Learning to cross-country ski in Bessans

26th March 2018, by Abi Butcher

Humiliating in the extreme: I felt like Bambi on ice while cross-country skiing

Humiliating in the extreme: I felt like Bambi on ice while cross-country skiing

There’s nothing more sobering than learning a completely new skill. And today, two days after skiing a 45/50-degree couloir on the north face of the Bellecôte in La Plagne, I was nearly flat on my face learning to cross-country ski.

I spent three days in the Paradiski area (at the same time as Dave, though we didn’t know we were both in the same place!), based in Champagny-en-Vanoise which has fantastic views of Courchevel but is linked to Les Arcs and La Plagne. It’s also a lot cheaper there than its bigger and better-known neighbours.

I was in the area testing out the range of touring skis now carried by Intersport for rental — they’ve responded to the growing market by quietly increasing their offering of kit. I used some fabulous Rossignol Seek 7s, with skins and crampons, though we didn’t need the latter because there’s not a patch of ice to be found. There is so much snow and it’s chilly, which means the conditions are more like January than end of March.

Day one was a boot-pack then skin up to the top of the Bellecôte Glacier, then a ski down surprisingly crusty south-facing slope towards Champagny-le-Haute. Day two was a three-hour tour up to the ridge of the Bellecôte, skiing down the Couloir de Pépin in fantastic conditions — my skis responded brilliantly to the deep powder, and the 1,800m vertical descent to finish in Peisey. What a day, I was elated. Day three was a gentle three-hour tour in the Vanoise National Park for a refuge lunch in the sunshine — a vigorous workout, too.

Abi skiing the Couloir de Pépin on the north face of the Bellecôte

But then today, back in the Haute Maurienne Vanoise, I went completely back to basics while learning to cross-country ski. Two years ago I somehow managed to do a cross-country ski marathon in Norway, after only an hour’s tuition. I skied mainly classic, and came in third in the race (out of 25) but after today’s performance, I’m not sure how I managed that.

I headed to Bessans, a village near the top of the Maurienne Valley, 5km from Bonneval-sur-Arc. There are 120km of cross-country pistes on offer there, along with a biathlon stadium and an ice-climbing wall. I’d driven past it several times this season and kept thinking I should get out on cross-country skis.

But whether it was fatigue after a big weekend of touring or a complete mental block, I could not get to grips with the thin skis and lack of support with my boots. Pascal, my friendly instructor who is also a biathlon coach, kept telling me to glide … Glide, take your time! He cried each and every time I nearly fell, doing a great impression of Bambi on ice with every step.

I was skating — which I hadn’t done before — and had great trouble getting my weight forward and getting into a rhythm, trusting the skis on an edge to propel myself along. My shoulders hurt from ski-touring and I felt nothing but frustration at my inability to grasp this new sport.

“It’s always the same if you are a good alpine skier, people have a mental block,” said Pascal, encouragingly, as I struggled to maintain my balance as a group of school children who could be no more than six years old whizzed past me.

The popularity of cross-country skiing has been on the rise since Pippa Middleton was snapped doing the Engadine Marathon a couple of years ago. I have to say that while I enjoyed the physical work-out it gave me (I was boiling hot within seconds) I hated being a beginner on skis.

But by the end, I was managing to string a few “glides” together, propelling myself along with the poles and keeping my head up, rather than being “intensely interested in my skis and the floor” according to Pascal, who I think must have despaired. I’m determined to keep going with my learning though, there were groups of friends heading out for a social ski or athletes going out for the equivalent of a run (though cross-country skiing is a whole-body workout). Whatever your motivation, it was a lovely new way of being in the mountains and I know my core and arms are going to feel the hour spend skating around like Bambi when I wake up in the morning!

Pascal shows me the correct technique for cross-country skiing

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