More cross country skiing adventures in the Harz mountains

Spring is in full bloom now, so time to quickly finish telling all those winter stories!

Unfortunately we only managed to go downhill skiing once this winter, but we squeezed in two weekend trips to the Harz mountains for cross country skiing. Last year I wrote about my first time cross country skiing and how I fell a lot. Well, this year was no exception, but at least other people were falling a lot as well. If you’d like to hear more about our cross country skiing experiences, read on!

Here is my most spectacular crash – yes, that is me eating snow!

Trip 2

During our first trip of the year we had perfect snow, lots of it, and good quality. The weather was well below freezing though, something like -16 degrees Celsius, and I was worried about feeling cold but actually the exertions of skiing made me warm (cross country skiing is a bit like fast walking or jogging in terms of exertion – as the German name “Langlaufen” suggests). I ended up taking my hat off because I was getting too warm.

We had a few beginners in our group so we didn’t go as far as usual on the first day. The first day I actually didn’t crash at all and was in the group waiting at the bottom of the hill for the beginners to catch up, as going downhill is the hardest part of cross country skiing and people were falling a lot. It was good to know I’d made at least a little bit of progress since last year.

My husband was pleased with my progress, and he is my sternest critic!

Some people left on Saturday evening and one of the beginners decided on Sunday morning that she had too many aches and pains to go skiing again that day, so we were a smaller group on Sunday. We could go a little faster because there were now no total beginners among us, although I still consider myself a beginner. We ended up doing a much longer and tougher route, starting at Schierke, but the scenery was good. Towards the beginning of the day, after a flattish stretch, we came to a steep downhill. One of us fell over just looking at it. It always amazes me how on cross country skis you can fall over just while standing still; I have done it quite a few times too.

We set off down the hill with trepidation. Apart from the two pros with us (one being my husband), the rest of us all had difficulty with the hill and ended up crashing to save ourselves (the alternative stopping method).

What goes down must come up, and later in the day we then had to climb a huge hill. It was hard work, but later there was a really nice slightly downhill section as a reward. The easiest cross country skiing is the very slight downhill where you move without doing anything but don’t pick up so much speed that you need to control it. Going down felt like being on railway tracks and I was even able to take my phone out and take a video without stopping, then put my phone back in my pocket. You can watch the resulting video here.

And here my husband found out that you have to be careful when checking your phone while skiing 😉

The last section of the route was trickier again, with some steep, short uphills and then a windy route up and down through the forest with interesting angles. Amazingly by this time I’d got the hang of it and didn’t fall. However as I’d find out on my third cross country skiing trip, the snow conditions can make all the difference… At any rate, on this day we all finished feeling happy with our day of skiing and rewarded ourselves with a nice big piece of plum crumble before heading back to Berlin.

Trip 3:

Day 1:

We wanted to do one more cross country skiing trip before spring, but the weather didn’t look very promising as it was a lot warmer. Nevertheless, off we headed to the Harz. As our usual place was all booked out, we stayed in Braunlage, a small town that even has gondolas to downhill ski slopes. On arriving we were relieved to see that there was still some snow around, but it did look quite slushy as it had rained. My husband promised the skiing would be more challenging, and he was right.

Braunlage

Somehow we ended up doing a very long route, about 26 or 28km. There were also a few beginners, although they all had downhill skiing experience and one was an ice hockey player, so they were pretty good from the beginning. The snow was more slippery because it was wet. When on the track going downhill, even slightly, it was quite hard to slow down, so you had to be careful to keep a good following distance, especially behind the people who were falling a lot. I managed to knock one girl over (without a lot of force, so we both just tumbled over into the snow) and was also knocked over myself later in the day. There was another guy who said he was just unable to stop sometimes, so he would also crash to stop, and having him behind you was a bit nerve wracking, but he never crashed into me so his strategy worked.

The route continued with a long flattish part in the middle that was mostly just a slog. Then we wanted to go for lunch, and the option our group leader had chosen was a restaurant along the way which was a wooden cabin in the woods. Unfortunately, it was at the bottom of two very steep hills, the lower one covered in knee high, quite slushy snow.

The upper hill was already quite tricky to navigate as it was very steep and the girl in front of me kept falling in a pile of skis and poles across the whole slope, so I had to stay well away from her and ended up falling quite a lot trying to dodge her, as well as falling by mistake, so overall a lot of falling. The second hill was even worse. The snow was very slushy and the people going first left deep tracks, so my own skis seemed to take on a mind if their own and follow these tracks, which meant my legs ended up going in different directions or getting wider and wider apart until I would fall. I got fed up with falling so much that I decided to take off my skis and walk down (taking encouragement from a deer I’d seen crossing the path), but when I took off my skis I disappeared up to my knees into the snow – it was deeper than I’d expected.

Try to avoid rivers!

Walking in deep snow carrying skis is also​ not easy. Worse, after I took one ski off it went sliding down the hill on the slippery snow and almost fell in the river. I went to fetch it and made my way with difficulty a bit further down the snowy hill until eventually deciding to out the skis back on. Genius that I am, I put my skis down on the snow to put them on again and forgot to put them parallel to the slope, so one immediately took off down the slippery hill, heading towards the river. Clutching my other ski I ran as fast as possible through the thick snow, which was not very fast, but this time I couldn’t stop the ski landing in the river. By luck it got stuck on a rock in the river and didn’t float all the way downstream. But I still had to climb through the thick snow down to the icy water to retrieve it. Afterwards I was wet, tired and quite annoyed. But there was still quite some way down the hill to the restaurant. I walked a bit more and then went back to skiing and falling. My knees were black and blue from falling as somehow when I fell the skis would knock me painfully in the knees. And every time it was an effort to get up. Lunch didn’t come a moment too soon as I was totally exhausted by the time we got to the restaurant (reading this, you are probably wondering why I enjoy this sport!).

All of us who had fallen a lot were quite wet by lunchtime, so we put our gloves over the fire to dry them, then settled down to a hearty lunch. An example of dishes on the menu were a local version of spaeztle with a soupy cheese sauce and vegetables, goulash, Haxe (pork knuckle), soups and other German cuisine. After lunch we had to head back up the hills on skis, which was also quite tiring as the skis were slipping backwards a lot, but not as bad as going down (much less falling!). It was a great relief to finally get to a flat section again. There were a few more ups and downs but nothing half as bad as those two massive, slushy hills. However, our route back to Braunlage was rather long and at some point it started getting dark, since sunset was around 5:30pm at that time. In the forested sections it was especially dark. At one point, if i hadn’t stopped to wait for the two people coming behind me, they wouldn’t have know where to go as the people in front of us disappeared into the woods at a crossroads and I just caught a glimpse of a shadowy figure heading over the hill as I came around the corner.

After the wooded section came a long climb up another slippery hill. As it was open and white snow covered the fields, at least it was lighter than the woods. It was surreal to be skiing through snowy fields as the darkness fell after twilight. Towards the end part, we were using torches to communicate position.

The last section down towards town was definitely an experience, as it was downhill and now we were really skiing in the dark, i.e. blind skiing. It was a very strange feeling. It was a relief to finally see the end of the trail and be able to take off the skis and carry them back to town. The most experienced skier there, who does a lot of back-country, cross-country and downhill skiing, said that it was the longest distance she’d skied in one day. We certainly earned the hamburgers we ate that night!

Day 2: 

Braunlage, which is a bigger town that I’d expected before arriving, actually has a proper gondolas and downhill skiing. For day 2 we decided to take the gondola to the top of the mountain in the hopes that the snow up there would be better. When we arrived there was a very long queue as lots of people were going downhill skiing. It was a great ride up to the top and I was impressed by the slopes I saw below. There’s quite a nice long blue and even red and black slopes in the area, despite it being relatively small. There was one extra-black slope which we saw in passing at the end of the day and which looked totally insane (it was an artificial slope basically going straight down, which looked almost like a ski jump slope).

Up top we discovered it was misty and much colder than down below.

We also discovered that the top part of the cross country skiing track was extremely icy slopes downwards, so the majority of us walked that section instead. The cross country skis are not so heavy so it’s not bad walking with them (when the snow is not deep). The route took us through a forested part that was very pretty and eventually evened out to a flatter cross country ski track. There was still downhill but it wasn’t so bad going down. A good tip for going down (if it’s not too steep and there’s a good track) is to keep one ski in the track to guide you and the other ski off the track turned inward to brake. When it’s too steep, proper snow plough works a bit better.

Although there were some downs and ups and it was a little icy in parts, it was quite a nice circular route (apart from the steep uphill part right at the end). Then we headed off on a route back to the ski lifts, which took us past the double-black slope (I think it was called Hexenpiste). Next to the Hexenpiste was a long, high flight of stairs, partly covered in snow, so we took off our skis to climb the stairs. It had started snowing in big flakes, and I stopped to take a photo. It’s just as well I did, because when I did that, one of the two people behind me passed me, and later it would be good that I was behind him. The reason is that he was very tired and when we were not far from the top and very high up, he suddenly slipped in the snow and dropped some of his skis and poles, which immediately went flying backwards towards the edge and almost right off the edge. Thank goodness for reflexes, because somehow while holding my own skis and poles I managed to catch his runaway ski with my arm and grab the pole that was careening towards the edge, while blocking his other ski and pole from sliding backwards until he had managed to get a grip on them and stand up again. I felt like a superhero although it was all totally reflexive and I hadn’t even thought about it!

We continued the rest of the way up the stairs without incident, and I was happy when after reaching the top of the stairs before me, my husband came back and carried my skis the rest of the way up. Not because I couldn’t do it, but because it made my life easier. Then we all went for a well-earned lunch (i had been fantasizing about Germknödel for at least a few kilometres after a friend had mentioned earlier that she’d eaten one in the area, so I ordered that – it is a giant, soft dumpling with a fruit filling (often plum), sprinkled with poppyseeds and drowning in vanilla sauce).

Yummy…

The adventurous part was then over for most of us, since we took the gondola back down (although getting the skis and poles out of the side of those things is always an adventure in itself). However, my husband and our more experienced friend both decided to ski the blue slope down. That’s right, a downhill slope with cross country skis. They managed to do it, although they said the first part was pretty tricky because it was icy and there were a lot of people. It’s definitely one of those “Don’t try this at home” things.

And so another weekend of cross country skiing ended. We’ll be back next winter!

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