Gliding silently through snowy forests or venturing into a white wilderness: Gålå in central Norway is a perfect base for cross-country skiers, whether experts or complete beginners
It’s -5° Celsius and I’m sweating. Normally I’d have stopped to shed a layer or two by now but this is a sprint. I’m pushing my limbs and lungs and – most of all – my rudimentary cross-country skiing skills as hard as I can. I’m not bad in the straights but struggle on the bends, skis and sticks flailing in random directions. More by luck than judgement, I stay upright, stamp up the final rise and slither to a halt. And that was the easy bit.
We’re on a plateau in the middle of Norway and we’re getting a taste of the biathlon, one of the most feared events in winter sports. I now have to sprawl on the snow, slow my pulse to something like normal, pick up a rifle and try to hit a target that I can barely see with the naked eye. My first three shots go wide but finally I steady myself and the final two rounds strike home with a satisfying clang. I scramble to my feet and ski the final few metres to the finish.
The biathlon was hardly the main focus of our trip, but we had to sample its esoteric delights, as our leaders have coached at the highest levels. Nick Gaskell and Tony Turnbull aren’t just expert skiers, though; they both had distinguished military careers (Army and Royal Marines respectively). Genial and unflappable types, you sense that they would be good guys to have around in any sort of crisis.
Nick and Tony now run Nordic Challenge (+44 (0)1969 663388; www.nordicchallenge.com), basing themselves in Norway for the whole winter season. It’s a small company; the directors are also the lead instructors and they use just a few other hand-picked guides. Flexibility is a watchword and they can create bespoke trips for small groups, whether you’re advanced skiers seeking a true wilderness experience or complete novices.
‘Complete novice’ certainly describes most of our group, but Nick and Tony, along with colleagues Pat and Nicky Parsons, are patient and supportive, and the terrain around our base at Gålå is friendly, a rolling plateau where groomed tracks wind through the snowy forest. I’ve done this a couple of times before, but a few quiet words from Nick do more to sort out my sketchy technique than any previous coaching.
Cross-country skiing, at the basic level, is not hard. Five-year-olds can do it, and there are 80-year-olds nonchalantly overtaking me. On groomed tracks, on level terrain, you can shuffle along as soon as you get skis on your feet. But the experience is transformed once you discover the alternation of kick and glide that is the basis of the 'classic' style (the racier 'skating' style takes a little longer to master). It’s like walking, but you can freewheel for a moment on every stride. Even at my level, it’s one of the most seductively exhilarating of all forms of locomotion.
Equally seductive is the silence of the forest, and the vast panoramas that open up from the bare hill-crests. The Gudbrandsdal, where we are, are modest rounded mountains, but to the west are the craggy, glacier-draped Jotunheim peaks and away to the east the bald, bleak Rondane ranges. Here on the cross-country trails there are no rattling tows or whirring gondolas to smirch the silence or interrupt the views.
Cross-country and downhill skiing are chalk and cheese. Downhill is heavy on the infrastructure, imposing itself on the landscape. And downhill boots are heavy on the feet; even the most agile of us galumph noisily onto lifts and around cafes. Cross-country gear is light and flexible and discreetly high-tech; during the week we learn just a little of the mysteries of the different waxes that make one part of the ski bite into the snow for kick while the rest glides smoothly forward.
Our trip is not all about pure skiing; there’s that brief taste of the biathlon, and we also get the chance to pilot our own dog-sleds. Can anyone doubt that huskies love to run? They yap and howl and strain at their harnesses until the brakes are off – and then there’s not a peep out of them, just the hiss of the runners on the snow.
Skis or sleds; clean and silent; this is how to travel in the snow. For our last day we take to skis again, and instead of looping out and back to Gålå we strike off across the plateau for a couple of hours to Lauvåsen, a beautifully restored upland farmstead, where the most pampered cows I’ve ever seen are tucked up in their winter quarters. There’s pampering for us, too, as we’re ushered into the Akvavit-hus. Akvavit (or akevitt) derives from the Latin aqua vitae or water of life; whisky comes from a Gaelic phrase meaning the same. And like malt whisky, Norwegian akvavit is matured in oak casks. ‘Linje’ akvavits, reputedly the best, are shipped across the equator and back before bottling. No, really.
Gålå and Lauvåsen are two of the stops on the week-long Peer Gynt tour, which circles the plateau, skiing an average of 20km each day. I’ll be back for that – and that’s not just the akvavit talking.