The Great Austrian Ski Adventure Part 4: The Ski Trails
by Dick Domey, Former US Olympic Biathlon Team Coach

A trip to Austria for cross-country skiing is like dying and going to heaven. The trails, the inns, cafes, the mountains, the ambience is the finest in the world. As dedicated cross-country skiers we were overjoyed to see hundreds of others enjoying the trails. By 11 a.m. the easy tracks in the valleys were dotted with the sight of beginning skiers with their telltale shuffling, upright ski walking. What these skiers lacked in technique they made up for in dogged determination and unabashed pleasure in what they were doing; their heads were up, the poles used for balance and the feet moved in the non-gliding step-step-step that defied any instructor.

On our first morning in Leutasch we started early for a quick 12 kilometer run up into the evergreen covered hills. Our trail led us across farms, through tiny hamlets, over roads, along streams, and past homes and barns. Just before the final downhill stretch we could see out across the valley and almost all of the 16 kilometer Loipe Plaik-Obern snaking through the flats below us. The entire loop was dotted with men and women out for their morning trek or ski school. The instructors were obvious even from the distance as they smoothly worked back and forth on the double track looking like sheep dogs herding their flock along, barking out encouragement to the stragglers.

Everyone knows the rules of the trail and all are very polite. The faster skiers are willingly allowed to pass. As the greatest percentage of skiers during this season are novices and intermediates in their late 40s, 50s and 60s they tend to stay on the easy trails. The younger or more energetic skiers look for the difficult tracks. But often, miles from the trail head and high up the mountain we would run across someone in their sixties who would be smoothly and effortlessly gliding along the track. Then we would remember that many have been on skis since they were three and four years old.

When the accomplished skier flies past a slower group, the comments about form and style are very complimentary. It is nice, but praise can cause you to overdo it when you come to a hill that you would prefer to walk up only to be complimented at the bottom and feel you have to maintain the image to the top. Every citizen racer knows what a news photographer or television camera at the top or bottom of a hill does for concentration or exertion. Usually the distraction of an onlooker precipitates either a fall or a heart attack.

Speaking of strides, the diagonal or classic stride, cross-country's traditional method of movement, is the preferred mode of skiing on the Austrian trails. The currently popular skating technique known as the Siitonen step is strictly forbidden except for several specially designated, very difficult runs. The tourist industry firmly believes that skating destroys the prepared tracks which could lead to the death of cross country skiing as a sport for the tourist skier. The rules are not hard to follow as the reinforcement for a good diagonal stride is constant from the other skiers.

When we ran out of energy, needed to re-wax or just take off that extra layer of clothing we found numerous benches along the trails or axe-flattened logs placed against the sun-warmed walls of the quaint, gray, log, hay sheds dotting the meadows. On afternoons when the sun shone, the benches filled with sun worshipers. Some lay on benches, their jacket-covered skis stuck upright in the snow beside them. Others reclined with their skis still on, ski tails dug into the snow propping up the feet and legs.

These hay sheds and an occasional barn with its aroma of cows reminded us that the land and life in the valley changes in the summer. Along the trails and near each bench are rustic, wooden, plastic bag-lined, trash containers. No pop cans, candy wrappers or papers are to be seen along the trails. However the spots of yellow snow are visible at the ends of single tracks leading into clumps of trees. After all, this is Europe and three cups of strong tea or coffee for breakfast is a pressing matter which must be relieved. But, everywhere are signs forbidding dogs on the tracks. Click here to go to Part Five