Summit of skiing
Into the wilderness: a group of skiers head out into the country photograph: GETTY IMAGES
HOLLY HUNTgoes off piste to sample the pleasures of cross-country skiing
Heel up, toe forward, pole down and glide . . . on the undulating hills of Sweden’s white north, this is the way to travel. Cross-county skiing allows you to slide through wonderlands of sparkling snow far from the beaten track; only to arrive at a mountain hut serving cappuccinos and waffles piled high with cream and cloudberries.
This may not be how contestants taking part in next month’s FIS Nordic World Ski Championships view their sport, but each to their own. My boyfriend and I wanted to learn to cross-country ski because, much as I love racing down hills at speed, being able to get yourself up mountains without the aid of massive electrical contraptions opens up a world of snowy peaks to explore.
After masses of internet searching I found Josef and the village of Edåsdalen. From southern Sweden, Josef was a Hewlett Packard employee in search of a simpler pace of life. He discovered what he was looking for in Edåsdalen and opened Dalens Gård Mountain Lodge to which he welcomes guests on a BB basis and runs eco-adventures into the spectacular natural wilderness areas of Jämtland province.
The “village” is more like a huddle of wooden Swedish houses at the end of a road, dwarfed by the miles of hills that surround it. There are not more than 70 full-time residents in the village and, by day two of our stay, most of them seemed to have heard of us. While warming ourselves by an open fire in a mountain hut that had taken us most of the morning to reach, the waitress called over: “Josef’s on the phone he wants to know if you’d like the sauna turned on?” By the time you reach your sauna though you definitely feel you’ve earned it. You may build up a healthy glow downhill skiing, but walking up leaves you dripping. We even managed a few rolls in the snow between saunas to treat our aching muscles.
Each evening over a beer by the fire we planned our route for the next day; our shining moment of glory being the summiting of Grofjället. That day Josef lent us snow shoes that we tied to the back of our packs, and gave us detailed instructions of which route to take and what to expect.
We set out into the dim morning light of winter. The short days of a Swedish January seem to leave the world in continual twilight; a faint glowing pink where one feels half caught in a mesmerising ethereal world.
The set cross-country trails have a thin set of tracks that weave along through the snow. As your heel is not attached to the ski and your boot is very flexible, just balancing on your skis is the most difficult task. Once you step into the tracks, though, they act like rail tracks and you glide along letting the trail take you where it will. Going up steep sections, however, involves awkwardly walking like a duck and trying to stay upright.
The trail weaved through pine trees, their branches hung low with teetering towers of snow, and across expanses where the footprints of a passing fox was all that disturbed it. At one of the trail markers there was what looked like a warning sign for moose. What we would do if we met half a tonne of angry moose, we hadn’t quite worked out, but Josef hadn’t mentioned any danger so we continued on.
We finally arrived at a small wooden shelter with a heavy set wooden door. Inside roughly hewn planks served as seats and in the centre stood a little wooden stove, only about a foot wide, its black chimney punching up through the ceiling. We lit it and donned our snow shoes for the final assault on the summit.
The higher we went, the more the wind blew, sweeping aside the snow and leaving swaths of hard ice encrusted with the shrubs that lay below it. As we walked, the ice cracked in wide plates beneath our feet. Sliding and scrambling, we made our way to the top and looked out over the valleys below us.
The hut was toasty warm by the time we returned. Needing little maintenance, just a topping up of wood, it is a perfect retreat from the cold – unfussy and efficient in true Swedish style.
We made our way down, skirting the mountain to reach a frozen lake, its edges dotted with stranded boathouses buried in snow.
The light was dying as we slid out across it. The solid mass of water stretched out into the distance, the far bank but a thin line in a panorama of white.
We skied to the local hotel along a flood-lit track. And rewarded ourselves with a three-course meal of delicate carpaccio, local lamb and rich sheep’s yogurt dribbled in locally-made honey; all washed down with a local beer named Heaven.
Edåsdalen is a place to slow down; to spend time together without clutter, by open fires where people have the time to welcome you to their home.
How to get there: Scandinavian Airlines has frequent flights to Trondheim via Stockholm or Oslo ( flysas.com). From here you can catch a train to Undersåker and Josef will collect you from the station.
Where to eat:The evening meals in the Hotell Köjagården are spectacular, and the Vita Renen, a mountain hut you reach by your own steam or by skidoo, serves the best goulash I’ve ever tasted ( vitarenen.se).
Nordic versus ski touring:In Nordic skiing your heel is never clipped to the ski and you use light, long skis and soft boots. With ski touring, you use skins on your skis for uphill and solid ski boots that can be clipped into the ski for going downhill.
OTHER CROSS-COUNTRY DESTINATIONS
Scotland: If there’s snow, there are numerous trails throughout Scotland, such as below Cairngorms National Park ( cairngormmountain.org). If there isn’t any snow, Huntly Nordic and Outdoor Centre, in Aberdeenshire, is a purpose-built all-weather facility ( nordicski.co.uk/hnoc).
Italy: The FIS Nordic World Ski Championships begin on the 20th of February in Val di Fiemme, so this is the place to test your skills ( fiemme2013.com).
Austria: Why cycle to work? In Vienna they ski to work along the shores of the River Danube ( austria.info).
France/Switzerland: The ultimate Alpine cross-country challenge is the Haute Route, a high mountain ski touring trail from Chamonix to Zermatt. Wilderness Journeys run eight-day Haute Route trips ( wildernessjourneys.com).
Norway: If it all seems like too much work, you could get yourself a husky. Nature Travel runs a Nordic ski expedition on the Finnmark plateau in Arctic Norway with husky helpers ( naturetravels.co.uk).