A Cross-Country Comedy (a.k.a. Skiing)

A Cross-Country Comedy (a.k.a. Skiing)

Photo by
Gitte Van der Meersch

We went to Ísafjörður to master cross-country skiing, but successfully failed

There are a few things that don’t go together: pineapple and pizza, crying babies and airplanes, me and sports. I’ve always struggled to find a sport I could truly enjoy for the long-term. I’ve dabbled in jogging, badminton, snowboarding and even surfing, but nothing ever quite sticks. When I came across an advertisement for a cross-country skiing course in Ísafjörður, I promised myself: “This is the one I’m trying next.” A few months later, amidst sub-zero temperatures in Iceland, I teamed up with a rather hesitant colleague, and embarked on a journey up north to learn how to (cross-country) ski. 

Cross-country skiing 101

The first thing you need to know about cross-country skiing is that you can forget everything you know about downhill skiing. Despite looking like you’re taking a casual stroll in hilariously long clown shoes, cross-country skiing is actually a full-body workout that engages a number of muscles. The skills and techniques are totally different. Consider it a boot camp for your body. It’s really hard, ok? Don’t pretend I didn’t warn you. 

Now that you’re prepared to challenge your body and soul, let’s talk about other essentials: clothing and shoes. Ditch your snow jacket and pants, and opt for lightweight puffer jackets and wool leggings. Remember that you’re in Iceland, and the weather is and will be unpredictable, so having multiple layers of clothing is key. A significant benefit is that cross-country skiing shoes are actually comfy. According to my colleague, they’re “too comfortable” — as an alpine skier, she was confused by the unseen before feet flexibility.

Ready, set, ski

When it comes to cross-country skiing in Iceland, there ​​are multiple options. But this time, we’re interested in the country’s best cross-country skiing area, famed for the annual international cross-country skiing race Fossavatnsgangan — Seljalandsdalur, in Ísafjörður.  My publisher reassures me that once I call myself a pro, I can aim for the five-day cross-country ski trail in Landmannalaugar. (I abandon this dream very soon).

The first time you try walking in cross-country skis, it can feel like being a baby giraffe taking its first steps.”

The largest town in Iceland’s least populated area, the Westfjords, lies 419 km from the capital. According to Google Maps, it takes over five hours to get to Ísafjörður from Reykjavík by car. If you opt for driving, be prepared to spend more time behind the wheel — you’ll find lots of steep, curvy roads on your way that can be challenging to navigate. Don’t get fooled by one sunny day in the south — up north, it’s still windy and snowy, with some areas being in danger of avalanches. Another option, though considerably more pricey, is to fly. There are direct flights from Reykjavík Airport to Ísafjörður twice a day. This is the option we chose — and trust me, there aren’t many things more satisfying than showing up at the airport less than an hour before departure, and still having time for a coffee and a snack. Fast forward 35 minutes, and a sturdy Icelandair 20-seater plane lands in the Westfjords. Our adventure is soon to begin!

Life in hibernation

On the day of arrival, the first ski training was scheduled for the evening, so we had some time to kill. It didn’t take long to realise that Ísafjörður in winter is practically deserted.

We aimlessly wandered around town, stumbling into ‘Closed for winter’ signs in almost every sightseeing spot we wanted to visit. At some point, we thought about checking out the local pool, but were quickly discouraged by some of the fellow ski course participants — ‘The pool is much better in Bolungarvík.’ Having no car on this trip, we couldn’t prove this claim and eventually ended at Heimabyggð, the cosiest little coffee house that also serves small bites, soup and a dish of the day (also, one of the few places open off-season). By sheer coincidence, we also visited the local Heritage Museum. Of course, it was closed at the time, but our ski instructor, who also works at the local information center simply handed us the keys. (This only proves my theory that everyone in Iceland either has more than one job, or they’re lying.)

Once it was time to go, the hotel’s reliable driver, Sófus, arrived to take us to the ski area. Before we could start skiing, we had to choose the appropriate equipment. While most of our group had brought their own cross-country skis, we were not as prepared. Half an hour later, with the assistance of the friendly ski area staff, we were ready to hit the slopes.

Women take over the slopes

Women-only tourism has been on the rise globally in the past few years, and Iceland is often considered to be a hot spot for solo travellers. Hotel Ísafjörður offers 4-day cross-country skiing courses designed for mixed or women-only groups. We joined the women-only course, which attracted women from all over Iceland, ranging in age from 21 to 65. Most of the participants came in groups of girlfriends, taking the course as an opportunity to catch up and unwind from their routine lives, while others joined the program on a whim. One woman travelled solo. What united everyone in the group was that they knew little or nothing about cross-country skiing.

Failing forward 

The first time you try walking in cross-country skis, it can feel like being a baby giraffe taking its first steps. It’s uncomfortable and looks incredibly awkward. We start with a brief warm-up, followed by ski instructors discussing the essentials of the sport. Only, there’s a problem for me and my colleague: it’s all in Icelandic. We patiently wait for the instructor to translate, but instead we got a blunt instruction: “Follow the group.”

The obvious advantage of cross-country skiing is that, at least as a beginner, most of it takes place on designated tracks. You glide down the tracks, with music blasting in your ears and stunning views over the snow-covered fjord all around. Pure magic! Once you need to go uphill, things get trickier. 

“It’s all about the balance,” says our ski instructor as I struggle to ascend the slope. While I understand the theory, putting it into practice proves challenging as I fall and fall and fall again. 

How to have fun without breaking a limb

As our first training session is coming to an end, my partner in crime and I can’t hide our frustration. Our opinion remains unchanged as the days go by — we spent our days being puzzled by the language barrier and the fact that every woman in the group is showing progress, except us.

Over the next few days, our itinerary is filled with daily ski exercises, plenty of games (including biathlon target shooting), delicious food, and exploring the local nightlife in a nearby bar.

“Could it be that cross-country skiing is a skill that people are born with?” we wonder. The answer is, of course, no. Cross-country skiing takes time and practice, and not everyone can master it in four days. “Don’t think too much,” says our ski instructor and we follow his advice and grab a hot chocolate. Our muscles might be aching, but there’s beauty in trying new things, even if you aren’t good at them.

Flights provided by icelandair.com

Experience provided by Hotel Ísafjörður

Krakkaveldi took over the April 2023 issue. Get the print issue to see more doodles and learn about what would happen if the kids were in charge.

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