Let’s begin with the video footage Bryana van Leeuwen took of our cross-country skiing technique on the first day of Supercamp, an early-season training school held every November and December at SilverStar Mountain Resort in Vernon, B.C.
Let me add that I was confident I knew how to ski. Sixty-one years of downhill, 50 years of cross-country. I placed third in the Ontario Fifteen-and-Under Cross Country Championship at some point in the ever more distant previous century. I have skied the deep backcountry of Canada’s Rocky Mountains almost every year for the past 35 years. I even know how to telemark.
But I am not proud. I was at Supercamp to tone up my classic cross-country technique, which entails striding on snow and, more importantly, to learn a new skill: skate skiing, which is skating but on skis – and a whole different version of hell. I have spent enough time on skis to know how hard and rewarding learning something new can be. And I did not doubt that I could learn what I had to learn.
Bryana runs the Supercamp as a joint venture between SilverStar Mountain Resort, the teeming downhill and cross-country nexus in British Columbia’s stunning Okanagan Valley, and the adjacent Sovereign Lake Nordic Centre in Silver Star Provincial Park. Together, their 105 kilometres of interlinked trails are the most extensive and possibly most beautiful network of continuously groomed cross-country routes in North America. Bryana is a professional coach (currently of the Saskatchewan Ski Team) and good at what she does.
She showed the video clips on her smartphone at lunch on Day 1. Lunch is a big deal at Supercamp, because you start skiing at 8:15 in the morning and stop at noon, ravenous, then head out again for another two hours at 1:30. No one misses the meal and everyone looks at everyone else’s video. Our Supercamp was a five-day affair, so the footage immediately established an unaggressive but expectant possibility of improvement.
Everyone in my group – five women, two men – looked good. But one guy – at least I thought he was a guy, I couldn’t tell at first – looked tired. He had good glide, Bryana said, and a good forward angle, even if he was extending his poling arm straight out with each stride, which is old-fashioned and inefficient.
Between strides and arm pokes, he seemed to … stop. Or at least become still. Or possibly fall asleep while gliding. Stride … snore … stride … snore.
But even his narcoleptic pace was less striking than his general skiing posture. Classic technique requires a head-up, forward-leaning stance and arm-snapping, bum-clenching crispness. You want to look as though you are “mini-thrusting” into the future with intention while avoiding what Bryana calls “the outhouse position” and “buzzard neck” and “T. rex arms” and “jerky butt” and “broccoli leg,” to cite just a few of her coaching neologisms.
Whereas Mr. Snoozy Glidealong – his stride did not have any briskness to it at all. No. He looked stooped and cramped and – are you familiar with the poop emoji? He looked like a collapsing poop emoji staggering forward on its inevitable trajectory down the drain.
My God, I thought, that poor bastard. I wonder if he knows what he looks like, never mind what he skis like?
And then, with a dropping gasp of horror, I realized it was me.
Until that moment, my decision to get me some early season training seemed like a good idea – my definition of “early season” being mid-November. It wasn’t until Day 2, my first day of skate skiing at 6,500 feet, when I discovered I needed a new set of lungs, that Bryana explained that elite skiers start training in May for the following winter. July and August are big aerobic months, whereas fall is for “low reps and high power.” Getting in shape to ski, in other words, takes more time and effort than the actual skiing, at least if you hope to do it well. “Every time I’m brushing my teeth, I’m brushing my teeth while holding something heavyish,” Bryana said. Sometimes she does stuff standing on one leg. She was an exceptionally strong, calm but lively skier who seemed to be made of India rubber. Her workout and stretching exercises had terrifying names such as “the Bulgarian split squat” and “the half-dead bug.” She liked to log two hours on skis before camp started each morning and skied up the mountain every evening for another two after we were finished. Those are the habits of a serious elite athlete.
I wanted to be serious, especially about cross-country skiing. I have always admired the grace and speed of skate skiers. A top classic ski racer can average 21 kilometres an hour (I’m thrilled to go just over half that speed); but a top skate skier can average 29. Skate skiing is reportedly 10 per cent more aerobically demanding than classic, although that estimate feels very low to a beginner. There were at least three college teams skate training at Sovereign Lake the week I was there. Crouched low, poling madly, accelerating uphill and around us, they resembled birds of prey swooping in on unsuspecting voles.
Coaches agree that classic (stride) skiing is harder to perfect. But a beginner can at least shuffle along in stride mode. Whereas skate skiing is easier to perfect but harder to learn initially, because if you don’t do it efficiently, your heart feels as if it’s going to explode. Some experts feel we’re still figuring out how to do it properly. Skate skiing didn’t exist before the early 1980s, when an American classic skier named Bill Koch began to use the so-called marathon stride – one ski in the track, one ski at right angles to the track, for push-off – to go faster in World Cup classic races. (Classic and skate skiing are now separate events.) The current style of full-on, all-out double pole skate skiing – the method I was trying to learn, in which both legs use skating technique, and there is no track – had begun to emerge by 1988, after trail designers and resorts turned to bigger grooming machines to create wider cross-country trails. That was the same year the coach of the Canadian national cross-country ski team told Norm Crear, a former owner of SilverStar, that if he built Nordic ski trails, the team would train there.
Thus, the idea of the Supercamp was born. Between Nov. 19 and Dec. 9, starting shortly before the downhill operation kicks into gear, some 400 keeners pay between $500 and $885 (accommodation is extra) for three- and five-day courses specializing in classic, skate and even biathlon skiing.
My Supercamp was divided into two parts: two days of classic and two days of skating. The skating class was further divided into beginners and intermediates. There were four of us in the lowly beginner class: Ron Johnson, a University of Washington professor of computer science who helped invent the internet and was in his 70s; Susan Fiedler, a jewellery designer and real estate speculator from Vancouver, 49; and Beth MacDonald, who grew up in Vancouver, raised a family in Calgary, then followed her children to Vernon, where she now works in the insurance business. She was about to turn 60. Ron wasn’t a novice skater, but the rest of us were. Val Tinker, our instructor, was originally from Moscow, where he was a mechanical engineer until he fled the Soviet Union for Edmonton and B.C. “People think corruption just happened there yesterday,” he told us one morning, “but it had been there 1,000 years. And I didn’t want any part of that.”
Val started us off skate skiing around the flat quarter-mile oval ski track in front of the Sovereign Lake grandstand (the venue has hosted World Cup races). He insisted we do this without poles. It was hard to get started and harder to keep going – especially after the second turn. Then, we did it with poles, but without actually poling. We did it using only our right legs then only our left legs. Then, Val led us onto Sovereign’s skating trails and asked us to skate ski up hills – slight hills, but hills nonetheless – without using our poles, then with poles.
It was a lot harder than I thought it would be. The trick was to shift your weight from one leg and hip to the other, maintaining a bent-knee but upright stance while leaning forward and dropping your weight onto the (other) receiving knee so you could push off and forward with the other ski, using your body weight and poles as a fulcrum. No more than 30 per cent of one’s power was supposed to come from poling, unless you were going uphill, in which case you used offset poling after every step, which was – perversely – easier than it looked. What was essential, Val made clear, was to bring your unweighted ski back under you after each skating stride, to recentre your power and balance. It was a lot to remember. I complicated matters further by looking down at my feet instead of up at the track ahead. “Chin up, Ian,” Val urged. “Keep your head up.” He must have said it 30 times.
Sometimes, I remembered to crouch down to get a good push-off but forgot when to pole. Sometimes, I remembered how to pole but forgot to glide. Sometimes, I forgot everything at once.
Then there were the uphills. Val seemed to like uphills; he seemed to believe that while they were hell for us technically, they would at least improve our conditioning, which in turn would allow us to relax and ski better. Skating uphill on a pair of skis should be an anatomical impossibility: Each foot has to slide outward toward its own side of the hill while still pointed slightly uphill, limiting your forward progress and inducing panic. At this point, the novice leans back – the opposite of what he should do – which makes it harder to bring his unweighted foot back underneath him. Eventually, you resemble a panicked clown about to split himself in half by standing on a set of diverging rails.
You can have many rogue thoughts when you are learning something new and physical and it isn’t going well. One of mine was I hate Val. It wasn’t Val’s fault. A novice always assumes everyone knows how to perform a task better than he or she does, but it’s rarely true. Seventy per cent of the skiers who enroll in the Supercamps are intermediate skiers, and there are plenty of beginners, too. (Two-thirds of Supercampers are women, as are about half the 33 coaches. This is fantastic, from a novice male’s point of view, because women are often more interested in skiing well than they are in skiing fast, which makes learning easier and more pleasant.) “Very few people pick things up quickly,” Val assured us – hence, the value of having a coach for three or five days versus an instructor for two hours. “With coaching you get to know the person.” As Bryana had said on Day 1, “We don’t coach skiing. We coach people.” Ninety per cent of talent is confidence, an absence of judgment that feeds a willingness to fail that produces a greater likelihood of success.
And look, by the end of the first morning, we were actually skate skiing – sort of. We were gasping for breath and stopping on hills; it wasn’t pretty or elegant to watch. But we were there, giving it. Val said that counted for something.
I hardly ever saw my ski mates outside of class and lunch. Having risen at six in the morning in my luxurious bedroom at the resort to find breakfast (freshly baked croissants and cinnamon rolls at the Bugaboo Café) and wax my skis in the High Altitude Training Centre, I was thrilled to be in bed by nine at night, reading until I collapsed (quickly) into sleep. A visit to the hillside SilverStar village (designed to look like a mining town) for a locally brewed brown ale at the Red Antler or to covet a $200 water-resistant cross-country ski jacket at the brilliant Village Ski Shop was a big night out.
But gradually, we got to know one another. At lunch on Day 2, Susan admitted she was on the lookout for a man; Mary Prendergast, a nurse from Westchester County, outside New York, who was there with her partner, Gavin Thurston, for the third time, recommended a “mountain man.” Beth MacDonald and Indra Gupta, both of whose husbands were enrolled in the advanced skating camp, agreed. Half the people who attend Supercamp are return customers, and the women knew the type. “Usually, there’s a guy named Phil, from Calgary,” Beth said, “who says, ‘I only brought seven pairs of skis.’”
Indra, a pediatric nephrologist from Montreal, was especially happy the last evening. She had been to Supercamp before – four times, three of them to do the same skate and classic combo course we were enrolled in. “I came to skiing late in life,” she said. “I was a shuffler. I was a good shuffler, but a shuffler.” But this time had been different. That afternoon, in her last session of skate skiing, trying doggedly one last time to get it right, muttering one of Bryana’s coaching mantras under her breath (“drop and POP, drop and POP”), remembering to bring her foot back under her, to hold her elbows in and her hands and poles high, to use her body weight as a gentle fulcrum, to be condensed but loose, to try hard but not too hard – suddenly, in a single revelatory moment of unified understanding that every novice longs for, Indra had found it: the moment of repose, the rest stop at the top of the skate step, after which skate skiing is never again quite so daunting or exhausting. Suddenly, she was gliding – uphill, almost effortlessly. One moment, she didn’t have it; the next, she did – and for good. Suddenly, she was a little freer than she was before.
I never quite found that moment myself, at least not reliably, hard as I tried and much as I intend to try again next year. “I was just like, ‘Oh my God,’” Indra said to me that last afternoon, as we made our way back from the silent, snow-draped trails through the woods, exhausted. She was so thrilled. I’m not quite sure why, but that made me happy.
The cost of the writer’s travel, instruction and accommodation were subsidized jointly by Destination BC and by SilverStar Mountain Resort. Neither, however, had any control over the content of this story.