been crucial in getting Anchorage xc skiers on snow in poor snow years.

Over the past 30 plus years this short loop, that goes from the Glen Alps parking lot to the power line and back, has allowed the only skiing in Anchorage during bad snow years.  When warm winds melt the Power Line Trail down to rocks this short loop is often still ski-able because of its mostly perpendicular layout to the wind direction.  Plus, the vegetation along the trail blocks the wind and offers some shade for the snow.

Based on the CSP published plans for this parking lot, see below, it doesn't look like a contiguous ski loop to the power line and back will be possible.  The new paved or dirt access road to the parking lot will have to be crossed.

I can remember a few winters when the only skiing in the Anchorage Bowl was on this short loop.  During these years temperatures would be in the high 30's down in town, but just dip below freezing at Glen Alps to allow this loop to tenaciously exist.  I think it was 1986 when we skied here for two months - from mid-October to mid-December.  Some years UAA and high school ski teams would train here daily.  I remember once doing a time trial with UAA on this loop in the 80s.  Coaches in Anchorage can vouch for the fact that they have spent time scraping snow from the under bushes and shoveling it onto this loop as their skiers glided by.

When bad snow years come along - back-up plan ski loops are precious.  If the Glen Alps bad snow year ski loop is lost, or seriously compromised ... that will be a bummer.  But people won't realize it's a bummer until a really bad snow year comes along.  It's nice to have a local back-up skiing plan as not everyone, like people in Anchorage with jobs or those that go to high school, has the time to drive to Hatcher Pass during the week.  Perhaps snowmaking will come to Kincaid before long.  This will help.  But snowmaking won't work at Kincaid when it's in the high 30's above freezing at night down low while it's 32 degrees up at Glen Alps.  In some bad snow winters these are typical temperatures at these two locations.

Summer 2012:  Rock!

I've learned that that a fail-proof way to get others, like your spouse, irked at you is to accidentally kick rocks down on them as you are climbing ahead while going up a mountain.  Should you dislodge a rock and it starts to accelerate downhill - it's good to yell "Rock!" to give folks below a chance to get out of the way.

  "Rock! .............  Whoops!  Sorry!"  
Summer 2012:  Islands Formed By Landslides

While hiking and skiing above the end of the Palmer Creek Road south of Hope I noticed this island in a mountain lake (see picture on the left below).  Seems like the island was probably made by a large landslide that came off the adjacent mountainside.  This island reminded me of another likely landslide-created island I had seen in the Bay of Isles on Knight Island in Prince William Sound (see middle and right pictures below).

Kenai Mountains south of Hope, AK. Knight Island, Bay of Isles, Prince William Sound.
Summer 2012:  Anchorage, AK "Urban Backcountry XC Skiing" Web Page

For a long time now I have been having fun linking together urban and backcountry trails in the Anchorage area to make unique and challenging cross country skiing routes.  I'm sure there are other skiers that would enjoy this variant of xc skiing, so I made a web page about "Urban Backcountry XC (UBXC) Skiing".  This web page is a collection of UBXC routes I have done that skiers can reference for ideas in devising their own local ski treks.  This web page has a bunch of route maps with links to pictures taken while skiing these routes.

 Anchorage, AK Urban Backcountry XC Skiing web page
Summer 2012:  My First Encounter With Humans in PWS!

I've been recreating in Prince William Sound for a dozen or so years.  And during these last 12 years I had never met or seen other hikers, climbers or skiers while doing trips.  Of course I had met kayakers and boaters.  But after leaving the shore I had met never anyone in the mountains outside of the group I was with.  Never.

So it was a big surprise for me to recently come skiing around a rock outcrop high up on Culross Island and have a encounter with humans.  And come to find out this random encounter was with some unique and very cool humans!  On the mountain were Didier and Sophie Wattrelot.  This French couple calls Tahiti home and they have a charter sailboat operation that keeps them cruising Pacific destinations from Antarctica to Alaska. They have lived, raised their kids and run their business on their boat the "Sauvage" for 20 years.  While anchored in Culross Bay they decided to take snowboards to their favorite summer snowboarding spot - Culross Island.  Recently these two had been hiking on Attu Island in the Aleutians on their way from Japan to Alaska.  They are now sailing back down to Antarctica for expedition support business.  When in Antartica Sophie and Didier like to snowboard and paddleboard.

Didier and Sophie Wattrelot on Culross Island. Picture by Didier of Sophie and us.
Summer 2012:  Low Elevation and Very Cold Lakes

The length that some small lakes in Prince William Sound remain frozen impresses me.  Sure lots of small high-elevation lakes in Alaska might go for years without a complete thaw-out.  But due to the insulating properties of deep and dense coastal snow packs - small lakes a mere 500 feet above sea level in the Sound can remain frozen for most of the year.

An example of such a lake can be found on the shaded north side of Culross Island.  The picture below and on the left shows the lake still mostly covered in ice at the end of July.  The lake likely won't be completely ice free until early to mid August.  Then because the water is so cold it will probably start freezing during cold nights in late September.  So on years like this one, where there was a lot of snow in this area, this lake will only be ice free for a max two months of this year.  That's remarkable considering the elevation of this lake is barely 500 feet above sea level and it's within a half mile of the ocean which offers a thermal buffer and keeps the area from getting really cold like interior Alaska.

Late July and ice still on most of the lake.

The lake's outflow.  Cold and clear water. Location of the lake.
Summer 2012:  The PWS Trusty Backup Plan ... A Kayak

Prince William Sound is my favorite to place to recreate (and hide) in the summer.  There are endless bays and islands to explore, peaks to bag, ridges to hike, snowfields to ski and a lack of summer-crazed humanity like that which overruns the rest of South-central Alaska.  There is a catch though ... it can be very wet in the Sound.  But when weather turns to clouds and rain, a kayak can save the day.  With a dry suit on it can be pouring rain and you can comfortably paddle, get a good workout and check out places that you've never been to before.

 On sunny days beached icebergs make good lounge chairs. Be prepared when kayaking in PWS.  Always travel with skis and poles strapped to your boat, and be ready to ski !
Early Summer 2012:  I Had Never Seen This Before

Recently my wife and I did the Kincaid Park (Pt. Campbell) to Fire Island and back low tide mudflats run/hike.  While doing it we met 5 people that were mountain biking the mudflats.  They made it over to Fire Island and back no problem.  They had to push bikes on the mucky parts on either side, but it looked like they were able to ride 80 percent of the route.  4 of them had fat bikes (w/super-wide tires).  One guy had normal (2 inch) tires, but that didn't seem to be hindering him much.  This was the first time I had ever seen mountain bikers doing the Fire Island mudflats trek.  More info about the Kincaid to Fire Island mudflats crossing.

Mountain bikers ride off the beach at Fire Island.  They are heading back across the mudflats towards Kincaid Park (Pt. Campbell) in the distance.

Early Summer 2012:  Bears Can Ski!

While skiing Seattle Ridge recently I came across some fresh brown bear tracks.  The bear had been ambling down a snow slope when apparently he or she decided to switch to skiing mode.  Yes indeed ... bears can ski!  ;-)

These photos show where a bear switched from walking to "skiing" mode.

It looks like the bear skidded down on his/her knees and dragged the toes of their back feet. Deep tracks in the snow tell that the bear was quite large.
Early Summer 2012:  Summer "Biathlons" You May Not Have Heard Of

Biathlon is commonly known as the combination of an athletic sport, cross country skiing, with a not-so-athletic sport - shooting.  If you are looking for something new to try this summer you might consider some other "biathlons".  You can combine an athletic pursuit like hiking, mountain biking or trail running with gold prospecting.  Get a backpack sluice box or metal detector and use your fitness to get to places most gold prospectors don't go.  It's never too late to "go for the gold!"

A backpack sluice box in use. An xc skier with a gold detector. Alaska's most famous xc skier/gold prospector - Jan Kralik of Nome, and the 41 oz nugget he found at the turn of this century.
 Another Alaskan summer "biathlon": Cook Inlet beach running/hiking and looking for concretions.
03 June 2012:  Fixing Problematic Swix Ski Pole Strap Tabs

Recently I bought some replacement "biathlon" straps for my Swix ski poles.  For the kind of skiing I do I like traditional straps the best.  Wrap-around straps are great for racing.  But for getting your hands in and out of straps quickly - wrap-arounds aren't the ticket.  I figure biathlon skiers would agree with me on this.

When you buy these replacement straps they come with strap tabs that fit Swix ski pole handles.  Well, they fit.  But they don't stay fit for long.

The first time I used these pole straps and tabs I dropped a ski pole.  And the tab popped off and rolled into loose snow when the ski pole handle hit the trail.  Not good.

The next time I used the poles I instinctively tapped my boot with the pole handle to knock snow off my boot sole before stepping into the binding.  When I did this the tab popped off the pole and took off skittering across the crust snow and disappeared into a clump of brush.  I mean it really disappeared.  I rooted around for 10 minutes trying to find the little black tab in the leaves and twigs and dirt, but to no avail.   I tied a knot in the tab-less strap and got my crust ski in ... but I had to stop frequently to re-tie the knot.

Oh well, time to fix a newly purchased ski product.  This is something I seem to have to do a lot these days.  When a product works well in the first place it seems that ski companies always have to  "improve it" so it doesn't work as well.

To fix these faulty Swix ski pole tabs was pretty easy.  I drilled a small hole in the top of the tab.  And then I screwed in a #4 3/8 inch stainless steel pan head sheet metal screw.   The screw goes through the plastic above the strap, through the strap and then into the plastic below the strap.

By putting the screw through the top of the tap you still allow the strap to be adjusted by the lower strap.  And you don't weaken the wedge by putting a screw through it.  The screw doesn't have any stress from the pole straps on it, it's basically just used to tether the tab so it doesn't disappear unexpectedly.  This doesn't completely fix the problem of the tabs coming loose from the pole handle, but it helps.  These little anchor screws can save a ski trip or workout from being compromised due to a malfunctioning ski pole.

Buying new Swix ski pole strap replacements?  Then you need to buy some #4 3/8 inch screws to keep from losing the strap tabs.


22 May 2012:  Crust Skiing and Mini-Skins In Kodiak
 Photos by Patrick Saltonstall

If you want to see what crust skiing is like on Kodiak Island in Alaska, there is a new web site with snow reports and lots of photos.  Here it is - the Kodiak Snow Report.  The "Skate skiing at the pass May 2012" thread has accounts by Patrick Saltonstall of recent crust skiing at Anton Larsen Pass.  For climbing uphill on Kodiak snow Patrick makes "mini-skins" that he attaches to his skis under the foot section with hockey tape.  At the top of the climb he pulls the mini-skins off of his skate skis and is ready to skate away.


31 April 2012:  1975 - The First Fiberglass XC Racing Skis Meet Spring Skiing

Skiers have been enjoying spring skiing for thousands of years.  But in 1975 a paradigm shift occurred for cross country skiers that like to have fun in the backcountry on the skinniest of skis.  The 1974-75 ski season was the year that fiberglass racing skis replaced wooden skis as the ski of choice of ski racers.  So when spring of 1975 came along cross country skiers around the world found they had tough and fun skis to spring ski on.  Skiers quickly found out that you could do a lot more challenging and aggressive skiing on these fast new skis and not worry about fragile wooden racing skis blowing up.

One could claim that performance backcountry skiing, the use of cross country racing skis to ski backcountry, was essentially born in the spring of 1975 thanks to the introduction of fiberglass racing skis.  Skiers around North America and Europe were taking their new fiberglass racing skis out on the spring crust and corn and being enlightened as to how much more fun cross country skiing could be with these new skis.

In the spring of 1975 I was a part of this cross country skier awakening to a new world.  The above picture, thanks to facebook and Daniel Harvey - a former ski teammate, shows me as a high school senior in Lyndonville, Vermont in 1975 ... getting after it on the first model of Fischer RCS racing skis.

My ski team friends and I spent a lot of time in the spring of 1975 skiing the rolling cow-pastured hills of the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont.  It was fantastic spring skiing in a beautiful setting.  But a favorite spring skiing venue for us was the hilly cemetery next to our school.  We'd have fun ripping slalom turns past the granite gravestones and catching big air off the terraces in the graveyard.

The picture above shows the cemetery we used as a skiing terrain park.  And it shows the problem we would encounter if we stepped off our skis and left them unattended.  Soon the ghosts of the cemetery would grab our skis and poles and give spring skiing a try themselves!


27 April 2012:  Loving My "New" Ski Boots
Salomon RS9's in action this spring.  I recently purchased these near mint condition 10+ year old RS9's on ebay.

Thanks to ebay I'm finally skiing in the ski boots of my dreams ... once again.

At the turn of the millennium Salomon was making ski boots that were perfect, in my opinion, for performance backcountry skiing (i.e. crust skiing and backcountry skate skiing).  The boot was the RS9.  I should have bought 5 pair of RS9's back then.  Because ever since Salomon made these perfect boots they have worked hard to make less comfortable, less durable, less breathable and less perfect ski boots.  I know, because I have bought a lot of crappy models of Salomon ski boots since the days of the legendary first generation RS9's.

I can afford any xc ski boot on the retail rack these days.  But I'm not going to pay a lot of money for uncomfortable boots that fall apart in a year or two and don't ski as well as boots made 10 years ago.  No way.  I'll take my money to ebay and shop for 10 to 12 year old gently used ski boots that are better made than the ski boots that are produced today.   If Salomon brought back an exact remake of the RS9, then maybe I'd go back to buying ski boots at the retail shop.  But then again, maybe I wouldn't.  Because legendary ski boots are getting to be like vintage guitars ... nothing beats the originals.


9 April 2012:  Time To Go To Portage ... And Crust Ski With The Ghost Bear!

A week ago Shaguyik, a Kodiak brown (grizzly) bear, broke out of her fenced area at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center at Portage.  She hasn't been seen since.  Of note is the fact that popular crust skiing venues are in close proximity to where she escaped from, like the Placer Valley, Portage Valley, Twentymile Valley and the Ingram Creek tidal flats.  Shaguyik is an Alaska Native word for "ghost".  So this year might continue to be a memorable ski season and be book-ended by: 1) skiing with an insomniac brown bear (at Hillside in Anchorage) in the fall and 2) crust skiing with an escaped ghost bear in the spring.

More information can be found in this Anchorage Daily News article.

The Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center is a neat place and I'm sure that the folks that run the center are distraught about this bear escaping.  Hopefully Shaguyik will survive in the wild.

June 2012 update: Things did not turn out well for "Shaggy".


31 March 2012:  Anchorage Driving Laws Will Change This Spring

Certain driving rules that were not enforced in Anchorage this winter are about to be reinstated this spring ...

Drivers will be expected to stop at the funny-shaped red signs that are emerging from the snow banks. Drivers will be expected to drive on the right-hand side of the yellow lines that you now see on some roads. And drivers will be expected to observe the speed limit signs that will soon be seen on our roads.


Late March 2012:  "Canyonlands" In Alaska?

I was skiing by this snow formation on top of a stump and was reminded of Utah Canyonlands sandstone towers.  And when you think about it, the formation of this "snow tower" and a sandstone tower is similar.  Layers of sediments (snow or sand) accumulate and harden.  The resulting mass becomes isolated when softer mass around it recedes.  Then the remaining tower is shaped by wind erosion.

This was the case with this snow tower.  Heavy snows this winter allowed a large amount of snow to accumulate on this stump.  This spot is close to a windy Big Susitna River channel where strong winds blow.  However the trees near this formation blocked and directed the wind enough so the tower didn't get blown over.  And instead it got sculpted by localized wind currents ... to become an ephemeral Susitna Snow Tower.

  A Susitna Snow Tower  


Late March 2012:  It's Time To Fortify

Late March is the time that remote cabin owners in Alaska start fortifying their cabins.

What are they fortifying them against?  Federal agents in black helicopters!?  Nope.  Bears.

For folks that have off the road system cabins they often never know when their last winer trip to their cabin will be.  Warm weather in April can quickly turn trails to slush, cause impassable sections of overflow to develop and even open river channels.  Your winter-mode trips to your cabin are risky in April.  Should your winter route to your cabin shut down and if you don't have your cabin fortified against cranky bears coming out of hibernation ... well, you are taking a chance that bears may have had a raucous party in your cabin before you return in the summer.

At my wife's and my cabin we board up windows that bears might be able to access.  We have never had a bear break into our place (knock on logs).  But we have many signs on our cabin from bears mad about not getting in and resorting to bruin vandalism.  See pictures below:

We took old-timers' advice and built our cabin off the ground so that brown bears couldn't easily smash through windows and get inside.  But we still cover windows in case they get on the elevated deck. When brownies can't get up on the deck they get really, really pissed off.  Here you can see where a bear tore into a railroad tie support under the deck.  Check out the long claw drag mark. Here is another railroad tie that a bear munched on.  I love bears and think they are cool animals.  But geez, they sure like to trash stuff.


Mid March 2012:  Welcome To America

Recently I skied past this old cabin in a remote area of the Western Susitna Valley.  I've heard the same story about the original owner of this cabin from three different sources, so the story I'm about to tell likely has some truth to it.  Apparently a long time ago the guy that built this cabin was "dynamite fishing" at this spot.  He was lighting sticks of dynamite and throwing them into the creek to kill salmon by shock waves, and then scooping up the fish that he killed.  In case you are not aware, this mode of fishing is illegal.

Anyway, this guy is lighting sticks of dynamite and throwing them into the water.  But then (surprise, surprise) a stick of dynamite goes off in his hand and blows off a few of his fingers.  So what does he do?  He hires a lawyer and sues Dupont, the maker of the dynamite, for a "defective fuse".  And he wins the case and gets a big settlement.

Moral of the story: Do something illegal and really dumb-ass, get hurt bad while doing it and then get a lawyer to help you sue somebody and end up with a lot of money.  Welcome to America.


12 March 2012:  Watch Out!  ... Snow Bomb!

Often when you are out traveling in the backcountry of South-central, Alaska and you are in a stand of large, old grown hemlocks you think you are safe.  The likelihood of an avalanche wiping through these 100 plus year old trees seems slim.  And it most likely is.

But take a look above you.

With near-record snowfall winters like the one we've been having a lot of snow can build up in tree limbs above ground.  And hemlock trees that can catch a lot more snow then spruce or cottonwood trees can get heavily loaded with snow.  The snow in the limbs will harden over time making it dense and heavy.  Eventually melting or winds will dislodge the snow, and a snow bomb will be released.

On a recent ski trip I came across a section of trail where snow bombs had been recently triggered by winds.  Large 40-60 pound chunks of snow were sitting on the trail after a fall from limbs 20 feet or so above.  I'm glad I wasn't standing under these blocks of snow when they let loose.  That would have hurt, or caused injury.  Bottom line:  When the wind is blowing be careful where you stand.

PS: I rolled these snow blocks out of the trail so that no snowmobilers would hit them.  Gotta watch out for other trail users.

Snow bomb debris in the Kenai Mountains.


07 March 2012:  Why Some Snowmobile Tracks Are Better For Skiing Than Others

It used to be that the trails that snowmobiles left in the snow were all about the same.  Snowmobiles used to have similar tracks with rows of 1/2 inch to 1 inch lugs.  Trails made by this type of snowmobile track skied quite well.  But then 10-15 years ago a new form of snowmobile track was developed for deep snow.  These tracks were are called "paddle tracks".  Trails make by paddle tracks are better than no trail at all, but they definitely don't ski as well as trails made by old school snowmobile tracks.  Here are a couple of pictures that show the difference between snowmobile tracks and the trails they make in the snow ...

Paddle Track Touring Track

This picture shows a trail made by a paddle track.  The 2 to 2 1/2 inch floppy lugs on these tracks fluff up the snow and leave behind an airy mound.  Your skis tend to sink into the mounded snow which cuts down your glide.   When these tracks set-up they ski better, but they aren't as comfortable skiing as the ones touring tracks make.

Here is a trail made by a snowmobile with a touring track.  The lugs are not as long and they go all the way across the track.  The lugs are also more rigid than a paddle track, so they roll over the snow and compress it instead of fluff it up.  These old school tracks are definitely better for skiing on.

The above picture shows side by side trails made by a paddle track (left) and touring track (right).  If you are classic skiing or double poling the right of this trail is likely your best choice.  If you are skating this trail your technique will depend on the firmness of the trail.  If the paddle track trail is firm you can do your V1 dominant skate there and glide on the touring track.  If the paddle track is soft, try to skate the touring track with a tight-V, shortened glide and higher tempo.


27 February 2012:  Never Blindly Follow Labeled Trail Markers

All over Alaska people that live in the bush or have remote recreational properties haul freight in the winter.  It is often much cheaper and more convenient to haul heavy stuff like heating fuel, propane, building supplies, boats, brush mowers, construction equipment and living room sofas by snowmobile-pulled sleds over winter trails, rather than fly, boat or barge it in.

The Susitna Valley likely sees the most freight hauling of any place in Alaska because it is near big population centers and many of these folks have remote properties in the Su Valley.

In cases where folks have a lot of freight to haul they usually establish a trail first.  They usually pack it out with snowmobiles and then they might even groom it with a trail drag.  And then ... they will mark the trail with wooden staves.  It is especially important to mark trails on rivers and across open areas.  If winds blow the trail over with drifting snow, markers  will allow you to still find the hard surface that will support your loaded freight sled.  If you go off the trail into unpacked, deep snow you can tip the load over, get stuck or maybe even get hurt.

When it comes to obtaining wooden staves to mark freight hauling trails, they are easily available thanks to all of the various races (sled dog, snowmobile and human powered) that take place in the Su Valley.  Once the races pass the staves are usually left in place.  So locals come by to pick them up and use them.  This is a good thing because the abandoned staves become litter once spring hits and they drift down rivers or rot into the muskegs.  Local freight haulers will reuse these recycled trail marker staves year after year.

For years I have had a concern about trail markers for the human-powered Susitna 100 race.  Locals and freight haulers have been picking Su 100 trail markers up after the race for many years.  And now you see them all over the place.  You see them leading from near the Su 100 race trail to areas far away from the race course.  It would be a potentially bad situation for a Su 100 race competitor to blindly follow "Su 100" markers that took them way off course.

Recently I was skiing a groomed freight hauling trail on the West Channel of the Big Susitna River.  This trail was 12 to 15 miles from points on the Su 100 course.  And there were "Su 100" trail markers marking it.  And there were "Su 100" trail markers heading all the way to the Beluga gas fields to the west.  And there were "Su 100" trail markers all along the Big Su trail that lead to this point from the Su 100 race course.  In other words - there are Su 100 trail markers EVERYWHERE in the Lower Susitna Valley these days.

My suggestion would be for the Su 100 organizers to start putting the year of the race on their trail markers.  Like: "Su 100  2012".  And tell competitors to follow markers that have the current year on them.  Not doing this opens more risk of competitors ending up at points unknown, and organizers having no clue what happened to them.

A beautiful, groomed freight hauling trail on the West Channel of the Big Susitna River.  It is marked by a "Su 100" trail marker, but is many miles from the Su 100 race course.
20 February 2012:  Skiing To Shaman Blind Nick's Cabin

One of my favorite Alaskana books is "Shem Pete's Alaska, The Territory of the Upper Cook Inlet Dena'ina".  While perusing this book recently I was piqued by an entry about Rabbit Slough, near the old Matanuska townsite, on page 287.  Here is what I am referring to:

Seeing the above picture immediately got me excited about seeing if I could find Blind Nick's cabin on skis.  I headed out to the Valley and found that it was pretty easy to find this old shaman's residence.  Here are pictures I took of Blind Nick's abode ...

Here's the cabin.  I tried to take the picture from the same perspective of the shot in "Shem Pete's Alaska". The cabin is made of creosote-treated railroad ties.  Long lasting wood ... but very stinky (though maybe not to a shaman). Looking inside.  Messy you say?  Come on now ... Nick is blind so give him a break! Nick took this picture of me.  For a blind guy he takes decent photos.  Must be those special powers at work.
I saw this small structure next to Blind Nick's cabin and wondered what it was. Looking inside I could quickly tell it was a banya, or steam house. The drum, that was filled with water that hot rocks were dropped in, was still there.  And so were the rocks. Before I skied away I left an offering to Blind Nick.  You should always treat shamans with respect!
Maybe the offering to Blind Nick was a good thing to do.  Because soon after I found great crust skiing on a place I had never skied before - Upper Rabbit Slough.  Perhaps friendly spirits of this old shaman still live in this area.


19 February 2012:  Double Poling Isn't Just For Skiers Anymore

It was interesting to read about the tight finish of the Yukon Quest sled dog race ... and the double poling going on during the final push to the finish line.  Here is an excerpt from this KTUU article:

"ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Hugh Neff has won the 2012 Yukon Quest crossing the finish line in Whitehorse at 5:14 a.m. Tuesday and winning by 26 seconds, the closest finish in race history and the only time the first two teams have come in less than one minute apart.  

Neff captured victory in the 1,000 mile sled dog race by beating Allen Moore in a wild sprint to the finish.  At one point, Moore had a 42-minute lead out of Braeburn. 

Neff, traveling with his head lamp turned off for most of the final run, caught Moore with about 20 miles to go, but turning his head lamp back on alerted Moore to his presence, and the two ran neck and neck for the final miles.  Moore said he double ski-poled his way in, but his efforts weren't enough."

15 February 2012:  Historical Irony of Lycra/Spandex, Revenge of the Forest Fairies

In recent years I've found myself laughing out loud when I go into Sports Authority or look at Eastbay (sporting goods) or even Cabelas (hunting gear) catalogs.  I laugh in disbelief at some of the modern active wear.  Why?  Because I wore lycra tights when they first came out in the late 70's.  Therefore  I am a veteran who fought on the front lines of the Lycra Wars.  And that experience has given me a historical perspective about sports wear.

Back in the late 70's lycra/spandex/polyester blend fabrics were first introduced as material for sports wear.  Lycra/spandex tights quickly became popular with runners and cross country skiers.  And before long they became the choice for ski racing suits.  I quickly switched from old-school fabrics to clothes of these new-age fabrics.  And it was surely not due to fashion.  The function of lycra/spandex was a giant leap back then.  Lycra/spandex offered just the right combination of weather resistance, support, freedom of movement and comfort.  To this day I still wear some form of lycra/spandex/polyester blend for the same reasons, almost every day.

But holy crap ... society was not ready for lycra back in the 70's.  Especially in the primitive tribal regions of Redneckistan (Vermont and New Hampshire) you're life was at risk should you dare to don lycra.  Homophobic snipes, bottles and cans hurled from passing car windows and the ever common insult of "Forest Fairy!" were never-ending.  It was crazy.

Basically the propagators of the 70's lycraphobia could be classified by certain key groups: hockey players, football players and non-athletic rednecks that were big into hunting and snowmobiling.

But my oh my how times have changed.  And my oh my how the fervent perpetrators of lycraphobia all became hypocrites, and they all became ... forest fairies themselves!  Now all of these groups have lycra/spandex as a part of their wardrobe.  This is close to unbelievable to a person like me that went through lycraphobia hell back in the day.  But it's true.  Here are some pictures of modern day instances of redneck forest fairy gear:

Bauer (hockey gear) now makes "Vapor Core Compression Pants" with lycra/spandex. Nike now makes lycra/spandex "Pro Combat Compression Leggings" for football players. The Ski Doo snowmobile clothing website sells "Technical Wear Active Base Layer" pants with lycra/spandex. And now even the redneck bible, the Cabelas catalog, sells lycra/spandex Underarmour "Camo Coldgear Compression Leggings"

It's funny how the hockey, football, snowmobiling and hunting gear above are not marketed as "tights", even though that is what they clearly are.  They are macho-marketed instead as "Combat Leggings" or "Compression Pants".  Ha!  The bottom line is that over the last several decades the redneck crowd gave in to the lycra/spandex fabrics they once venomously derided, and now they all wear the stuff.  I never envisioned the day would come ... when the "forest fairies" would get their revenge!  Just hilarious.

The first lycra/spandex ski racing suits were made by Terinit of Finland.  Here I am wearing a Terinet suit in 1978 (on the way to winning the Waterville (NH) Marathon, in a snowstorm).
Long Live Lycra and Spandex !!!
05 February 2012:  Salomon Pilot To Old Profil Retrofit

A favorite binding of mine for backcountry xc skiing is the old Salomon "Profil Country".  This binding is super tough, torsionally rock solid, easy to open with heavy gloves on and doesn't weigh much more than Profil racing bindings.

But the problem with this binding is that its binding plate doesn't work with new Pilot boots, like Pro Combis.  Newer Pilot boots have the under-foot binding rod further back towards the heel.  No worries though - this problem can be easily remedied.  All you need is a Dremel tool with a chainsaw sharpening bit and some epoxy (I like to use JB Weld epoxy for projects like this).

First mark on the binding plate where the groove for the binding rod needs to fit.  Next carve out a binding rod-sized groove with the Dremel tool.  To  finish things off work some epoxy into the new hole in the binding plate so that water doesn't get under the plate.

Tough backcountry ski bindings for use with racing boots are not something Salomon makes any more.  These old bindings fill this niche well.  If you've got a pair of Profil Countrys, hold on to them.  But of course if you don't want to hold on to them you can always give them to me!  ;-)

01 February 2012:  More Snowmobiling Secrets - Revealed to Skiers

Last year I posted some snowmobiling secrets that are usually withheld from xc skiers.  So here are a couple more mysteries that are brought to light ...

Why do some snowmobilers have LEDs lit up on their helmets?

The LED is the power indicator for heated face shields.  For extreme cold weather some snowmobilers use face shields that plug into the DC power outlet of the snowmobile.  Heating elements inside of a double layer face shield warm the air between the shield layers and this prevents frosting.

How can you tell if snowmobiler is skier-friendly?

The headgear the snowmobiler is wearing might be a clue.  Sno-goers that go fast often wear open faced helmets with goggles.  These types usually refer to xc skiers as "speed bumps".  If there is a mohawk on top of the helmet, like above, you are in grave danger.

Sensible riders more often seem to wear full-face helmets, like the one in the upper left with the LED.  These types will likely stop to chat with skiers.  The helmet in the upper right is one from a strange Alaskan tribe of xc skiing snowmobilers.  Note the decal.  Catch is - there are a lot more mohawk madmen out there than these stride/ride tribe members.

31 January 2012:  This Cat Is Way Tougher Than You And Me

Earlier this winter a guy from Minnesota named Lonnie Dupree tried for the second time to do a mid-winter ascent of Mt.  McKinley.  He ran into some wind and cold, and he turned back.

He probably would have made the summit if he had Lynxie (see above) guiding him.

Lynxie's story, based on clues I've put together, is that he was lost or abandoned last summer.  Ever since then he has lived homeless in our neighborhood.  For four to five months he lived on mice, shrews and whatever he could kill or scavenge.  But most noteworthy is that he lived through the 5 brutal (90-105 mph) windstorms that racked our neighborhood this winter.  He made it through the deepest snowfalls in a decade.  And he made it through three weeks of a deep-freeze, sub-zero January which apparently set the record for the coldest January ever in Anchorage, AK.

And he did this all with just the thin fur on his back.  No expedition down jacket or sleeping bag.  No tent.  No stove to melt snow for water.  This is one tough cat.  If there was a mid-winter race between Lonnie Dupree and this cat to the top of McKinley, my money would be on Lynxie.

After the 5th windstorm I shoveled three to four feet of drifted snow off our back porch.  Come to find out these snow drifts had buried Lynxie alive under our back deck, where he had apparently been living for quite some time, unbeknownst to my wife and me.  When my wife caught him he was very skittish and skinny.  Now he's gaining weight and getting in some well deserved couch surfing.  I never, ever planned on being a cat owner during my life.  Oh well, I'm one now. 

Update: When we rescued Lynxie he weighed between 7 and 8 pounds.  Now he's up to our vet recommended 10 lbs. Update:  In preparation for next years mid-winter race against Lonnie Dupree up Mt. McKinley we have Lynxie on an intensive training program.  Here he is doing pull-downs to beef up his lats and biceps.
26 January 2012:  Skiing By Memory, The First Tour Of Anchorage

The Tour of Anchorage (TOA) turns 25 years old this year.  I skied the first TOA in 1988 and it was an exciting event because it was the first “across-town” ski race in Anchorage.  Since that first TOA there have been quite a lot of course changes.  Here is a ski by memory along the trail of the first Tour of Anchorage that will point out some of the differences between now and 25 years ago ...

P.J. Hill has organized all TOAs from the 2nd one on.  But the first one was organized by Tom Peacock.  During the 1987-88 ski season Tom was the president of the Nordic Ski Club of Anchorage (I don’t think it was the NSAA then).  AND … Tom was the head groomer.  Yes, the ski club was a much, much smaller organization back then.

Besides being the club president and trail groomer and all-round good guy, Tom also was a regular participant in club ski races.  So Tom the ski racer was excited about linking together brand new trail systems, like the Spencer Loop, the Chester Creek Trail and the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail, for a cross-town ski race.

I remember talking to Tom about the course for the first TOA.  I was lobbying him to start at Glen Alps and make it a true cross-town, from the mountains to the sea race.  Tom felt the descent down to Hillside would have been a bit much for most people.  So he opted to start at Service High School, where there was good parking and facilities for racers.

As a side note: A ski race called the Flattop Flyer from Glen Alps to Service High School sprung up shortly after the first TOA.  This race became wildly popular.  The entire mostly-downhill course was groomed with a Piston Bully, and when Bill Spencer organized it there was a jump in the course.  This event was eventually shut down due to liability concerns.  The fact that a few people got hurt in this wild race was a factor in this decision.

Back to the TOA:  The first year of the TOA the race started on the west side of the Service High football field and headed east to the trail system.  This could be done because at the time there was no fence around the Service track and football field.  So there was much more room for a mass start than there is today. 

The race went east from the Service football field and onto the Hillside lighted loop. 

The first TOA course dropped down to the Abbot Loop parking lot trailhead because the cutoff above the trailhead was not built yet,  The narrow hill coming up out of the parking log area caused a lot of congestion.

The route was the same through the Besh, Spencer Loop and back to the lighted trail system.  One exception is that the first TOA course went up the first hill on the Spencer Loop instead of bypassing it.

Back on the lighted loop and before getting to the four corners in The Burn area the trail took the hard right onto the trail that leads past Ryan’s Hill Trail and on to the start of what is now called the Tour of Anchorage Trail.  It wasn’t called the TOA trail back then, it was the Old Homestead Road.

Heading down the Homestead Road hill the course came to the corner just before the BLM property boundary and the bridge.  Here you had to ski through a narrow gate made of large metal pipes painted red.  You didn’t want to screw up going through this gate, it was sketchy.

When we got to the right turn that takes you onto the TOA trail we went straight ahead on the Coyote Trail instead.  Why?  Because the TOA Trail had not been built yet.

Taking a now overgrown exit off the Coyote Trail the course went out onto the east side of the BLM landing strip.  Here the course went straight and flat for the whole length of the runway.

At the end of the runway the course continued north, crossed Campbell Creek on the dog mushing bridge (the pedestrian bridge wasn’t built yet) and then followed a dog sled trail a couple of kilometers north until it intersected another dog sled trail coming from Baxter road to the east.  Taking a left on this dog sled trail you went west until a hard 90 degree right turn put you on the current-day TOA trail.

At this point things were much different 25 years ago.  There was no Martin Luther King Boulevard to go under, no bike trails and no curved pedestrian bridge to ski over.  Instead, the TOA trail followed a narrow trail past an electric substation straight to Tudor Road.  There is no trail here now, a connector road between two 4-lane highways runs here instead.  At Tudor Road you had to take your skis off, look for an opening in traffic and run across.

In a recent Anchorage Daily News article P.J. Hill was quoted as saying that traffic marshals helped the skiers across Tudor Road during early TOAs.  That may have been true during P.J.’s tenure, but for the first year skiers were definitely on their own.  Look left, look right, run like hell.  But because there was exponentially less traffic on Tudor 25 years ago it was really no big deal getting across this highway.

This location is the biggest difference between the first TOA and current races.  In the first TOA a narrow trail came past an electric substation fence and stopped at Tudor Road where you would take your skis off and run across.  Now the trail is gone, replaced by this connector road between 4-lane highways.  Traffic lights exist here today when 25 years ago there was no need for them.  A nearby pedestrian bridge was built over Tudor Road in the early 90's and that eliminated the need to de-ski and run across this highway at this location.

On the other side of Tudor we skied across undeveloped property over to the utility easement on the east side of APU.  Now there is a paved bike trail on this easement which didn’t exist in ’88.

As I remember, the course for the first TOA did not cover any APU trails.  But something that it did differently is that it went across the Northern Lights pedestrian bridge to Russian Jacks.  At RJ’s it did the bike trail loop around the east of the park and then crossed the golf course fairways from north to south and went back to Northern Lights and across the bridge.  Crossing back over the bridge was touchy because racers were coming the other way on this narrow bridge.

The course along the Chester Creek bike trail and out the brand new Tony Knowles Coastal Trail was not much different than today.  One exception is the section of the Coastal Trail at the north end of the runway.  Bluff erosion caused the Coastal Trail to be re-routed to the south a bit here several years after the first TOA race passed through here.

When the first TOA trail got near Kincaid the course was much different than it is today.  The course followed the Coastal Trail until it was right next to the lowest part of the Lekisch Trail.  The Lekisch Trail was new, so Tom figured it should be showcased in this new marathon race.

At the turn-off from the Coastal Trail to the Lekisch Trail Tom put up a sign.  “Keep smiling!” the sign said.  And a smiley face was next to the letters.  From this point on skiers had to struggle up the brutal climb to the top of the Lekisch Loop.  From the top it was a fast, mostly downhill run through the biathlon range, down to the south culvert of the stadium and on to the finish.

This would be the only time the TOA incorporated the Lekisch Trail.  A death climb at 48 kms was not popular with a lot of the participants of the first TOA.  I had no idea the race was going to finish going up the Lekisch Trail.  I had a big lead coming to the base of the Lekisch climb (and would win the first TOA) and when I saw Tom’s smiley face sign I laughed out loud.  I chuckled to myself often during the long climb, thinking: “Holy crap!  There are going to be some tired puppies at the end of this race!”

I remember at the finish you could feel a sense of excitement amongst the racers.  The excitement wasn’t just about people completing the course, with the death climb at the end.  The excitement was about being a part of a fun event that was a first, and a paradigm shift in the local Nordic racing scene … we had just done the first ski race across Anchorage!

20 January 2012:  How To Ruin A Ski Boot
When you exercise in cold weather there are some basic facts you can't avoid when it comes to footwear.  And those facts are that your feet are going to generate heat, emit water vapor inside of your footwear and if there is no way for this vapor to escape your feet will get wet.

The harder you exercise, or the colder the temperatures you exercise in, the more accumulated water vapor in your footwear becomes a factor.  Footwear needs to vent out some of this moisture or your feet will become soaked and prone to getting cold or even frostbitten.

But apparently ski boot designers at Salomon aren't concerned with the reality of skiing in the cold.  They show this with their recent modifications to the Salomon Pro Combi boot.

Earlier models of the Salomon Pro Combi had porous material covering much of the boot's front cuff.  This was good.  As heated, moisture-laden air rose out of the boot and around the tongue it reached this material and was able to vent off.  And your feet stayed relatively dry.

The above picture shows the front cuff of a 2009 Pro Combi.  The white spot is a headlamp beam shining up through the porous material.  Air can flow freely through this material, and that is a good thing.  Warm and wet air from your foot can easily escape through this boot cuff.

Now check out this picture above of a pair of 2010 Pro Combi boots after skiing in sub-zero temps for several hours.   See the ice build-up on the inside of the tongue?  That's because there is no way for moisture in this boot to escape.  And you can see the reason why.  The porous tongue material was replaced with non-breathable white vinyl.  Dumb, dumb, dumb.

I think this is the last pair of new Salomon boots that I will buy for a long time.  I understand making stuff cheaper, because everyone seems to be doing this.  But usually the cheaper stuff works, it just doesn't last as long.  But in the case of Salomon's new Pro Combi's they are making boots cheaper and boots that don't work as well.

I seems the best option going forward is to shop ebay for older ski boots that work.  It would be best to support local vendors and buy new Salomon boots at their stores.  But why buy new-model boots when they don't work as well as gently-used and better designed older-model boots?

15 January 2012:  Swix Star XC Jacket Review

The short: This jacket fits great, skis great and even looks great.  But it is not a jacket for skiing at cold temperatures.

The long:  I got one of these jackets from Santa Claus.  I tried it on and it immediately felt great.  Light, well engineered to move with skiing motions, good reflective accents for being seen at night.  And it had real sleeve cuffs.  My all-time favorite ski jacket is the Craft Stretch-back jacket, which of course has been discontinued.  Newer Craft jackets now have these funky cuff-less sleeves that are pathetic.  So it was good to see cuffs again.

I was also impressed to see that nylon mesh lined most of the back and the sleeves.  Nylon mesh is good in that it keeps condensation off of your shirt so you don't get wet as fast as with soft shell or nylon shell jackets.

After getting a few weeks of skiing in this jacket, and in particular after a lot of skiing in sub-zero F. temperatures, I got a better understanding of how this jacket functioned.  Right off I realized an issue with the collar.  Maybe it's a Norwegian thing, but it seems that Norwegian jackets from the 70s Odlo's through time up to this one all have high collars.  High collars can be good because you can zip them up and get good neck protection from the cold.

But the catch with high collars is that when they are open they catch condensation from your breath in cold weather.  Often if it's cold and you are skiing up a valley or a long climb you will open your zipper to ventilate and keep from getting too hot and sweaty.  But when you do this with high collars that flap over onto your shoulders you likely don't realize that the collar is accumulating clumps of frost from your breath.  When you get to the top of the climb you will likely zip up your collar to get ready for the descent.  But when you do this you zip frost-covered fabric onto the hot skin of your neck and you get a big surprise.  And this unwanted surprise may likely make you blurt out a naughty word that starts with the letter "F". 

I like shorter collars better, like the ones on Toko and Craft jackets.  They stay more upright next to your neck and don't accumulate frost much when your jacket zipper is open for ventilation.  Yes, the short collars are not as warm when they are zipped up.  But that is fixed with a neck gaiter/ warmer.

Another issue with this jacket is the cinch cord.  It's too thin and weak, and it barely works.  I think I'll be cutting mine out and putting in a stronger stretch cord.

OK, now we get to the main beef I have about this jacket design.  And that is the front panels of the jacket.  Bottom line: there are no nylon mesh panels on the inside of the front panels when there should be.

If you take a look at the picture above you can see my Swix Star XC jacket after 4 hours of skiing in temperatures in the 10 to 20 below zero range.  On the inside of the front panel you can see a build-up of ice.  This ice builds up because condensation gets between the two layers of nylon fabric that make the front panel, and then it freezes the two pieces of fabric together.  And once the fabric freezes together it is no longer breathable.  So it builds up even more ice.  Not a good design.  Having nylon mesh as the inside layer on the front panels would have fixed this problem.

And maybe I should mention - when ice forms in the front panels of this jacket it feels really, really cold.  The first time this happened to me my chest ached from the ice build-up and the skin on my chest turned bright red.  Using my imagination I would surmise that this jacket is not one that women would want to wear if they are skiing in cold temperatures.

I really like this jacket, but now I know its limitations and won't be wearing it when it's cold.  I'll dig out my old Craft Stretch-back jacket for those days.  It's too bad, just a couple of square feet of nylon mesh fabric on the inside of the front panels and this jacket would be great.

20 December 2011:  Rock Skis Need Love Too

Most every year the unheralded foot soldiers of our personal platoon of ski troops lead the charge in the war against summer.  Being the first to battle - these heroes slither through dirt and mud, get wounded by rocks and battered by ice.  They are the few, the proud ... they are our rock skis.

We ask a lot from our rock skis.  So when rock skiing is over is it appropriate to throw our rock skis, that made sacrifices to give us three extra weeks of skiing, into to corner?  Is it right to forget about them until you want to abuse them next fall?  I think not.  Rock skis are family.  And they should be repaired and waxed before retiring them until the next rock ski season.

This year my rock skis had some hard days on the trail.  So before waxing them and storing them, I had to do some delamination repair.  Here's how I do such repair.  If you have to do the same type of repairs, this technique might work for you ...

Here's the delamination, behind the heel, that I have to fix.  This is a common rock ski failure point.

Stuff needed: screwdriver, clamps, wood strips, tape and epoxy.  I use two-part, slow curing epoxy because it is runny and will seep into places you want to fix. Prying open the "wound" with a screw driver I pour the epoxy mix into the ski. Next I tape the edge that is being repaired.  This is so the epoxy won't run out of the ski in the next step ... Using wood shims and clamps I squeeze the ski back together.  And then I position the ski so the epoxy runs towards the repair spot, and let the ski sit overnight so the epoxy can cure.


10 December 2011:  It Helps to Know the Temperature Zones of Your Gear

Fairly often you see skiers on Anchorage ski trails dealing with cold hands.  Wind-milling their arms.  Shaking their hands.  Suffering.  Usually these skiers cut the suffering and quit their ski early because of their problems with the cold.

Often the reason for skiers having problems with cold hands, freezing faces, etc - is not because of the cold.  It's because they didn't bring the right gear.  They probably have the right gear.  But it was likely left at home because: "It wasn't this cold the last time I skied!"

For skiers to have more fun skiing, and less agony dealing with the cold, it's good to be cognizant of what the temperatures are that you will be skiing in.  And to know the temperature zone's of each piece of gear you own.  That way you won't mismatch gear to the temperature.

Here's an example of temperature zones for gloves:

So, if I'm going to be skiing between Service High School and the Campbell Creek Science Center and I check the Mesonet and I see that it is 10 above at Service and 5 below at Campbell Creek - I know what hand gear to use.  I choose the gloves that fit this temperature range.  I use the same temperature range logic for other gear.  And I'm ready to go.

It might take a while for you to learn what the temperature ranges each piece of gear you own covers.  And you might find that you have some gaps that need to be filled.  Also, be aware that wind chill and dehydration can alter the ranges that gear is comfortable in.  But once you figure it all out - you will spend more time having fun skiing, and less time cussing about what parts of your body are freezing.

Tip: A drink belt doubles well as a place to carry heavy gloves.  Just clip them together and drape them over the belt.  If you want to switch into them, put your light gloves in your jacket pocket.  Sometimes you might want to start out in heavy gloves, and then switch to light gloves when your body and hands warm up.

Tip: Heavy gloves are warm for skiing in the cold.  But they can be a pain to get in and out of ski straps.  So - get in the habit of never taking your gloves out of the ski straps.  Just pull your hands out and do want you have to barehanded.  Then slide your hands back into the gloves when you are ready to go.


05 December 2011:  Time to Upgrade Your Winter Boots?

In Anchorage this year winter has been giving us some hints:  Near record early season snowfall.  Sub-zero temps in early November.  100 mph Chinook storms leaving deep wet slush.  These weather hints tell us that having a decent pair of winter boots is a good thing.

As it is near the holiday season and a gift to someone, or to yourself, may be in order, here are some thoughts on boots that my wife and I have used over the years.  These thoughts may help you should you decide to purchase winter boots.  The basic criteria I use in evaluating winter boots are:  1) Are they warm? 2) Can they be used for multiple activities? 3) Are they easy to get on and off?  4) Can you drive your car or truck in them?

Clockwise from upper left:

Neos over boots -  Pros: Good for many activities, easy on easy off, can wear running shoes or xc ski boots in them (though the same pair of Neos might not fit both running shoes and ski boots.  Cons: Only warm if you are moving, soles can puncture on sharp rocks.

Neos insulated over boots -  Pros: Same as non-insulated Neos but warmer.  Cons: Quite a bit heavier than non-insulated Neos.

Muck Boots, Arctic Sport  - Pros: Easy on and off, good support, waterproof.  Cons: Not made for sub-zero cold.  My wife wears these a lot.  She's picky about winter boots, so if she likes these they must be good!

Sorel Glaciers - Pros: Warm, easy on and off, supportive, good traction, you can drive while wearing them.  Cons: Not made as well as they used to be when they were made in Canada.  Overall: A basic, great winter boot.  I used to spend a lot of time running next to a dog sled in these boots.  And I've spent many hours driving snowmobiles in these boots.

Cabelas Trans-Alaska boots -  Pros: Very warm, supportive and comfortable, well made.  Cons: Too bulky for driving most vehicles.  Getting them on and off is a two step process: put on inner boot, then slide foot and inner boot into shell.  These were designed specifically for long distance mushing.  And the fact they are hard to get on and off is good for mushing, as you don't want to step into overflow and have your boot sucked off your foot.  But for normal activities where you might want to quickly get in and out of your boots ... these are kind of a pain.  Which is too bad, because otherwise they are great boots.

Sorel Intrepid Explorers -  Pros: Warm, easy on and off, waterproof, can drive in them (just barely).  Cons: A bit expensive.  These boots were designed for Yukon Quest mushers.  These are my wife's and my go-to boots these days.  My wife thinks they are great, so that says a lot (IMO).

Northern Outfitters boots -  Pros:  Extremely warm.  Cons: Bulky, high centered and not supportive, don't think about driving in these.  These boots are great if you have to be in extreme cold for a long time and are not generating much heat - like ice fishing or manning a race checkpoint.  Mushers and snowmobilers sometimes use these boots.

Bata Bunny Boots -  Pros: Very warm, waterproof, you can drive in them, will make you look like a real Alaskan, .  Cons: Heavy, not very supportive, soles will wear down quickly if you walk on pavement with them.  These boots were designed by the US Army in the 50's.  Their rubber-encapsulated felt design is brilliant (IMO) and has withstood the test of time.  Many Alaskans still use these boots.  You can buy used US made ones, but the new boots are now made overseas.  I carry a pair stashed in my truck for emergencies.

01 December 2011:  The Internet and Bush Alaska, Connected While Not Connected

The above picture shows two people, Mike and Nancy (and Calley their dog), testing the ice thickness on the Big Susitna River in early November.  They’re checking the ice to see if it is thick enough for safe travel across the river.  Until the ice is safe to cross they are “trapped” in Bush Alaska, because the road to civilization is on the other side of the river.

For some people that live in remote regions of Alaska, two times of the year can amplify their isolation: freeze-up and break-up.  During late fall and early spring the thinly-iced rivers don’t allow for travel by snowmobile or boat.  And thin ice in the fall or rotting snow and ice in the spring won’t allow airplanes to land.  During these times there is no way in, and no way out.  So it’s a measure of being a “real” Alaskan to spend freeze-up or break-up on the side of the river that civilization doesn’t reach.

The challenges and isolation of freeze-up and break-up have been a part of the lives of Alaskans, and northerners around the world, for millennia.  But only recently has the Internet been a factor.

Now people living in the Bush can be connected to the world wide web, but at the same time not be able to travel to a store to buy food.

The above picture illustrates this situation.  These two can’t get across the river and make it to a store.  But after this picture that was taken it was uploaded to the web a few hours later.  Cyber-connected, but not connected to civilization.

Another unique aspect of this Bush/Internet phenomenon is that people like these two become Bush-celebrities of sorts.  Many people that want to travel out to remote areas check Bush dwellers' Facebook and forum postings frequently.  As soon as posts show up that folks from the Bush made it to town - there is a buzz of excitement.   People then start traveling these tested trails to get to their remote cabins, to hunt or ice fish, to visit relatives and friends ... and even to go xc skiing in cool places.  Once word is out that the Bush trails are in - it's game-on for winter travel in Alaska.

26 November 2011:  Memorable Grizzly Bear Years in Alaska This Century
2003: The year Timothy Treadwell was killed by a grizzly bear. 2007: The year of Charlie Vandergaw's "Bear Haven" 2008: The year Petra Davis was mauled by a grizzly bear on Rover's Run in Anchorage. 2009: The year of the "Momma Grizzly Bear". 2011: The year of the insomniac grizzly bear on the Hillside Ski Trails in Anchorage.


22 November 2011:  Ryan's Hill Recognition Is Long Overdue At Hillside

Ryan's Hill deserves recognition at the Hillside Trail System in Anchorage.  It’s long overdue.

If you ski Hillside trails you will see the Moerlein Hill sign.  And you will see the Richter Hill sign.  These names are of early ski families that helped form the Nordic Ski Club of Anchorage.  The kids in these families were excellent xc ski racers.  I know members of these ski clans and they are all good people.

But when I get together with Anchorage high school ski team alums from the 70’s and 80’s and we are hanging around listening to Bruce Springsteen’s “Glory Days” and reliving the past - a common story comes up.  And invariably it ALWAYS comes up.  It’s a legend that will likely never be topped.

Is the legend of the people that built our trails, or those who presided over our ski clubs, or ski coachess, or state or national champions, or Olympians?  Nope.  This is all good stuff.  But this is usually “here today – gone tomorrow – eventually forgotten” stuff.

No, the legend behind a “Ryan’s Hill” sign is one that is not possible to be forgotten over the generations. 

Because it is a legend of a guy crashing and getting a broken ski stuck in his butt.

Yes indeed, talk to anyone that skied high school in the 70’s and Steve Ryan’s crash on the Service Trails that resulted in his buttocks being impaled by a Norwegian-crafted ski-spear is the common denominator of all skiing stories. 

“Remember so and so?  He went on to the Olympics didn’t he?”

“Uhm, I can’t remember.  Hey!  Do you remember the time Steve Ryan crashed and got a broken ski stuck in his ass?!”

When it comes to skiing feats, nothing trumps heroically taking one for the team like Steve did.

So why does this event reverberate with such clarity in 70’s era ski racers?  Probably it’s due to the fact that many of these skiers experienced high-speed wooden ski blow-ups and know first hand the fear involved in these event.

First there is the sound.  CRACK!  This is a sound we are genetically programmed to fear.  It’s the sound of branches breaking as an angry mother mastodon charges towards our camp enraged that we killed its child for food.  It’s the sound of spears breaking as we battle the Vikings who have come to kill us and steal our women.  It’s the sound of 2nd grade teacher Mrs. Murphy’s ruler as it hits our head because our penmanship is not up to par.

Then there is the slow motion acknowledgement of what is happening just before the pain starts.  It’s like when our ancestors where thrown from a steed on the battlefield and were falling, seemingly in slow motion, into a sea of spears and swords.  Same thing with breaking a wooden ski at high speed.  As you fall you see in slow motion jagged spears of hickory coming at you, a vicious shrapnel of birch splinters racing towards you and of course – the tip of the non-broken ski fast approaching your lower groin area.

No doubt these primeval engrained fears flashed through Mr. Ryans mind before he skidded to a stop.  There must have been chaos once the reality of the situation set in.  Guys on the Service team must have been screaming: “Coach!  Coach!  Steve’s got a ski stuck in his ass!”  And then shock and grief must have been overwhelming to them as they couldn’t control their emotions and stop laughing.  The girls were likely equally distraught: “Oh my God!  I’m not going to the prom with him!  I don’t want to be heckled about going to the prom with the guy that got a ski stuck in his butt!”

The trauma.  The pain.  The embarrassment.  The knowledge that this epic mishap would live forever in the minds and hearts of Anchorage high school skiers.  A legend that has withstood the test of time.  These are all reasons that Hillside needs a Ryan’s Hill sign, or maybe the Richter Loop Connector should be named the Ryan's Hill Trail (see below).  

Location of Ryan's Hill.  The dotted line is approximate the route of the "new" Richter Loop Connector. Top of the now overgrown Ryan's Hill. Looking towards an old, straight cut the hill outruns to.  The cut then heads up a ridge to the NW. On top of the ridge to the NW, looking back across the grown-in cut towards Ryan's Hill clearing. Possible old trail cut on the ridge-top to the NW of Ryan's Hill.

Update: I got an email that informed me that there used to be a Ryan's Hill sign.  But 25-30 years ago it disappeared.  I confirmed with veteran xc ski racers where Ryan's Hill is (see above pictures).  I went there and checked it out.  The "new" Richter Loop Connector trail cuts right across the top of Ryan's Hill.  Seeing that Ryan's Hill is the most fabled ski hill in Anchorage, why would you name a trail something else if it crosses Ryan's Hill?  I don't get it.  There already is a Richter Trail.  Naming the trail that crosses Ryan's Hill "the Richter Loop Connector" is demeaning and disrespectful to legend and history that the Anchorage Nordic ski community holds sacred.  This trail really should be renamed "The Ryan's Hill Trail".  That would be accurate, appropriate and the historically correct thing to do.

20 November 2011:  Economics of XC Skiing - Cost Trend of A Constant Commodity

If you tell people in the ski industry that cross country skiing has gotten prohibitively expensive, you usually get the standard responses:  "Oh, you can't compare the old days with today."  "The equipment, the technology, has changed for the better ... so sure, it costs more but it's worth it."  "Everything is expensive these days, so cross country skiing is expensive too."

Basically it's the same old hand-waving and blowing of smoke.  No one in the ski industry seems willing to acknowledge or own up to how much the cost of xc skiing has increased.  No one seems to want to accept the fact that the high cost of xc skiing has driven many potential participants away from this sport.  They just want to sell you the latest, greatest and increasingly expensive products.  And not remove their blinders.

It is a valid point that you can't compare today's skis, boots and poles to the gear from the 70's.  Today's equipment is more technologically advanced and better than gear of days gone by.

But not all cross country ski products have undergone radical changes.  Some products have not changed for 50 years.  Take for instance a basic commodity of the xc skiing world - Swix Blue hard wax.  It seems that this wax has not changed much, or at all, since it was created.  I still have tins of Swix Blue hard wax from the 70's and I can't tell any difference between this old kick wax and modern day Swix Blue.

However, I can definitely tell the difference in price.  This chart shows what I mean ...

While going through some old ski catalogs recently (for this web page) I found a mail-order catalog from 1972 that sold Swix Blue hard wax for 50 cents a tin.  The US Bureau of Labor Consumer Price Index calculator estimates that 50 cents in 1972 should be $2.71 today (2011).  But the MSRP for Swix Blue is 2.67 times more than that ... it's $9.95 a tin.

OK - I know that the CPI is not a perfect metric.  And I know that Swix is a foreign company and exchange rates come into play.  But come on ... how can the ski industry say they want to increase the participation in cross country skiing but at the same time almost triple the inflation-adjusted cost of a basic ski product that hasn't changed in decades?

Yes - this is just a comparison of the cost of a tin of basic wax.  But I will venture to say that the upward trend for this simple staple is conservative with regards to the cost increases in other xc ski equipment. 

The Consumer Price Index is an "affordability index", it indicates the affordability level for US consumers.  If the cost of a product far exceeds the CPI adjusted cost over time, the product becomes less affordable to many US consumers.

"Hello!  Earth to ski industry  ... you can't grow the sport of xc skiing if you make it so expensive that fewer and fewer people can afford to be xc skiers."

17 November 2011:  A Leaner Year Ahead for Groomed Snowmobile Trails In Alaska
Denali Highway groomed trails Petersville / Curry Ridge Riders groomed trails Lower Susitna Drainage Assoc. groomed trails

For those who like to ski the groomed snowmobile trail networks in Alaska – it’s going to be a leaner year. 

The State of Alaska SnowTrac grant program provides a share of snowmobile registration fees to clubs in Alaska to help groom snowmobile trails.  According to the most recent Alaska Snowrider magazine, last year a total of about $330,000 was granted to around 12 clubs.  This year the total will be around $196,000.  So that means trails will likely be groomed only about two-thirds as frequently as in previous years. 

So what does this mean to skiers (or bikers) that like to use groomed snowmobile trails?

1)   With an average of around $20,000 granted per club, and with high fuel costs, there isn’t much money for grooming.  Clubs like the Curry Ridge Riders, the Willow Trail Committee, the Denali Highway Trail Committee, the Caribou Hills Cabin Hoppers and others will be tight on money to keep up their amazing trail systems.  So please consider either joining a trails club or two or sending the respective club a check after you use their trails.  A snowmobile registration cost is $5 per year, so we are not talking big donations per user here.

2)   Get out and ski (or snow bike or ski-jor) these trails.  The more user groups that are on these trail systems, the more sway there will be politically to keep the shoestring operations funded that give us these great trails.  Go give these trails a try for yourself because you never know what the future holds and how long these trails will exist.

I’d also like to add: When you go skiing on these trails talk to snowmobilers and trail groomers that you meet.  You will find that there is little difference between snowmobile trail riders and backcountry trail skiers (or bikers).  Each user group is equally passionate about winter trails and living life large in Alaska in the winter.

But be careful.  If you talk to the trails people, or travel their trails, in places like Willow or Petersville or the Caribou Hills or Lake Louise or on the Denali Highway … you will probably start really liking these people and their trails a lot.  And you will then start coming up with lots of excuses as to why you have to leave places like Anchorage and go use their trails.  These SnowTrac trails are addictive!  So beware!

Here are maps of the State of Alaska SnowTrac-funded winter trails in the 2010 grooming pool.

05 November 2011:  Skiing Down Memory Lane ... XC Skiing Gear Ads of the 70's

If you are a baby boomer or older xc skier and want to take a ski down memory lane, or if you are a younger skier that wants a glimpse at what the sport was like before you you got into the game... then click here.

04 November 2011:  A Must-Have for Anchorage XC Skiers In Bear Country?

Seems like some Anchorage xc skiers are apprehensive about running into not-yet-in-hibernation bears on Hillside ski trails.  A recent Anchorage Daily News article talks about bear sightings during the last week.  It seems like a solution to help skiers avoid bear confrontations was developed centuries ago - "ski trail bells".  Below is an advertisement from a 1970's ski magazine for such bells. Bears would not be surprised by you when using these bells because they could hear you jingling, and get off the trail. Or maybe bears might consider these" skier-for-dinner bells".  Ya never know ...

Recent bear, right next to Hillside xc trails, caught on a ski area security camera.  (Photo: Hillside Ski Area) 1970'S magazine ad for ski bells.  Maybe Alaska Mountaineering and Hiking should start carrying these?  Or maybe someone in Alaska should start making these?
31 October 2011:  Great Idea, That Didn't Last Long

In the mid 1980's the Kneissl ski company came out with a unique cross country racing ski.  It was called the "Vario" and it had a dial that could adjust the camber of the ski.   The dial would adjust a tension band that was anchored to the inside of the ski on either side of the camber pocket.  Tightening the dial cause the camber to get stiffer, loosening it caused the camber to soften.

This was a great idea in that one pair of skis could literally be "dialed-in" for the weight of the skier or the for waxing camber was needed for the day.  Also, during races the camber could be adjusted.  If your skis were slipping, you could just reach down and dial down the camber a bit.

Unfortunately the downfall of these skis seemed to be their durability.  The sections of the ski where the tension bands were anchored (on either side of the camber pocket) were prone to breaking.  That's too bad.  This technology would have made an economical high school and citizen racing ski.  Skiers wouldn't need multiple pairs of classic skis and ski shops wouldn't have to carry a variety of cambers per ski length.

Perhaps advances in composites and adhesives in the decades since when the Vario came out could be used to overcome the limitations of the past ... and make this good idea come back to life.

Mid 1980's Kneissl Super Star WM "Vario" skis - they had dials to vary the ski camber.
Closeup of the Vario dial that was just in front of the binding. The problem with these skis is that the internal tension band anchors would fail too often.
30 October 2011:  Got Snow?
I was out training and ran into this guy.  Reminded me of the "Got Milk?" ads.
Late October 2011:  Lost Skiing Techniques
The Change-Up

Back in the wooden skis days you would see this technique used quite a lot.  Prior to the mid 70's ski racing speeds were slower because the skis were made of wood and often soft cambered, glide wax was not yet in use and the racing tracks were usually soft and bumpy.  Just getting across flat sections of trail could involve brutal classical skiing exertion.  As a result the change-up was used as a "rest stroke" or "gear shifting" technique move.  You would often see skiers throw in change-ups when they went over bumps, got to the bottom of hills and switched to climbing gear or when they were just plain tired.

With the advent of faster fiberglass skis, faster waxes and firmer and faster ski tracks, the change-up went away.  The time taken to do the change-up was not worth the loss in momentum.  Higher ski speeds made it feasible to just hammer all the time. 

When I was in high school in the 70's I remember seeing US Ski Teamer Bob Gray  race.  Besides being a tough and fast skier, he had a distinctive change-up style.  The picture in the above 1978 ad shows his change-up well (click on the picture to make it bigger and readable).  When you saw him do a change-up you would do a double-take and go: "Wow"!  Bob is a nice guy that us kids looked up to back in the day (along with his peers like Mike Gallahger, Charlie Kellogg, Dennis Donahue and others of that era).  We kids still look up to Bob and these guys.

Pole Braking

A rather obscure form of slowing down on skis is "pole braking".  This method of slowing down involves taking your hands out of your pole straps, holding your poles together to your side or between your legs and weighting them.  This will cause your ski pole tip and basket to drag and slow you down.  Of course - you don't want to put too much weight on your poles or your attempt at "pole braking" might result in "pole breaking".  And as you might be able to imagine, this technique can turn hazardous if you are a male skier using the "between the legs" braking method.

This technique was largely abandoned when ski trails became better groomed.  And when ski poles got lighter, more fragile, more expensive and baskets turned to breakable plastic - skiers decided it was better to learn other skiing techniques to slow down.

Growing up I would snicker and chuckle when I saw people using this technique.  "Ha!  What a turkey!"  But then when I started skiing narrow snowmobile trails, especially steep downhills that were too narrow to snowplow - at night and with a sled pushing you from behind ... I realized that there was a place for this technique.  But of course, I would first check and make sure there was no one around to see me using this "turkey technique"! 

Late October 2011:  Cutting Off The "Devil's Tongue"

For quite a few years now I have been using the Salomon Pro Combi boots for backcountry xc skiing.  I like the way these boots fit and function ... that is - after I modify them.  The problem with these boots, at least for me, is that the tongues of the boots have a rigid insert that is pointed near the toe-end.  This stiff point cuts into my toes when I classic ski with them.   And I don't mean rub or chaff, I really mean cut ... as in bloody socks.  Yes indeed, these are the vicious tongues of the devil !!  And they must be attacked, subdued and (partially) destroyed!

I have posted previously on how I modify the Salomon Pro Combi boot tongues, here is the link.  I got a new pair of Pro Combi's this year and did the modification on them.  It seemed like the new boots had more adhesive inside the tongue.  So for these 2010 models the process of pulling out the tongue insert and trimming it was harder than with the 2008 & 2009 boots.  I have now done this boot tongue modification on 4 pairs of Pro-Combis.

The tip of the insert after it has been pulled out of the Pro Combi tongue, and just before it is to be cut off. Devil's tongue tips after they were cut out of a pair of Pro Combi's.  And ready to be cast to their demise into the infernal hellfire of Hades!
October 2011:  Are Modern Day Ski Poles Better Than 100 Year Old Ski Poles?
A comparison of the 2011 Swix Triax (above) to the 1920 Seppala-pole, once manufactured in Nome, Alaska (below, left).

Three women skiing in Nome, Alaska (circa 1920).  Photo credit: vilda.alaska.edu.




Swix Triax   Alaska Seppala-pole  
  Adjustable hand grips NO   YES (Infinitely adjustable.  Move hands up for skating, down for classic.)  
  Same pole can be used for multiple techniques NO   YES (Pole can be adjusted on the fly and used for any technique.)  
  Made from renewable resources NO   YES (Bamboo grows fast.  A ski pole can be grown in 2-3 years.)  
  Can be used to pole vault streams or fallen skiers NO   YES (But you have to be careful where you place the poles when you vault fallen skiers.)  
  Poles are designed for emergencies NO   YES (Pole shafts can be burned for heat.  Seal skin leather in baskets can be boiled and eaten.)  
  Failure proof ski straps NO  

YES (Pole straps are guaranteed for life not to fail, because there are no straps.)

  Pole is effective when hitting polar bears or drunken Norwegians on the nose NO  

YES (Japanese Ninjas use the same pole as weapons.)


Norwegians must be really proud of the Swix Triax pole they developed to retail them in the US for $400 dollars a pair.  But for that price they fail in comparison in many ways to the poles their great-great granddads, like Norwegian Leonhard Seppala, made 100 years ago in Nome, Alaska.  Oh well, keep trying Swix!

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