Rob's Blog Archive

March 17, 2013

Wax On










The first pair of cross country skis I owned were waxless.  A pair of Fischer Steps, these were generation one.  At that time, nobody knew how to make a waxless ski that glided at all.  Beyond that, modern universal glide waxes didn’t exist.  But the skis were cheap and indestructible and I did have fun with them.  

The Fischer Steps were also the last pair of waxless skis that I owned.  I started skiing in the Cascades where transitional snow makes getting a wax to work close to impossible.  Even there, I used waxable skis.  Of course, learning to wax in the Cascades meant that waxing anyplace else has been easy. 

Fast forward thirty-five years to now.  I’m thinking about the logistics and complexities of distance, backcountry, and expedition skijoring.  Given that the dogs can pull me at a pretty good clip, trading some glide away but having the time I’d spend dealing with wax for time to deal with the dogs seemed to make sense.  So I looked around and found two slightly different pairs of skis that I liked.  The debate in my mind was between these two models, not whether or not to get a pair.

Still, I figured it would be a good idea to rent waxless skis and see how well the modern versions work.  There’s actually a nice place in town, Rocky Mountain Adventure Gear, that rents a full set of good cross country gear for $15 a day.  Testing would be cheap, particularly compared to buying.  I talked to Mike, the owner, and he set me up. 

Tour one, Murphy struck.  I skied through multiple layers of snow, some wet and some well below freezing, for about half of the run.  The skis were sticking badly in these. 

Even with the bad conditions, I had no trouble knocking off six quick miles.  While the skis did freeze into place, they didn’t have the true bane of X-C skiers---they didn’t build up big clumps of snow.  I could always make them work, even if in a degraded mode and I did understand that it would be difficult to find conditions worse than these for waxless skis.

I had initially planned to rent the skis for just a single day.  However, after that tour, I didn’t feel comfortable pulling the trigger on a $200 purchase.  I understood that the skis would have done better with almost any other conditions, but I remained unconvinced.  I decided to extend my rental and try the skis in spring conditions, nominally what they’d be best suited for. 

It took a couple of days---I had cleared this with Mike---but a spring-like day arrived and I headed off for an eight mile tour.  I chose one that would take me to a grand view of the Swan Range, a view I knew well from dogsledding there many times. 

With wet spring snow, the skis definitely worked better.  After climbing a bit---I ended up 500’ higher than when I started---I again hit some multilayer conditions that would catch the skis.  These didn’t freeze them like the other day, but I could feel the skis stick as I tried to slide them forward.  This time, though, I just had to move to a different part of the trail, and that went away.  Most of the tour, this simply wasn’t an issue.  I thought the skis did well.  Still, a small voice had me hesitating. 

I returned the skis to Mike after the tour and told him what I had found.  At that time, I still figured I’d buy one pair, though I remained totally undecided about which model.

Then came Friday---I stepped into on my old pair of Rossingol Chamois skis waxed for transitional snow.  Diagonal stride X-C skis have a “double camber.”  This means it takes a lot of force, basically your full body weight, to depress the center and make it touch the snow on a hard track.  I had special red wax in this “kick zone” and blue on the tail and tip (Swix color system---Toko differs). 

Part of the beauty of waxable skis is one can always find a wax that will glide with low weight on the ski and one that will stick when the ski is heavily weighted.  The key is finding one or two waxes---skiers sometimes wax the central gripping part of the ski differently from the tip and tail just like I had on my Rossis---that will do both at the same time.  There’s always at least a combination that will work. 

I had actually waxed the skis a couple of weeks prior to Friday, used them several times, but hadn’t touched the wax at all.  For Friday’s run, I just took my skis out of my truck, put them on, and took off.  It took about a tenth of a mile, but the small voice that had me hesitating about buying the waxless skis added one further comment:   “THPPPPPPPPT!” 

With all the convenience of the waxless skis, they didn’t work near as well as my waxable skis.  And it’s not that me or my voice are stuck on old designs.  Boot design and technology have come a long way since I started this sport.  I adore my new ski boots (see Scenes of Winter).  But even with modern glide waxes, waxless skis haven’t.  I covered ground using the waxless skis.   I skied using the waxable skis.   

My Friday tour was shorter than the either of the tours I took testing the waxless skis.  Of course, it didn’t have to be as long.  I understood what it was telling me inside of the first tenth of a mile.  The remaining three-plus miles were just for fun.  And, with my circa 1986 waxable Rossi’s, they were, too.

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