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Outside magazine, November 1996
A report from the tracks in Oslo, capital of the land where to be Nordic is to ski nordic
Warning! as you read this article, remember that Norway is not the kind of place where you’d want to live. Extremely High Taxes! Big Welfare System! Very Nearly Socialist!
But you can visit, as I did. On my last night in Oslo, I dined on arctic char baked in sesame seeds, followed by filet of reindeer in lingonberry sauce. Then I walked out the front door of my hotel to meet Liv Arnesen, who in 1994 became the first woman to ski solo to the South Pole. We snapped on our skis and set off on the lighted tracks of the Oslomarka, the great forest
The tracks finally led us back to town, to the Holmenkollen, site of a mammoth ski jump (the world’s oldest, built in 1892) and spiritual center of Norwegian skiing. A floodlight shone on the statue of the late King Olav V, at age 80, clad in an anorak, skiing with his poodle. (As a young man, His Majesty jumped off the big hill. Later in life he and his dog would take the
Oslo, a city of 480,000, maintains nearly 2,600 kilometers of groomed cross-country ski trails, all ten minutes by tram from the center of town. Some 1,600 miles of trails–why? Why do kindergartens in Oslo have a ski day every week? Why does every taxi in Oslo have a ski
No–the answers lie deep in Norwegian history, so deep that you have to come in out of the cold and snow, take a shower, and sit down over a glass of Ringnes beer with Tor Bomann-Larsen, the author of a book whose title translates, more or less, as The Everlasting Snow: An Ideology of Skiing. Tor may be the world’s only ski intellectual–his most
Skiing is an ancient Nordic pursuit–the museum beneath the Holmenkollen jump houses a 4,000-year-old rock carving depicting skis–but its modern form began in 1868, when a group of farmers from the Telemark region came down to the capital to give a ski show. They jumped, they slalomed, they…they telemarked. And they took the city by storm: “It became nearly a religion for
Cross-country skiing was literally an expression of Norwegian nationalism. Since the fourteenth century, the country had languished under the domination of Denmark or Sweden, but in the late nineteenth century its blood, like that of much of the rest of Europe, was starting to stir. Norwegian writers began to evoke the Viking past, and Fridtjof Nansen, the explorer and
Thus cross-country skiing transcended ordinary sport in the national consciousness, and in fact Norwegians resisted the idea of the first Winter Olympics, in 1924. “Skiing had to do with the landscape,” Tor explained. “You couldn’t do it just anywhere. You had to do it in Norway.” Nonetheless a Norwegian team went to Chamonix and cleaned up in the nordic events, taking gold in
Now, fast times in the tracks are at least as important as polar explorations, and Bjorn Daehlie, the Olympic king, stands on Nansen’s pedestal–though even he is perhaps not as popular as Vegard Ulvang, “the Viking,” who has combined his Olympic exploits with skiing across Greenland. Even when a Swede or an Italian wins, Tor said, it’s OK: “We just think he’s learned to be a
To be a Norwegian means to ski–a pair of Epokes carries as much psychological freight for a Norwegian as a set of car keys does for a suburban American–and to ski by a particular code, first laid out by Nansen, in which being out in nature is the most important thing. And, according to Tor, it’s vital to ski up as well as down.
A corollary, explained to me by Liv Arnesen when I asked her why I hadn’t seen a single pair of no-wax skis in the entire country: “Waxless is for Danes.”
Trails twine everywhere through the Oslomarka. You come to intersections where signposts point in a dozen directions, sending you off to one of the dozens of lakes that dot this boreal spruce forest or to one of 70 “warming huts,” which turn out to be restaurants, full of red-cheeked skiers downing fresh pastries and big mugs of chocolate. (I saw nary a PowerBar and not a drop
My guides here, both of them charming and capable, illustrated two sides of the Norwegian skiing character. I will call them Wool Guide and Lycra Guide, partly because that’s what they wore and partly because their actual names involve an o with a / through it that doesn’t appear on my computer keyboard.
Wool Guide told me he’d been camping in the woods since he was 11–“I was reading very much Jack London,” he revealed–and now made his living mostly by running corporate “team building” outings: canoe trips in summer, ski and camping expeditions in winter. (At one point we stopped at a lake that he and his colleagues had cleared for skating parties. In the middle of the rink,
Lycra Guide–well, Lycra Guide was training for a race the coming Sunday. He had a typically Norwegian percentage of body fat, which is to say that in the United States his doctor would be asking him some pointed questions about eating disorders. He talked a good deal about various girlfriends on various national teams. And he’d read a copy of Outside that some of his clients had given him, so he was convinced that I was here to go fast. And we went very fast, for about 30 kilometers, back and forth from one of those “warming huts” that resembled rustic versions of highway rest stops. At least it was very fast for me–as I kicked and panted my way up the hills, he maintained his effortless lead by
Despite their overt differences, however, my guides loved Oslo for strikingly similar reasons. Wool noted that beginning at age ten, city schoolchildren can choose “outdoor living” as an elective and then spend much of the year learning how to construct snow shelters and the like. Because of this upbringing and such easy access to the Oslomarka, he said, “People who live in
Oslo, in other words, is one of the very few places on the planet where the ancient urban-rural bipolarity doesn’t arise, a place where the full range of human possibility is allowed, at least as far as cross-country skiers are concerned. And everyone here is a cross-country skier. But the taxes are quite high.
One reason to travel is to think about your own country from a slight distance. This gets harder and harder for Americans, because our country leaks out into every other country. At first that’s how Norway felt to me. I passed the requisite KFC on the way in from the airport; at the hotel, a sign directed me to the helsestudio for a swim; at the
But after just a few days in Norway, it all seemed jarring, alien. I thought of the old king, who used to ski with no entourage but his dog–he started using the tram during the oil crisis in the 1970s and never stopped. “Maybe you would see him skiing and just say, ‘Hi,’ or ‘Nice weather,'” Tor told me. “He would just say hi back.”
Now Olympic greats Daehlie and Ulvang often train on the same tracks, weaving in and out of the crowds of people with pulks and dogs and wool knickers. “Don’t people bother them for autographs and pictures?” I asked Wanda Wiberoe, the editor of the magazine Sno & Ski.
“A Norwegian,” she said, “would rather die first.”
In the Oslomarka, skiers and hikers still occasionally find canisters dropped by American planes to resistance fighters during World War II. The Germans occupied downtown Oslo, but not the surrounding woods. “They weren’t very good skiers,” Tomm Murstad told me.
Murstad, “Onkel Tomm” to the 165,000 Norwegians who have come through his Oslo ski school over the years, is 81, born in the early years of Norway’s ski craze. His father didn’t ski–he was a doctor who specialized in setting broken legs, of which there were many. “My father said I didn’t have the brain to be a doctor,” Murstad said, “but I decided that I could help him in his
Those were the days when skiing was a novelty–and you needed a Norwegian to show you how. (And not just on snow. Murstad won the first water-ski jumping championship, held in France in ’37–his first time on water skis. He was also the first man to ski behind a plane.) Lowell Thomas had him up to a Lake Placid club to do a demonstration, and they became fast friends. “He asked
After the war, back in Norway, Murstad devoted himself to his ski-school business, and it flourished. Soon he had 20 instructors. “I wanted all children to come up to the nature around here, not to stay stuck in town,” he said. “The mothers were so thrilled–we had a special tram bringing kids up, and we built seven different chalets.” The first lesson: “To be happy. Not to
Murstad himself had been out in the nature the morning I met with him, one of the many elderly men and women, physiques like car antennas, striding through the woods. In fact, he’d gone with a 92-year-old friend who had been one of the first men to ski across Greenland. “He stumbles a little bit in the parking lot,” Murstad told me, “but once he’s on the skis, he’s fine.”
It’s possible that skiing is losing a little of its hold on Norway. Wiberoe had just interviewed King Harald V–who is reportedly more interested in sailing–and he’d said, “You don’t have to go skiing to be a Norwegian.”
“That,” Wiberoe told me, “is a little like swearing in church”
On the other hand… One foggy day I was skiing in the tracks above Oslo, and each time I turned a corner there was another ghostly figure, clad in white camouflage, submachine gun strapped to his back, skiing like the wind: the palace guard, out for its annual 50k challenge.
And the sports page the day I left–every story dealt with nordic skiing.
And on the way to the airport, the bus passed the Holmenkollen jump, which is also the start and finish for the World Cup cross-country races. And there, in tracks set ten wide, 300 little kids were skiing away under the watchful eye of Murstad instructors, learning to be Norwegians. By the time they’re grown, they’ll ski like angels.
But they will pay very high taxes.
Bill McKibben is the author, most recently, of Hope, Human and Wild (Little, Brown). He lives and skis in New York’s Adirondack Mountains.