Skinning up for Norway

Last year I went to Norway without skis in early March. It was a humiliating experience, sinking in up to my waist in deep, wet, soft, sticky, spring snow. It was back-breaking labour that was totally unnecessary considering how long I've been living in Scandinavia, the birthplace of skiing. My fear in bringing skis on high altitude trips has been this; when trudging up and down those gorgeous mountains in Norway, with ridiculous steep slopes, I get nervous as hell I will slide off the edge of the slope and land a minute later and a few hundred metres further down. This is what I fear when wearing hiking boots and sunk up to my hips in snow, which is fairly irrational when you think about how hard it is to move in those conditions. 
Considering how often I fall when on skis, even when sober and stationary on totally flat ground, I worry that if I was on skis and on a steep slope, I would last just seconds before losing control, sliding uncontrollably off the edge of a cliff into space, performing a beautiful screaming arc towards the ground, before finally being smashed into Irish stew on the rocks of the valley floor a kilometre below. The other problem with skis on slopes is getting the grip to travel uphill, wax only works to a certain degree before you have to start fish-tailing or switchbacking. One solution to both of these problems is to add skins to the skis. Skins are directional lengths of fabric or animal skin, lined with glue on the ski side, and usually hooked onto the top of the ski. They allow you to slide the move the ski forward, but lock up when you kick off. They also cut back on the glide a lot, so uncontrollable slipping and sliding is less of a worry. My problem was that my monster skis are 220 cm long, and the longest skins I could find are 210 cm. I figured I could make them work somehow and picked up a pair.
The skins carry the Åsnes brand but are made by Colltex. They are fully synthetic nylon, with a small metal bracket for the rear of the ski (above on the right), and the idea is you loop the skin through a steel bracket on a rubber brace (above on the left) which is hooked onto the ski tip. The skin loops through and folds back, and you glue it glue-surface to glue-surface, which holds the skin tightly in place.
The problem for my overly long skis is clear above, if the metal bracket is in place at the rear of the ski, the tip only has a single centimetre overlapping, not enough to hold at all. The minimum recommended overlap is 5 cm. I could cut the metal loop of the back, and get a nice overlap on the front of the ski, and just have the last 20 cm of ski unskinned. But I like the idea that the metal bracket on the rear of the ski holding the skin in place rather than just glue alone. So instead I tried a little modding on the front bracket.  
I took some rivets and webbing (both from the fantastic extremtextil.de, and cut a piece of webbing as long as the skin width (60 mm).
The webbing can lie between the parts of the skin that should overlap, in order to give something for the rivets to bite into. 
The rivets are easily hammered into place, three on each skin seem to very securely hold the skin in place. The little round metal slug pictured above is the punch used to hammer a hole through the skins for the rivets, it took a lot of hammering, the webbing and skins are both tough materials. The metal bracket slips onto the rear of the ski, the front stretches neatly over the tip, and the entire length of ski is perfectly covered. How did they work on snow? I have no idea, I went to Norway with my Berlin-buddy Danny, and the dude was worse on skis than even I. So he took the skinned beauties and I took Michi's grip-taped Rossignol BC 59s. They were thinner and shorter than my Fischers, but half the weight at around a kilo. The camber was also very deep compared to my flat planks. 
I was hoping to ski up Gaustatoppen, in Telemark (above). But there are no cabins there, and bringing Danny on such a tough tour for his first winter ski trip felt a little selfish. Instead I dug out my DNT cabin key and we headed around an hour North-east of Gaustatoppen. The destination was the DNT cabin Daggrø.
The terrain was not so hardcore around Daggrø, the access road was inaccessible though, so we had a tough climb up the road to the start of the trail to the cabin. 
Snow was on the way out, but there was still plenty left, enough to justify bringing skis. Actually when we left the car we didn't think it was enough for skis, so we left them in the car and spent a sweaty hour pot-holing through thigh-deep snow before realising how fucking stupid we both were and going back for them. 
The incredible effort it takes to cross this shitty spring snow is so much that even when it was just a ten metre stretch of snow it took less time to throw down the skis, step into the bindings and plod across than to try and continue without skis. I am now a completely converted ski-believer, I swore on this trip to never go anywhere without them ever again. Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter. Indoors, outdoors, driving a car, riding a horse, having a bath. My skis will always be on me forevermore. 
We arrived late, the sun set and the trail was impossible to follow. A lot of very patient compass and map reading got us almost the whole way but we decided to rest for a while rather than ploughing on in the dark. We spent an uncomfortable few hours leaning against each other in a pile of heather, catching a few snatches of sleep now and again, sheltered from the worst violence of the storm by the narrow ravine we had stopped in. The noise of the wind was truly terrific, it never let down the entire night. Once dawn broke we continued on our way and found Daggrø soon after. It's a gorgeous little cabin by a beautiful lake. A small stream behind the cabin provides drinking water, and my exorbitant DNT membership fees provide fuel for the wonderfully hot cast iron stove. Money well spent. 
These DNT cabins are so incredible, beautifully made, well cared for and wonderfully situated. It feels unreal to wander into them and be able to warm up and shelter in comfort, even way out in the middle of stunning Norwegian nature. Typically Scandinavian, to have such excellent public services available to everyone. The weather was seriously insane though, the cabin screeched and groaned as the wind tore at its walls, it felt at times like it was going to take off with us inside it. 
The entire weekend the weather was incredibly violent, winds were blowing so hard that any exposed areas on the mountains became really challenging to move across. Yr.no (easily the best weather website ever) had given gale warnings for the area.  
Trying to stand up on the edge of a cliff overlooking the valley was great fun, it was like trying to swim upstream in a river of molasses. We could toss up a rock and watch it fly back over the hill like it was made of papier-mâché. The only problem is that the violence and power of the wind is impossible to convey in pictures, the weather looks idyllic in these photos. 
The skins had worked out really well for Danny, he plodded along safely even on the narrow access road, which was covered in icy skarsnö and had a sheer drop along one side. 
There was little glide, but this was clearly a big advantage for novice skiers like us on the mountain. The steel edges aren't covered up so it was still possible to edge along the really vertical icy slopes. 
The modded tips worked out very well, and took all the teutonic abuse Danny could mete out. He thought I might be a little disappointed in having worked on the skins so much and not having had a chance to try them out, so he offered to swap, but found Michi's grip-taped skis way too slippy to control, so I am afraid I had little first-hand experience of how the skin experience was. 
But this picture speaks for the skins, on slopes where I was forced to make switchback after switchback, Danny just walked directly up sheer slopes without any problem. When the downhill slope was too hardcore for me (and I sat down on my ass and butt-scooted down the hill), Danny could control his descent with ease. Skins and mountains go together like Germans and Jameson. We spent a pleasant few days skiing day-trips around the hills and enjoying the views, and the skis hardly ever left out feet. 
For me, the experience of skiing with Michi's skis was difficult, but very educational. I was forced to apply all the shit I had so far only learnt about in the excellent Backcountry skiing and Freeheel Skiing books that I have been reading all Winter. And it was really fun to see how the techniques did work and allowed me to control the skis and perform ascents and descents that would have been laughably impossible to me last year. Next time I'm skiing in Norway I will certainly have the skins with me, but I now feel confident that I will still be able to backcountry ski without them if need be. 
The only problem right now is that the temperatures are probably going to be hitting 30°C soon. Sweden's magical season change has steamrolled over the rotted corpse of Winter, and the skins are stored in the fridge until next season. Skis, poles and skates are packed away with the Icebox, and the climbing gear is already out and covered in fresh chalk and blood. Roll on Summer!

4 comments:

  1. Quite hard core skins for cross-country skiing IMHO but apparently they worked well? I use 38mm mohair skins (mohair has better glide). I have one pair of almost full lenght skins (around 195cm for my 205cm skis) and one pair cut down behind the heel to get better gliding properties. The latter is easily enough even for heavyish sled in reasonable terrain. For expedition weights and insane routes I need the long ones. Lighter built individuals (I'm still scoring 100kg) might need even wider skins if hauling heavy sleds... And with wider skis you might also need wider skins. The things are a bit complicated there. I also tried waxing the skins in sticky snow and that helped. I have to get more info about waxing skins...

    Oh, and the Jameson is very much approved! An integrated part of many good trips! =)

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  2. Hey Korpijaakko! yeah they are very hardcore I think, it is a hell of a lot of skin surface in contact with the snow, but I don't mind so much losing all the glide, the main point for me is to have absolute control with the skis until I get a little more comfortable and experienced. I might try out the Asnes half skins next year and see how they feel, they have a really nice clip-in system on the Asnes amundsen skis.

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  3. A fellow ski-believer! I even splashed the cash on some dope MSR snow-shoes this winter because I thought I needed them for certain trips but I only used them once! Skis are the way to roll in the Scandinavian winter. I also bought Asnes skins this winter and didn't get to use them once. Maybe that was down to my fear of steep slopes....

    The DNT huts are amazing. Can you imagine such a facility surviving in the UK?! Not a chance. They would be stripped and burned to the ground in a matter of weeks.

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  4. Hey Joe,

    I was so mulling over getting snow shoes for this trip instead of borrowing skis, and was so glad I didn't go for the snow shoes. Not because they might have been bad or anything, just that I found the skis so much easier to handle and more useful than I had expected. They really transform winter trips from heavy labour to exhilarating fun.

    And I totally agree on the DNT huts. I am constantly surprised by these kind of public facilities and how nicely they are treated in Scandinavia. Public saunas, huts and so on, not just respectfully treated by everyone but added to and stocked up by people with no vested interest. It's Utopian.

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