Austria: The joys of going flat out
Cross-country skiing offers an eye-opening alternative to the downhill variety.
Saturday 16 October 2010
Like black pudding, or lederhosen, cross-country skiing is one of those things that just don't seem to travel well. The activity also known as Nordic or "XC" skiing is certainly all a little mystifying to the average British downhill skier. Maybe it's all that Lycra. Or the fact that halfway through the journey, some practitioners inexplicably lie down and start shooting at tiny targets.
And then there's the "Why?" factor. After all, skis are built to go downhill, aren't they? Using them to schlep across largely flat terrain seems a little pointless, unless you're heading towards the South Pole, like Ben Fogle.
Every year, I visit the Alps to go snowboarding, and I've often seen our cross-country skiers flogging away in the distance. Usually, I barely spare them a second glance. But then an unruly thought began to percolate my consciousness. Was it maybe about time I tried this for myself?
So in mid-January this year, I decided to visit the Leutasch valley, in Austria's Tyrol region. This beautiful area has some serious XC pedigree; the valley capital, Seefeld, acted as venue for the Nordic events during the 1964 and 1976 Winter Olympics. It is a flat plateau, sandwiched between the Karwendel, Wetterstein and Mieminger ranges, and is regarded as one of Central Europe's best destinations for the sport.
The drive in to the Hotel Xander, in the village of Leutasch itself, suggested as much. Everywhere I looked, Lycra-clad skiers, bent like the subjects of a wintry Lowry landscape, were effortlessly gliding along.
The Xander is the type of homely, family-run "wellness" hotel at which the Austrians excel, and over a coffee and bowl of Kaiserschmarrn (a delicious and highly calorific local pancake dessert to which I was instantly addicted), I pored over a cross-country map of the local area. It revealed a truly astonishing network: 250km of blue, red, and even black trails, designed to challenge Nordic skiers of every level.
I was joined by Steve Barrington, an ex-Army staff sergeant who'd learnt the sport while in the services and become hooked. Steve soon packed in his army career and moved to Leutasch to work as an XC guide, from where he now preaches the Nordic gospel with the vim of the latterly converted.
"There's just something wonderful about this sport. It's easy, and great for couples. I always say to my beginners, 'You'll be flying along by mid-morning.'" Even a snowboarder? "Oh yes. You'll love it. I guarantee it!"
The next day, in Seefeld, I got kitted out at Martin Tauber's Cross Country Academy. Tauber, a former Austrian cross-country national team member, opened the academy at the end of his competitive career. Today, he and his strapping team of instructors service Seefeld's cross-country needs – which, as the resort was the winner of a recent "Excellent XC Ski Trails" award by Ski Atlas, are considerable.
He also has a truly startling array of neon-coloured equipment in his store, and it was beginning to make me nervous. As a snowboarder, I'm more used to riding a 25cm-wide, 164cm-long solid plank than two ridiculously skinny skis. The others in my group, Alpine skiers one and all, were certainly looking forward to seeing how I got on, and it didn't bode well as I shuffled like a baby giraffe on to one of Seefeld's nursery slopes.
Our square-jawed instructor, Michael Multerer, soon took charge. Michael is the kind of person that has men involuntarily holding in their stomach muscles and ladies swooning. A former professional snowboarder, he tackles triathlons for fun and is a walking advert for the health benefits of Nordic skiing.
Soon, he was demonstrating the technique, in which rhythm is the most essential component. You lean forward, push off rhythmically from each ski, and use your poles to counterbalance each forward glide. Easier said than done, but we were soon off, following him through tree-lined glades, past frozen lakes and even down some short, steep pitches that saw me practising an ungainly tuck.
Intent on trying to master this seemingly straightforward technique and enthralled by the scenery, I was astonished to be told we'd actually covered seven kilometres in what seemed like five minutes. It didn't seem likely – but my body provided its own confirmation later on that evening as I hobbled to dinner at Innsbruck's Gasthof Weisses Rössl , a short shuffle from the city's celebrated "Golden Roof".
The "White Horse", as the inn's name translates, has been in business for 600 years, and it still specialises in the type of welcome-weary visitors like me probably enjoyed back in 1410. Perhaps amusingly, given Innsbruck's ski heritage, the owner and head of the family who have held the deeds for the past few hundred years is Herr Plank. He recommended the house variation on the traditional Gröstl: a hash of potatoes, meat and herbs, which was just the job to help to repair my aching muscles.
The next morning, it's clear I'm going to need all the fuel I can muster as I listen to Steve outline the day's itinerary. I'm going to be let loose in the wild, dropped off at the head of the valley armed with only a map, a set of skis and my very basic XC skills, and told to find a way home.
In theory, it should be a simple task. Each trail is clearly marked, and Steve makes it clear that we should stick strictly to one of the more gentle blue trails. But there's always the chance we'll make a wrong turn and end up on one of the fearsome-looking red or even black runs, with their huge height variations and troublesome terrain to negotiate.
I soon find myself drifting off into something approaching a Zen-like state as I get into my rhythm. True, I'm being overtaken by local senior citizens – and my clothes are probably the baggiest within a 25km radius. But I'm beginning to see what the fuss is about. It's unlikely that we Brits will ever take to this esoteric pursuit with all our hearts, but now my muscles have recovered, I can speak for the wholesome mental and physical benefits. I'm still not sure about all that Lycra, though.
* The writer travelled to Leutasch, Austria with Headwater (01606 720 199; headwater.com), which offers a week's half board at the four-star Xander from £1,207 (£749 per child) including flights, transfers, guided cross-country tuition and equipment hire.
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