Skiing. It's not something that comes naturally to us Brits. It has to work its way into our bones through bruises and aching muscles.
Since moving to Finland, much hilarity has been had at my expense over my ability to flail wildly out of control down even the gentlest of slopes.
There's something about XC skiing that terrifies me. I'm fine in the tracks as long as they're flat. Show me a hill and my legs start to quiver and shake. Throw in a corner and collapse at best, and head-on collision at worse are sure to follow. Those skinny skis and me just don't seem to get along very well.
I first learned to ski (downhill) in Romania in the early 90's. I was taught by Cédric – a guy who had been in the French Foreign Legion (I kid you not) – a ski instructor form Montpellier I was working with at a charity in Bucuresti. I enjoyed it a lot, but the thing with skiing is you have to keep doing it, and it's an expensive hobby. In the intervening 20 years, I can count the amount of times I've been downhill skiing on one hand. And each time requires a day or two of re-learning, remembering, and falling down a lot.
In recent years, though, I've discovered the joys of backcountry skiing. I picked up a a pair of Madshus Eons while in the US for jaunts around Minneapolis, which shares similar landscapes and snow conditions with southern Finland. Back in Lapland I've enjoyed roaming around with them when the snow allows it.
Fortunately, backcountry skiing in Finland has the advantage of there not being many people around to watch you making an arse of yourself. It's also a lot easier than charging downhill – you can choose your own route to match your skills and/or fear-o-meter.
Backcountry skiing is, of course, of the free-heel variety, so it's natural to want to try a few telemark style turns as you swish downhill. While the Eons have a little sidecut to faciltate easy turns, they have a fairly thin profile, and are not really intended for epic swooping down precipitous inclines. I've manages a few gentle half turns in them, but mainly through luck – I have no actual idea what I'm doing beyond what I read in a book.
Imagine my excitement, then when my friend Abe messaged me and offered to teach me some of the telemark magic! Abe is a really nice guy, an excellent photographer, and a life-long ski-bum. Who better to learn from?
After getting geared up, Abe asked where I wanted to start. I looked up at the slopes... Although I've been down them before on alpine skis, it was some years ago, and I really wasn't sure how much I remembered. Baby steps, baby slopes then.
It was a good decision. Abe explained some telemark basics and showed me a few examples. It looked easy enough. I pushed off, and immediately discovered I had forgotten how to ski. Before I know what was happening I was down. Hmmm. This was going to need a slightly different approach.
We rapidly embarked on a downhill refresher course – there was no way I could even contemplate anything remotely telemark-y without re-familiarising myself with the basics. It wasn't long before the concepts came back to me, but my muscle memory was claiming amnesia. It was was quite frustrating. The only thing falling in place was me.
I recalled all the bad initial first days of the past, and remembered that with skiing often, after you take a break, it all comes back to you. Usually something clicks overnight and the second day on the slopes you're flying downhill like a natural (well, more natural). We didn't have a day to take a break, but maybe a quick hot chocolate and some cheesy Euro-pop in the ski cafe would get the juices flowing again.
I sat and watched Finnish three-year-olds ski better than British forty-three year olds. (Incidentally, as I write this, a group of three-year-old kids from daycare are walking by my window carrying cross-country skis, as if to taunt me.)
Refreshed, I agreed to finally braving the slopes. Abe asked if I wanted to change to downhill skis and (perhaps foolishly, in retrospect) I declined. Up, up, up we go, all the way to the very top of the 200m hill (I know!), the sounds of Loreen ringing in my ears from the cafe.
Coming down was okay. I fell a couple of times and ended up experimenting with some off-piste downhill by accident. I can't say it all came flooding back to me; for some reason it seemed a lot harder than I remembered. Perhaps it was the telemark skis adding a little thrill to the learning curve.
Once I get going, I can keep going fairly well. My problem is stopping. I never really mastered that cool sideways parallel stop, and I seem to favour turning left over turning right. If I need to stop on a right turn, it's pretty much a guaranteed tumble of the gnarly variety.
Abe, of course, was in his element (he did fall once that day, but I suspect he did it just to make me feel better).
Getting down the hill, and getting comfortable with speed. "Speed fixes the mistakes," Abe tells me. I watched as knee-high children whizzed by, my sagging, crest-fallen figure.
Telemark looks so effortless in the hands of pros like Abe. A sweeping, gentle swoosh, a natural line, carving your way down a hill, Norwegian folk music playing gently in the background. I didn't expect to master it in one lesson, of course, but I had hoped to at least manage a half-decent turn. It was not to be.
We took a couple more runs down the slope, but by then my telemark ambitions had been severely cut down to size. I need to master staying on two feet before I attempt skiing on one.
But I'm not giving up. I will rise to fall another day.
My thanks to Jouni "Abe" Laaksomies for his time and patience, and Ounasvaara Ski Resort for the rental and ski pass.