About the author: Simon Evans is a British postdoctoral researcher in the Animal Ecology department of Uppsala University’s Evolutionary Biology Center, and an avid skier. In 2013, his second year in Sweden (and thus his second year skiing), he finished the 90 k Vasaloppet in five hours and 57 seconds, placing him 692nd of the 15,800 total participants. Unsurprisingly, he was the first Brit. He is now planning a long-distance bike trip in northwestern Canada.
Uneasy in the icy conditions, I move out of the tracks for the steep downhill route that leads – via a tunnel that I am going to have to negotiate at speed – to the relative tranquility of the flatter tracks alongside the river. It’s my first time on skis for the winter and I am aware how conspicuously I look like Bambi as I struggle to portray myself as anything other than Horrendously Misplaced Brit, a characterisation my Swedish friends – schooled to ski from a young age – so often amuse themselves with. On this occasion, though, I was out of the door and clipping in my boots whilst they slept off our late arrival the previous evening. The result is an absence of sympathetic, friendly faces to turn to for reassurance, as far more accomplished skiers – Charlotte Kalla, Jörgen Brink and the Thunell brothers, to name a few – effortlessly glide past, seemingly immune to the difficulties I face, and clad in bright kit that boldly pronounces their national allegiances. My confidence takes a battering and after a couple of short loops I beat a hasty retreat to the safety of the lodge, consoling myself with unconvincing mutterings about “the wrong kick wax”. But how did a guy raised in a seaside town in southern England come to be sharing the tracks with some of the sport’s biggest names?
I moved to Sweden two years ago, having completed my PhD in the UK and been offered a job at Uppsala University, a small city about an hour north of Stockholm. Eager to make the most of what Scandinavia has to offer, and having been a keen runner, cyclist and university rower, the decision to take up cross-country skiing was an easy one. So it was that within a month of arriving in Sweden, I found myself in one of Uppsala’s sports stores worrying how a complete novice – and an appropriately impoverished graduate to boot – can justify spending several thousand kronor on a couple of thin planks and some flimsy carbon fibre poles.
Yet, as you probably already know from your own experience if you’re visiting this website, cross-country skiing is an enormously enriching pastime, so it didn’t take long before I was hooked. For someone with a marked sensitivity to the cold (and an accompanying hatred of being chilly), this speaks loudly of just how enjoyable Nordic skiing is. The weekends of my first winter were spent tracing circles across a frozen lake, the only place where the marginal snow depth of that year didn’t pose a threat to the precious base of my skis. As my second winter approached, my local ski shop’s friendly assistant, endlessly plagued by my questions on glide waxes, optimal skier weight and the rolling resistance of roller-ski wheels, pushed a pamphlet for the local ski club into my hands. I tentatively attended my first training session a few weeks later and, whilst my self-taught technique raised much amusement (“your technique is about 40 years out of date”, somebody eventually ventured to tell me), everyone was welcoming. My technique remains pretty rough, but I at least know now what I should be striving (and striding) for.
Now, with my second year of skiing behind me and my third winter in Scandinavia approaching, I joined a few club mates for an early-season trip to Bruksvallarna,in the Swedish mountains. Being decidedly less fashionable than their Alpine counterparts, Sweden’s ski resorts offer much better value for money, and my share of our lodge cost me 800 kr for four nights. This, for a lodge that was sited less than fifty metres from the tracks. And – this being Scandinavia – equipped with its own sauna.
We arrived a week after the snow in Funasfjällen, the umbrella name for the five neighbouring skiing resorts that have interlinked their ski trails and other aspects of their organisation, to create what is, in effect, a meta-resort. Whilst the other centres were yet to start preparing trails, at Bruksvallarna (or ‘Bruks’, as it’s generally called by those in the know) the snow machines had been working overtime to create thick trails in advance of the opening FIS races scheduled for the following weekend, from which Sweden would choose its World Cup team. There were thus a couple of fairly technical loops open and in heavy use, by both national teams and serious club skiers who were eager to get in some early training on the white stuff before it arrives in places like Mora.
Alongside these loops, there was also a trail open that led up the slope overshadowing Bruks, which climbs steadily for perhaps 5 k. The high plateau and offers great views of the ski slopes of Ramundsberget, the northernmost of the five resorts that nestles into the head of the valley. The Mittåkläppen trail then descends into a depression in the plateau, terminating at a river crossing some 11k from Bruks. After my ‘Bambi’ moment and a cup of tea in the chalet to restore my bravado, it was up the mountain that I fled, where I could remind myself how to ski without feeling embarrassed in front of more accomplished practitioners. More relaxed, having found myself alone on the trail, with the aggressively undulating terrain of the trail loops down in the valley replaced by a satisfyingly elongated ascent (for some reason, I love going uphill), my limbs started cooperating. And the views from the ridge top are pretty special, more than enough to draw a smile on my face as I sucked in the pleasingly cold air and tried to focus on the technical flaws my club’s coaches had highlighted during the autumn’s roller-skiing. Here, on snow rather than a rural road, the skis slid near effortlessly with each heave of my quads or push on my poles. Having earlier arrived back at the chalet in a state of intimidation (at both skiing and skiers), I returned in a state of reverie, that feeling of wonderful bliss that accompanies many ski outings. And for me, that’s one of the greatest features of this addictive sport, that the simple act of a training ‘run’ takes me into some stunning terrain, beautiful scenery that I am immersed in as I traverse the landscape.
So it was that I largely abandoned the valley tracks over the next few days and instead pursued the vistas that the ridgetop track presented. I’d set my alarm to rouse me while it was still dark, distractedly eat some breakfast as I gazed out of the window at the oncoming daybreak, and then dash up the mountainside so as to be above the treeline as the colours of dawn were thrown over the peaks and gradually spilled down the slopes. By the time I’d made it to the trailhead and was on my way back, the sun would be flirting with the horizon.
It was still very early to be skiing, and we were lucky that fresh snow fell in the days before we arrived. We enjoyed two good days but on the third the wind turned, bringing warmer air that forced the mercury up and the thin covering of snow on the Mittåkläppen accordingly began to subside. As long as the accumulated efforts of the snow machines left the valley tracks unaffected, I persisted with my morning routine (although now armed with universal klister), eager to get my fix of mountain sunrise. However, with a lot of debris on the snow and the tracks barely existing, I struggled for grip on the long ascent out of the valley. So I unexpectedly began the next phase of my development as a nordic skier: skating. And this proved something of a revelation, for I discovered that freestyle is not necessarily the brash upstart I had assumed it to be. Rather, it had a serene rhythm all of its own.
This unplanned introduction to a whole new dimension of skiing challenges would make the long drive into the mountains worthwhile on its own. But when placed alongside the confidence regained, the friendships made and the household names spotted, our short break in the early season snow was even better than I had hoped.
Now, back in the flatlands of Uppsala, with the mountains and skiable tracks of Bruksvallarna far beyond the horizon, my clubmates wait impatiently for the arrival of snow. As for me, I’ve got more pressing concerns: which skate skis should I buy?
Alex Kochon (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the former managing editor at FasterSkier. She spent seven years with FS from 2011-2018, and has been writing, editing, and skiing ever since. She's making a cameo in 2020.