skiing the glacier in Italy.

I did something crazy today: I published the first thing I’ve ever written in the first person for FasterSkier. I really dislike editorializing, and so I have tried hard to avoid it. Writing an entire piece with “I” felt like I was breaking some rule I had made for myself. But I wanted to tell a story about what it was like to go to Passo dello Stelvio, Italy, and ski on a glacier in August. It was a strange, fun, and powerful experience that was not at all what I expected. Want to hear about it? Head to FasterSkier and read the piece HERE, which is in many ways like what I typically publish on this blog.

I will leave you with some extras, though. Here are the photos I took over the course of two days of skiing. Enjoy.

 

the real experience, or, who wants a castle anyway.

IMGP1126

You might think that southern France is warm. Well. Take a look at that picture – does it look warm to you?

Taking a rudimentary glance at a map, I realized that we were not far from Carcassonne, a medieval walled city that I had learned about in French class in high school. At some point, the teachers decided that the best way to make us interested in learning French was to add a little bit of history and some pretty pictures into our classes. One thing that is so surreal being here is that I can remember learning about places and people in history classes or language classes, but now I have a chance to go see them or their environs firsthand. A lot of cool history happened in America, but things in Europe are just a bit more legendary. They are old. They have a bit of myth to them.

IMGP1088(This was true in Sweden as well, but unfortunately I never learned much about Sweden in school. So all of that was discovering new things for the first time, rather than feeling like I was walking into my own textbook.)

So, I said, let’s go to Carcassonne! It was not a well-hashed-out trip, more of a last-minute thing, like, we have this Sunday and we don’t have homework, let’s make the most of it. We looked and train and tram schedules, managed to all get to the train station at 9:30 (well not all, I’m looking at you, Katie), and get on the train. When we left our dormitory it was a bright blue day, sunny and beautiful. Not warm, of course not, but picture perfect.

At some point on the train, we began realizing that it was quite hazy outside. Maybe this happened around Narbonne. Visibility was low; we knew there were hills but we couldn’t see them. When we stepped off the train in Carcassonne, we realized that it wasn’t haze. It was a snowstorm, and it was zero degrees and blustery. I have to admit I think that our first instinct was to run back into the train station, but we were here – we had to carry on. We hadn’t looked up any directions or maps of the city, figuring that the walled city up on the hill would be visible from everywhere. Not today. We checked tourist signs and streetside maps as we felt our way around the city, hunkered down in our hats and mittens.

IMGP1089

As we learned later, Carcassonne is really two cities. In the 1200’s, Carcassonne was a Cathar city. Despite a whole unit in a Dartmouth history class and a book read and assignment completed on Montaillou, where the heresy was really strong, I didn’t realize that the small hamlet lay just 90 kilometers from Carcassonne and that the powerful family that held the city were also Cathars. When the heretics were rooted out in southern France, the residents of the walled city were allowed to survive if they left their homes. So they went through the gates and eventually made their livelihoods down the hill, in a second city. That’s where we arrived by train. And it was quite pretty – nice shops and squares, monuments.

But at last we reached a bridge and could look up and see the castle. Yes, this is what we came for. (The wind on the bridge was something terrible.)

IMGP1084

So up we climbed, up and up, to get to the UNESCO World Heritage Site that is Carcassonne. First, through the improbably green grassy hillside – the Mediterranean does get all its rain in the winter – and then up cobbled steps, behind walls and through arches.

IMGP1092  IMGP1097

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The most surprising thing once we got inside the city walls was to see…. life continue to go on. I hadn’t realized this, but the city is still a city. I guess I shouldn’t have been so shocked; after all, Fes-al-bali is a World Heritage Site and it’s very much alive. And the area is big enough that it would be a shame to turn it into a sterile museum. But nonetheless, I wasn’t prepared to walk through the last huge arch and see a restaurant.

IMGP1102All of the establishments in the walled city cater to tourists. There are restaurants, cafes, coffeeshops, chocolate shops, kitschy souvenir shops. A few smallish museums of unclear provenance. I guess that people live there, but it wouldn’t be very convenient; the real world is down in the other city. There are hotels, but they must cost a fortune. Still it was strange to see so many people walking around, talking boisterously and popping in and out of buildings.

We were sorely tempted to eat lunch, but decided instead that we should at least look around before we ate. We wandered into the main museum, assuming that it would cost a lot of money, but it turned out to be free for students – hurrah! So in we went. The castle within the walled city itself was rebuilt, redesigned, and fortified through the years, so to begin we had to walk over the stone bridge over what used to be a moat – protecting the nobles from not only invaders but also providing some insulation from the townspeople themselves. These days, the moat is dry and they were beginning to plant vegetable gardens in the grass below the bridge.

Then under another arch, where you could see the old defences: there was where the portcullis would go down, there was a gap where something hot and painful might be poured on people passing under the gate. Then, we were inside the keep.

IMGP1105  IMGP1107

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The museum took us inside, up the stairs, and into a dark but probably otherwise grand hall where we watched a video about the history of the city. It fell into disrepair and squatters lived in the free spaces until the mid 1800’s, when someone took an archeological interest in the site and began trying to decipher what it was supposed to look like. From that point on, restoration work was done to get the city into the shape it is in today – so that when you visit, you can imagine what life would be like.

As we walked through long halls, up and down winding stairs to scale towers, and out along the ramparts, we certainly imagined what it would be like. In a lot of ways, not that nice. For one: it was dark inside. For another: it was cold. A few rooms were sort of heated, or at least protected from the cold, but in others the windows did not have glass and we could hear the wind howling fiercely. It was scary, in a way, how it picked up speed along various rooflines and then flung itself down the sides of the high walls. I would have sworn there was a hurricane outside as the wind blew past us.

You would spend the winter cowering from the cold, locked up in this vast hulking stone castle, looking our the window with fear. At least that’s the sense I get.

window2  window1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

window3  window4

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Eventually we made our way down to the lower rooms, which had been the chapel, receiving rooms, and other fancy spaces. They were more equipped for guests and for comfort – one had frescoes of horses and nights painted all around the top of the walls, and the ceiling was washed a bright blue color like the sky. In here, art from the city’s history was housed, and restored gargoyles and details from the tops of columns. All sorts of beautiful things; perhaps when the castle fell into disrepair, only the stones used in the structure were left. Maybe, back when people lived here, it wasn’t as cold and isolating as it felt to me. I can only hope.

Because, what I’m left with, even after a bowl of hot onion soup at a local restaurant, a nice trip to the ornate cathedral, and a train ride home to warmer Montpellier, is the memory of the snow flying around those cold stone walls. Supposedly, in the summer, it is unbearably hot; that wasn’t something my mind could even comprehend. Instead I was stuck thinking how lucky we are to live when we do, when life isn’t so hard, so painful, or so short.

But even despite those takeaway messages, despite the fact that our photos were not against the clear blue Mediterranean sky, the city was beautiful – and I felt more than ever lucky to be in a place where I could walk into the pages of my history books. The sheer scale of the walled city was astonishing, the number of turrets and towers, the tons upon tons upon tons of rock that had been summoned to defend the stronghold. Can something be harsh and lovely at the same time? I say yes – even as the snow flies.

snow

snow 2

the most beautiful church in Sweden, and how I got there.

On Wednesday night, after a day of scrambling around to and from Stockholm and generally being frantic, I climbed onto a train at Uppsala Centralstation and went to sleep.

It was a new experience: people don’t take trains so much in the U.S., and almost certainly not for long journeys. They’re just commuting vehicles, if anything at all. But here in Sweden – well, the trains might not be on time, but they go an amazing number of places, and they are pretty nice. In my three-berth sleeping room, we each had a made-up bed with sheets, a pillow, and a blanket; towels to use in the shower; our own sink, mirror, soap, and cartons of drinking water. Exhausted, I chatted with a very nice woman who was headed to her hut outside of Gällivare, where she hoped to skate on the frozen lake. Then, when it reached an acceptable hour, we climbed into our bunks and went to bed.

When I woke up, we were flying by snowy fields. We eventually reached Gällivare and were put on a bus (another train had broken down on the tracks and we couldn’t get past it… trains are notoriously late and broken in northern Sweden, particularly in the winter) and I chatted with another nice woman, who was actually from a tiny village just across the border from Muonio, Finland – a place I have been, and that I never expected to meet anyone else who even knew where it was (pardon the horrible grammar, I couldn’t figure out how to fix it and I’m tired!). As we pulled into Kiruna, my anticipation mounted. I had been planning this trip for weeks; what would it look like? All I knew was that it was waaaay far north, relied on iron mining for its economy, and that people from the south wouldn’t want to go there in the winter.

We got off the bus and I hoisted my ski bag onto my shoulders and began the walk up the hill to town. My hostel didn’t open for checkin until 2 p.m., so I left my bags there and went for a ski. It was a lovely ski, just as everything in Kiruna was lovely.

(The hostel itself felt like if your friend’s grandmother took her guest bedroom straight out of the 1970s, plopped a flatscreen TV in it, and rented it out for cheap…. but it was a nice hostel, clean, good kitchen, no complaints. That funny little room did begin to feel like home, plush sofa and everything.)

When you think of a remove city sustained my iron excavation, a city that nobody in the country really thinks of, the idea you see is not Kiruna. Kiruna has downtown shopping malls with names like “City Galaxy”, public art, cute coffeeshops, and girls with blonde pixie haircuts who shop at Lindex and H&M. It has a sewing shop that also sells bodybuilding supplements like NOXplode. It has bars styled after England (The Bishops Arms Tavern) and Bavaria. And it has lighted ski trails on a World Cup course, where you might see kids, grandparents, or anyone in between out zooming around on skis – or walking their dog.

And, it has the most beautiful building in Sweden.

That’s right. In 2001, Swedes knew enough to vote Kiruna Church the most beautiful public building in the country. It’s not a usual church: built from 1909 to 1912, it’s made entirely of wood and painted a deep, bright red like only the Scandinavians can paint things. Its expansive gables an buttresses were imagined by architect Gustaf Wickman to imitate a traditional Sami tent. I can imagine how the church would glow under the midnight sun, the light reflecting off the huge triangular flanks of windows.

But in the snow, it’s just as beautiful. Where else in the world are flying buttresses shingled, serpentlike?

And the snow is what we had. Snow and fog: one of the few disappointments of my trip was that I was unable to see the northern lights, because it was cloudy every night. When I woke in the morning, the city would almost always be shrouded in a sort of misty fog: you could see the next house down the street, but any further than that and the features would start to melt to some extent into the whiteness of the sky. Churches are tall, and this one is on a hill, so I expected I would be able to simply pick out its towers and walk towards them. But I couldn’t see; I had to navigate a map and not until I was two blocks away could I see where I was going.

Another seemingly strange feature is that the main building doesn’t have a bell. Instead, there’s a completely separate building which houses the belltower, and that, too, is something you might see poking out of the mist. The top you can imagine sitting on a church – but the bottom is fortified into something you might imagine to store grain over the winter, or stockpile supplies for an inevitable bad harvest. I really have no idea what the history of the structure is, but it’s fascinating to look at.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And Wickman took another idea from older cathedrals and changed it to fit the circumstances: carvings of saints or bible scenes which often grace more Gothic buildings. In Kiruna, the face above the door is adorned with traditionally flat etching – no relief, just line drawings upon the wood.

Tradition was maintained, though, with a collection of gold-painted figures looking down at paritioners and admirers; they represent ideas like humility, love, and rapture, but also arrogance, melancholy, and despair.

The crazy thing about the Kiruna Church is that it’s going to be torn down. Probably not tomorrow, and probably not next year: but like all of Kiruna, it will be demolished and then rebuilt. That’s because there is a giant vein of iron ore that runs directly underneath the city, and for the city to survive, it has to literally consume itself. Houses, neighborhoods, and the town hall will be relocated, and the church is no exception. Luckily, as one town leader explained, it’s made of wood so it can simply be taken apart and put back together again.

That makes me sad. What does it mean for a building of any sort, and a church in particular, to be taken apart? Maybe it’s because my father is a carpenter, and I can imagine some of the beautiful things he has built being torn apart, but I’m afraid that a little bit of the church’s soul will be lost when it’s ripped to the ground. When it is unceremoniously trucked to a yet-to-be-decided location. When it is reduced to its constituent pieces, which in no way add up to the whole. Its current home on the hill, nestled in the trees, seems to me to nurture and protect Kiruna Church. That’s its home. It can’t be dug up.

Is that blasphemous? To worry about a church’s soul?

Or is it stranger that I, dedicated agnostic (ha, oxymoron), am so worried about the church and its spiritual integrity and resting place?

Either way, it’s a beautiful building, and I’m glad I got to see it in the spot Wickman picked for it – where it is perfectly situated to show off the calculus that combines the culture of northern Sweden with awe-inspiring cathedral architecture.

Finland at last.

The day you have all (?) been waiting for has arrived – I’m going to tell you about the great white north.

I made it to Finland, safe and sound, after about 29 hours of traveling. Yikes! I’m still very jet-lagged and having trouble sleeping at night, which means that I am not enjoying things as much as I otherwise would. I haven’t taken any great pictures yet, but here are a few mediocre ones so you can see what it’s like here.

We’re staying in a cute little cabin complex. We have two cabins, one for boys and one for girls. Our cabin has two rooms with two little twin beds each, and a living room/kitchen/dining room with a pullout couch that our coach sleeps on. The kitchen has only two burners and no oven, so cooking is interesting but hasn’t been a total bust. The boys made a delicious stir-fry last night and Dylan is planning to make stew this evening, so we definitely aren’t starving.

The first day we skied, there were only 3.8 kilometers open, but it was very good skiing. We were literally overjoyed to be on snow and probably zipped around a little faster than we should have, just due to the exuberance of the situation. Skiing in late October is unheard of in all but a few places in North America, and even in those places, it certainly isn’t reliable. Here we were on well-groomed trails, doing real skiing! It is still unbelievable.

It snowed for much of the last 24 hours and there were a lot more trails open this morning. This was a relief because pretty much all of our skis have been 2 hours long and doing so many little laps gets a bit boring. Today I got sick of skiing around the short, well-groomed loop with a hundred other people, so I struck out up the hill and ended up skiing along the top of the ridge below some windmills. I had a beautiful view of the countryside, which is comprised entirely of wooded hills and a few lakes. No mountains, just hills. Even at noon, the sun hangs in the corner of the sky, casting everything in a pinkish yellowish glow. I was psyched to be up on the hill with no other skiers around, enjoying the view, even if it meant skiing in some ungroomed powder.

It is a little stressful to ski here – there are so many people, with skiers from Finland (of course), Russia, Sweden, Belarus, Estonia, the Ukraine, and God knows where else. I am constantly getting passed by people who are faster than me, and the Russian coaches have a disconcerting habit of wordlessly staring at you when you ski past them. Being off on my own was so much more relaxing – I could think only about myself, what pace I ought to be going, and not worry about everything going on around me.

At this point, we are very much in training camp mode, doing a not-insignificant amount of volume. In between sessions we only have the time and energy to do things like read and knit. During our jogs around town we have found some cool stuff, though, so here’s a bit about Muonio.

There are two grocery stores, called S-Market and K-Market. Both stores count yarn and canned reindeer meat, and thermal underwear among their wares. S-Market is my favorite, perhaps because it is a little bit more light and seems to have a slightly better selection. The other one, Pepa refers to as K-Mart, which is funny because it doesn’t sell appliances, clothes, or plastic crap like the American chain. The boys theorize that S-Market and K-Market are owned by competing families a la Mantagues and Capulets, except that because we are so far north, the feud is progressing very slowly.

We also found a thrift store which we intend to hit up next week. We were running along, arbitrarily deciding what all the buildings we saw were – Finnish doesn’t have much in common with any language I’ve studied, so the names weren’t much help. For instance, one building we decided was a nursing home because it just felt right. Then Lauren said, “I bet that one is a thrift store!” Yeah, right. How likely is that? We ran up to the door and under the hours, in English, it said “Secondhand Shop.” Wow!

We have also found a couple of schools, a café, and what Lauren calls an “olden-days museum,” which unfortunately seems to be closed for the winter. Also closed for the winter: the “Grilli,” which is too bad because I would love to buy a reindeer burger there.

We ran by a number of bus stops, which I thought was really cool since the town isn’t even very big (about 2,000 people), but yesterday I realized that I hadn’t seen a single bus, so public transportation might not be a reality after all. Very confusing.

The river is quite beautiful and full of swans, both white and black. The whole setting is very picturesque; it’s too far in the middle of nowhere, but other than that, I could see Lapland getting a lot of tourism.

That’s all for now. Hopefully I’ll get some better pictures up soon!

 

“Green” and 350

Today we hiked/ran from Squaw Valley to Donner Pass. Beautiful!

Today we hiked/ran from Squaw Valley to Donner Pass. Beautiful!

When people ask me what it means to be a green ski team, I sometimes struggle to answer. We haven’t changed the world (yet). But we’ve done a few things, we’ve tried to do a few more things, and we organized the Team 350 Challenge.

The idea of the challenge was to get people to think. Our earth’s atmosphere currently has 387 parts per million of carbon dioxide floating around in it. In order to avoid catastrophic environmental effects – which, more than just wrecking the “environment”, which a lot of people don’t really care about, would wreck people’s lives – this level should drop below 350 parts per million. One of these catastrophes is that there would be no snow, and we’d be out of luck for skiing.

We challenged our community, along with the rowing community, to cumulatively train 350 million meters over the course of a month. While our goal was to get as many people signed on as possible, and to log as many meters as we could, I imagined that if 1,000 people each logged 350 thousand meters (350 kilometers), we’d reach our goal. That’s not much more than 10 kilometers per day. There is quite a large number of athletes out there who train that much or more.

While the Team 350 Challenge doesn’t include any specific action to lower the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, each person that signs onto the challenge is aware of the issue. If we could get athletes to think about climate change as they logged their meters online, surely we could make a difference, or at least a statement.

As I write this, nearly 1,500 people have taken up the challenge. Among the names on the honor boards are Green Mountain Valley School coach Justin Beckwith and his team; NCAA All-Americans Rosie Brennan, Susan Dunklee, and Caitlin Patterson; and, of course, all the members of our team. Nearly 100 athletes have completed 350 kilometers of training.

Regardless of the fact that we will not reach our goal, we have reached out to a significant number of people. And this ties back into our goal, into my answer to the first question, into what makes us a “green” racing team. Although acting is undeniably better than thinking, at the very least, our goal is to raise awareness about sustainability issues.

Tim sometimes refers to “the hypocrisy of being a green ski racer.” We will never be a zero-waste, zero-emissions team. It’s not possible. You can’t walk to every race on your own two feet. You can’t train at altitude in Vermont – hence we’re in Lake Tahoe right now.

But we can do as much as we can make sure we are not wasting resources unnecessarily, and to make sure that our competitors are aware of their own effect on the environment. We can do our workouts from our house whenever possible instead of driving somewhere. We can eat as much local food as possible. We can write letters to our legislators and politicians and try to make sure that the Copenhagen negotiations are fruitful.

There is a lot of buzz around 350 right now. We hope that you’re paying attention to what so many people are saying – thanks Andrew Gardner, thanks Steinbock, thanks Sara Renner, thanks to so many others – and we hope you continue to think about it for the rest of the year, too.