Ralph's Nordic Web Archives
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Previously Posted Articles on Cross Country Skiing
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Last Updated: Sunday, September 27, 2009 at 10:43:58 AM

Base Binder
Posted December 1, 2004

Dave reminded me of this story the other day and I thought I'd share it with you.

It was a super mid February day skiing at Eagle River Nordic. The snow lay deep and the sun powered down from a blue sky. In the Midwest this kind of day typically precedes the American Birkebeiner Race. The trails were groomed meticulously, as usual. Afternoon came and before you knew it the day was done. After some snacks and liquid refreshment at the ski center it was time to head for dinner and an evening in front of a warm fire. That meant driving the white roads of the Nicolet National Forest.

I call them white roads because, while they are plowed, the frequent 1-2 inch snow falls get packed down by passing cars forming a white base on the road. Now days the county spreads gravel to provide traction but in the days BS (Before Skating) we just drove on the packed snow. You go out left from Ernies then around a few curves and then come to a stop sign. Turn left again and climb a big hill. This hill is a fooler because it looks easy but after going around a curve the grade steepens. Warm sunny days put a nice icy shine to the road surface. Locals know that it's best to ignore the stop sign and go for it but visitors like me weren't so smart.

I headed out, stopped at the stop sign then began to climb the hill. About halfway up I lost traction with my front wheel drive city car and began to slide back down the hill. Careful maneuvering brought me to an area of lesser grade and better traction. I stopped and tried to climb the hill again with the same results. I then thought over the situation and discovered I had two options.

One was to back down the hill to the flats below, get a better run and hope to make the top. The second option was to back down, turn around and go seveal miles out of my way to avoid the hill all together. The problem was backing down. Another vehicle could come along or I might slide into the plow berm. Neither was desirable. So I got out of the car to take another look at the situation. It looked pretty hopeless and I began considering going back down the hill in reverse.

Ah! An idea came to me. In my wax box I had a can of pressurized Swix Orange Base Binder. The can had a sponge like applicator on top. The directions said to hold the can upside down, press the applicator onto a ski base to release some of the binder and use the sponge to spread the binder thinly on the ski. The can was new and full. I had used the small tins of base binder before. It was pretty sticky and designed to help hold hard grip wax on classic skis when conditions were fairly abrasive. Once thinly applied it acted somewhat like klister. It was absolutely necessary to completely cover the stuff with hard wax to avoid having snow stick to the base. I remembered a Birkie where I used base binder. When the blue extra wax wore off the remaining binder had more grip.

I took the can of base binder, warmed it up in my armpit for a few minutes and spread the stuff on the front tires of my front wheel drive car. I jumped back in. Put it in gear. Voila! Traction. I drove up over the crest of the hill with no worries!

A tongue and cheek look into my wax box!
Posted November 22, 2004

Those catalogs are really coming now, winter can't be far away and I'll be skiing next weekend. The new equipment brings dreams of skiing through the woods and cruising the downhills, eyes watering as I cut through the winter air. Then reality sets in, I know if I'm going to ski like that I will need fast skis; and to get fast skis I need to work on them. I dig out my wax box to see if everything is in order for another season! After many years of skiing fast I've found there are some tools I will need. I also know there are some toys I wish I had. In this article I'll tell you what is in my wax box. Next time I'll begin to cover waxing.

As technology developed and new tools have been introduced, the gadgets occupying a favorite spot in my wax box have changed. I fondly remember that fancy iron I used to attach to a propane canister in order to burn in pine tar. I was never without this great tool years ago but now I couldn't even tell you where it is. My wax box list might seem a little complicated for some or completely inadequate for the techno-tool junkie. I've tried to provide a good starting point for ideas. Your individual style will require modifications. If your wax box differs let me know and I'll include your tips in future posts.

There is no way I could cover all the various wax choices though. There are just way too many and wax choice is a complicated blend of technology, personal experience, personal preference and economics. I will cover some decisions about waxing in future posts. I'll also cover my wax choices for my ski days. Be sure to check back each week because as the season progresses there'll be much to cover.

After many years of skiing I found that some tools look well worn while others look like new. This is because I only use the tried and true tools that I really need. We all need a complete set, though, because of the prestige factor. You know, that feeling of power when you open the wax box. I remember a persistent classic skier (Bill) who had a collection of grip waxes, every color in every brand. If you looked carefully, though, you would have noticed that only the Swix Blue Extra and Rode Super Blue were used and most of the rest were unopened. Ah, but think of the prestige he got when he opened his wax box and applied grip wax the night before the Birkie, eh? Bill knew he had it covered, no matter what the conditions, he had the wax for it. As you review this list you might note some deficiencies in your wax box. No problem, just click on the Shop-On-Line link at the top left of this page. Ernie will solve your problems. Now for the tools in my wax box…

Plastic Scraper: Probably the most used tool. Buy a good thick one that won't bend, maybe several. Take care of it, keep it sharp and you will be rewarded with easy ski prep that requires minimal force. Using a dull scraper is like using a dull razor, just not worth the effort. Scrapers with logos on them from big races or far off places add to the prestige.

Sharpener: Toko and Swix makes sharpeners for plexi scrapers. The Toko sharpener has a ceramic blade and slots of different widths to hold the sharpener at right angles to the scraper. One or two smooth swipes with this sharpener every other time you scrape your skis will keep your scraper working like new. Just be sure to clean the wax off the scraper before sharpening. As LaNora says, "Mess up my Toko sharpener, and you're toast for the day!" The Swix sharpener is a file with a guide to help hold the scraper at right angles to the file. Both of these do an excellent job of sharpening scrapers.

Klister Paddle: This is that T-shaped plastic gizmo that used to come free in boxes of klister. If you don't use much klister you will have to buy the paddle. Use it to clean hard wax off the base of your skis and pry off old binding sole plates. Klister paddles are usually made of cheap plastic so throw them away when they are nicked and worn. Klister paddles also have a curved edge on each end of the “T.” Usually one side has a short radius curve and the other side is larger. These are great for cleaning the groove of the ski of hard wax, glide wax or klister. Oh, yes, you can use klister paddles to effectively smooth klister. Remember Ralph's third law of klister application, “You can never apply klister too thin.” This connects to my third law of hard waxing, “You cannot apply blue extra too thick.”

Groove Tool: Toko makes a small plastic tool just for cleaning out the groove on your skis. Nice to have, maybe I'll get one some day.

Metal Scraper and/or Base Peeler: Carefully use a sharp stiff metal scraper for peeling base material or removing P-tex hairs after sanding, rilling or base grinding. Be careful, a sharp scraper used lightly will perform miracles but a dull scraper pushed too hard will damage your ski base.

Other Scrapers: There are a variety of other types of scrapers both plastic and metal. Some have a cork attached. I've even seen a Swiss Army Knife with a fold out scraper (right next to the fold out foam cork). These all have uses and each of us generally finds the one scraper that does the greatest variety of scraping. The others are for show.

Waxing Iron: Every skier needs a wax iron. Finally, there are several good models to choose from. Just be sure that the iron will hold a specific temperature with little variation. Cheap irons, especially those you find at garage sales, are OK for clothes but when the element is on they get too hot and when the element turns off they get too cold. Better irons sold by the major wax companies have a more precise thermostat and a heavy heat sink in the base. This keeps the range of temperatures narrow and, if calibrated correctly, protects your ski base from over heating. I seen many ski bases that look white and chalky after only a short time skiing. These bases have most like been overheated by a too hot iron!

Thermomelt Sticks: Use Thermomelt Temp sticks to calibrate your iron. P-tex melts at 250 degrees F and fluorinated waxes melt at a lower temperature. Your iron needs to be warmer than 225 but not as hot as 250 to adequately apply hi-tech waxes. To calibrate my iron I use two Temp sticks, a 225 degree F and a 250 degree F. When your iron is heated properly the 225 stick will melt when touched to the iron and the 250 will not. Skis are expensive, why take chances?

Fiberlene: The all purpose waxing cloth. Use this lint free non absorbant cloth with wax remover to clean skis. It works on dirty bases, klister and wax of all kinds. It’s better than a rag because the Fiberlene will not absorb much wax remover. The wax remover goes on the skis and the dirt and wax goes in the Fiberlene. It sounds simple, but it always isn't so. Bert says Fiberlene is a great strainer for dirty gas too.

Rillers and Structure Tools: Warm days and soft snow means adding structure to your bases. There are two primary strategies for imparting heavy structure on your ski bases. Some cut grooves into the base, others press or roll a broken linear pattern into the base. Cut rills last are pretty much permanent and the only way to get rid of them is to peel or stone grind the base. Rolling a pattern into the base is a better option. This pattern will easily survive the long marathon race but, since it is pressed and not cut into the base, it will eventually smooth out during hot waxing. Another option is different grind patterns for each of several pairs of skis. Each pair might be suited to certain snow conditions.

Fibertex: This is Swix's trade name for abrasive pads (Toko makes some as well) like the ones you use on your pots and pans. These are different though and come in several types: hard, soft and final touch. The hard green pad is quite abrasive and can be used to sand the ski base as well as add structure. The soft pad may be used after scraping to get more of the wax off the base before brushing. The final touch variety can really polish up a ski base nicely after brushing. Watch your pads carefully. Once wax builds up in a pad it loses it effectiveness. Throw it away.

Toko Thermo Pad: This is a real nice soft pad for polishing fluoros. When you use this pad to polish your skis after corking in Streamline or using Helx, your skis will go fast!

Brushes: There are several kinds including nylon, horse hair, brass and copper. Nothing seems to get me hyped for skiing (besides walking out the door with skis) like the final brush strokes on fast skis with a good horse hair brush. Cheap brushes lose hair quickly. Good brushes last a long time. Be careful to treat your good horsehair brush with care. Scrape your skis thoroughly before brushing. Then brush thoroughly with a nylon brush. Follow this with light brushing with a copper brush, then finish the job with a horse hair model. If you don't scrape completely you will leave wax on your skis and clog up your horse hair brush with wax. The next time you use that brush you'll be adding wax instead of removing wax. Like with any good tool, you should let the tool do the work. It isn't necessary to push hard when brushing. A lot of nice long easy strokes will do the job. Continue to brush with nice steady strokes from tip to tail until there are no more wax particles showing up on the ski base in front of the brush. Clean your brush periodically like you used to clean those blackboard erasers in grade school. They do still use black boards and chalk don't they? Another great final touch is to give your skis a quick brush after they have been outside in the cold and just before you put them on. I'm not sure why this works but there always seems to be a little more wax removed with that last rushing on cold bases.

Divinucell Cork: This is “THE” tool for polishing hard waxes. The hard foam corks made of Divinucell work better than cork corks or the soft white plastic imitation corks I've seen around. I usually have at least three foam corks in my wax box. I use one for polishing hard waxes up through Swix special red, Swix VR40 or Toko Viola. I use a second for the softer waxes like Swix VR70 or Toko Silver. The third I hold in reserve for polishing Streamline or solid Cera F. This last one never touches either a classic grip wax or a cork that was used with hard wax. Some people keep a few more corks in their wax box to smooth out klister. After you use a cork to smooth out klister it makes a fine lint remover, just don't press too hard.

Wax Remover: A small container of wax remover goes a long way. Use it to clean the goobers that collect on top of your skis, clean klister or dirt off the bases and, of course, clean scrapers. I recommend using wax remover on your bases infrequently because the solvent penetrates the base, removes wax (duh), and prevents new wax from penetrating. Once you have used wax remover on your bases be sure to let them air dry for at least 30 minutes before applying new wax. If you still smell wax remover on the base, the ski hasn't dried long enough.

Zip Lock Type Reclosable Bags: These are perfect for carrying klister and the softer “hard” waxes on tours to keep the stickies from invading your pockets or fanny pack. Here's a tip: To remove klister from your hands, put on your ski gloves and go ski. When you are done your hands will be clean. You might have to wash your gloves.

Thermometer: It is important to know the either the air or snow temperature when choosing a wax. Be sure to note which temperature (air or sow) your wax depends on.

Hand Lens: Choosing the right wax is part art and part science. A hand lens can help see the snow grain type, size and shape. You might also use it to observe those little snow fleas we are trying to train.

Snow Fleas: The Ski Research Group has been training snow fleas to jump in unison during classic skiing for added push off. Every good wax box needs a small container of live snow fleas. ;)

Notebook: I keep notes of which wax I used and the snow conditions each time I ski. I could never remember all of the stuff I've tried without keeping these notes.

Wax Box: If you have all of the tools on this list your wax box will look like a coffin. Send me a picture of your wax box. I'll post the one with the most tools in the smallest wax box. You must also carry your waxes in the same wax box, that's why we call it a wax box.

More Tools for the Wax Bench at Home
Waxing Bench: Everyone needs a place to wax. You usually go to a ski center that has a convenient area to wax your skis but sometimes when travelling you must be self-sufficient. There are many wax benches available. Just make sure the one you choose is easy to use, is durable, sturdy and will fold up for easy storage.

Rotary Brushes: A really modern tool that speeds up the waxing of skating skis. There are several brands and they all seem to work well. Generally you need a handle that inserts into a drill chuck, then add a variety of brushes. These replace the hard held nylon and horse hair brushes. With a rotary brush brushing can take only a minute and the results are spectacular. Pressing too hard when using a rotary brush creates friction which results in heat. This may soften or melt the wax and it will collect on the bristles and clog the brush. Let the tool do the work. Use long easy relaxed strokes with the rotary brush, finish with some buffing with a Thermo Pad and your skis will fly.

Rotary Cork: This is really a rotary foam but since we still call plastic corks a cork I'll use the old term. The rotary cork is great for polishing pure fluoride materials like streamline or solid Cera. This avoids having to use high heat on your ski bases and the possibility of sealing the bases from further wax penetration. Corked in fluorides don't last as long as when heated and ironed into the base but for skis of up to 10-15 kilometers It’s all you need to do.

Battery Powered Variable Speed Drill: You definitely need a variable speed drill to use with the rotary brushes and corks. Get one that is light and easy to maneuver. Make sure you get two batteries and a battery charger. Another accessory you might want for the drill is a posi-drive screw driver bit for binding replacement.

Apron: Wax drips go everywhere and the fine scrapings have a mind of their own. An apron can keep some of this stuff off your fancy new ski suit.

Respirator or Face Mask: There is concern about the health risks accompanying the fluorinated waxes. Minimize your exposure by working in a well ventilated room free of any open flames. Wear a particle mask to keep dust out of your lungs if heating in pure fluoros. If you are a wax technician or often prepare many skis you should consider a respirator.

Rags: Simple, use them for cleaning up spills as well as wiping off excess wax from the wax iron. You could use Fiberlene for this purpose but It’s much more expensive and not as absorbent.

Isn't all this stuff enough?
Okay, you've got this two ton wax box full of goodies. Not to mention that you also have a pile of waxes. You waxed your skis at home then drove three hours to spend a delightful day of skiing at a trail system where there is no warming hut, no rest room, no hot water, no heat and certainly no electricity. No matter, you're tough and you came to ski. In the first hour you ski over a rock, scratch your base, damage your binding and break the basket on your pole. Oh, yes, in falling, you hit a rose bush and tore your ski suit. What to do?

No problem! First you walk back to your car and get out your wax box. Somewhere in there is your sewing kit to repair your suit. You do this first because you don't want anyone to notice. Then use your posi-drive screw-driver to remove loose screws from your binding. Stuff steel wool in the holes and put the screws back in nice and tight. Maybe find that extra binding you have and replace the whole thing. Get out your steel scrapers and sandpaper to get that nick out of your base. Maybe you need to use a little of your quick set epoxy to reattach the base where you hit that rock. Use your propane torch and torch heated wax iron to re-wax your skis. Now tackle that broken basket. Somewhere at the bottom of your wax box is a replacement basket. Use the propane torch again to melt snow and heat the resultant water in the pot you brought so you can remove the basket then pop on a new one. If it doesn't stick well enough then get out your heat glue and fix it. Be careful that you don't ignite the glue when trying to soften it with the propane torch. Just as you finish with the basket you notice that the strap on you handle is broken as well. No problem, you have a replacement in your wax box, yes you had a right and left strap and basket so it didn't matter which one you broke. All this took some time so maybe you should go back into the wax box and find that snack you brought along.

Only an hour or two has passed and your ready to ski. It’s only about 11:00 so there's plenty of daylight left. Away you go cruising through the woods over hill and dale. Another magic day in the woods, all the result of being prepared with a complete wax box. Maybe next time you'll just let Ernie take care of your problems.

The Tour de Ski! Will You Watch It?
Posted November 15, 2004

At meeting this year, the International Ski Federation (FIS) Cross Country Committee gave the green light to Race Director Jorg Capol for the planning of a so called Cross Country Tour or "Tour de Ski" to be modeled something like bicycle racing's Tour de France or Giro d'Italia. They hope that the new format will attract more interest to the World Cup in those years without a major World Cup event like the Olympics or World Championship.

The Tour de Ski is planned to begin in 2007, the year after the next Olympics with a competition over 8 to 10 days spanning 3 to 4 countries. The tour will include cities and well known tourist resorts. Also competitions crossing international borders (Garmisch-Partenkirchen Germany to Seefield Austria for example) should be possible.

To help people more readily identify the tour it is intended that it be easy to understand. The basic rules will be simple and follow the format of bicycle stage races. There will be an overall winner in the tour in addition to winners in each leg. All the legs will count toward World Cup points. The tour will include all the various cross country disciplines from sprints to long distance races. Non finishers in any leg will be eliminated. And like in bicycle racing where time trial and sprint specialists must also compete in mountain stages, the cross country sprint specialist must also ski the long distance races.

What do you think of this idea?

Coverage of FIS World Cup cross country ski events in the United States is pretty much non-existant. In many countries, though, ski racing has a big following. Results are written about in the daily press and sport magazines and races are broadcast on radio and TV. Interest in the World Cup jumped markedly when formats like the pursuit races, sprints and other races with mass starts were added to the events. Racers complained about some of those ideas but races definitely became more interesting! There's nothing simpler than the concept of the first one across the finish line wins. Now add a competition that matches skiers head to head, covers all the disciplines of cross country skiing and requires athletes compete continuously over a multi-day event. Will the Tour de Ski idea catch enough American interest, or the interest of American cross county skiers at least, and bring cross country ski racing to American TV?

Return to top of page.

Moonlight Skiing
Posted October 28, 2004

The full eclipse of the moon last night got me to thinking about moonlight skiing. It's so different from skiing in the daylight. It's like skiing in a black and white photo negative where the sky is black and the ground is white. I went out on the porch every so often last night watching the eclipse...if only there was snow.

The full moon comes 4-5 times each winter but my perfect moonlight skis have been few and far between. Things have to come together just right to provide the moonlight experience of a lifetime. You need a full moon, of course, but not all full moons are created equal. The moon provides fairly bright light for several days either side of the actual date of the full moon. But I prefer moonlight skiing during the evenings just before a full moon. The moon is high in the sky then and provides more illumination. In the days after the full moon, the moon rises later and the best light often comes too late in the evening. The sky should be crystal clear too. Unfortunately that means it's probably pretty cold in snow country. A warm night is preferred. Winds should be light and the snow good.

All these things and a few more came together for me on the Anvil trail system of northern Wisconsin one January night. The trails were freshly groomed after a good dump of snow. The skies cleared but temperatures remained in the mid 20s. Glide was perfect and the skis flew down the trail. The forest was quiet, the moon very bright and there was no wind. The trees cast shadows across the snow in strange and ever changing shapes. An owl glided silently through the night then perched on a tree above our heads. The sound of our skis was the music of moonlight skiing. A distant chorus of coyotes added mystery to the evening. Conversations were hushed and everyone felt the magic of the moonlight.

It seems conditions never come together just right. It's cloudy, too cold, snow not right, bodies too tired from skiing all day. Always something. I anticipate every full winter moon, though, because on that one night it all came together. Maybe this season will bring another opportunity for that perfect moonlight ski.

Cross Country Skiing is Easy, It's Just Like Walking...
(My First Cross Country Ski)
Posted October 25, 2004

Bob called one evening in November of 1975 to invite me on a winter mountaineering trip in the Uinta Mountains. There was one caveat, the trip would be on cross country skis.

"I don't know how to ski, Bob," I said.

"No problem," he replied. "It's pretty much like walking and we can teach you in no time." I think he must have been pretty desperate for that fourth guy to fill out the group.

I arrived in Salt Lake City and we promptly visited an outdoor shop where I rented a pair of 220 cm Asnes Tur Langrenn wood skis, bamboo poles and a pair of Alpha boots. The whole rental cost me $20 for the week.

Bob used a propane torch and some old rags to clean the bases of the skis. Then he wiped pine tar on the skis and burned it in, filling the room with an aroma that's still embedded in my mind. After preparing the skis, meeting the remaining participants, organizing gear and packing our packs, we were ready for our 4 am departure the next morning.

Ralph, Randy and Bob all loaded up on the trail.

A long drive brought us to a trailhead somewhere north of Mountain View, Wyoming. Bob and Randy helped me get into my skis. They skied back and forth in front of me a couple of times saying, "It's easy, just kick with your feet and push with your poles."

We hoisted our 70 pound packs and they were off. I skied about 50 feet and went down! Bob came back and helped me take off my pack so I could get up. Then he was off again. I lost sight of them about five minutes later. I struggled along falling at what seemed like regular intervals. Fortunately the route was on an unplowed road that ascended gently. Of course, all I had to do was ski along and follow their tracks. After several more burials in the snow, I was tempted to switch to the snowshoes I was carrying on my pack. But that meant I'd have to put on my hiking boots which by now were pretty well frozen. I stuck with the skis and managed to find my companions about three hours later just as Randy was beginning to prepare supper. Our tent was up so I moved in, changed into warm down booties and enjoyed the evening meal.

Bob discovered that we were on the wrong road and, in order to reach Henry's Peak, we'd have to cross the big deep valley near our camp. The valley crossing began the next morning, this time though the guys didn't leave me behind. We started by gliding downhill though open woods. I crashed a whole bunch of times but managed to get up and catch up. After thrashing around for most of the day we reached what we thought was the right trail and found a suitable camp site for the night.

It was about -20 F as I crawled into warm goose down bag. A million stars filled the sky. As I drifted off to sleep, frost collected on my mustache and beard. When I moved, ice crystals tumbled down my neck with a tingling sensation. Some time after midnight I was awakened by a flow of cold water running off my face. The temperature outside had warmed to +40. The frost was melting off my face and, outside, a light rain was falling. By morning everything was covered with ice. We decided bag the climb and head out.

Left: My first snowplow. Right: We used snowshoes in trickier conditions and carried our skis.

Skiing down the road, as it switched back and forth was a trip. I had no clue how to turn those Tur Langrenns so I would ski down the middle of the road. When the road turned I'd crash into the deeper snow along the edge, get up, point the skis in a new direction and take off. The road would inevitably turn again, I'd crash, get up, turn and ski off. Somehow we managed to find our vehicle before dark, dig it out of the heavy snow that began to fall and drive back to Logan, Utah.
It continued to snow the next day. Bob lead us all over to a wooded area and I "learned" to ski. They showed me how to herringbone up hill and snowplow down. We tried different waxes until one worked just right. I began to feel the freedom of skiing on the snow instead of wallowing around in it.

Randy and I had several more days to kill before our return flights to Chicago and the four of us headed north to the Grand Tetons. We camped at the Jenny Lake campground, spending the daylight hours skiing. The cold front that followed the big storm brought temperatures to -37F at night but it warmed up to about -15F during the day. I'll always remember gliding through the sunlit meadows along the Snake River in front of the massive Tetons. I learned to glide! With every kick I sailed along the trail.

Randy Fort and the magnificent Tetons.

A few days after I returned home I visited Easy Camping which had one of the first backpacking stores in the Chicago area. I bought a brand new pair of Bonna 2000 skis. Those babies were state of the art with hickory bases and lignostone edges. They set me back $85. I also bought Alpha boots ($40) that were all leather with a warm fleece lining and bamboo poles with big baskets and leather straps ($6). I got waxes and pine tar too. I'd ski the forest preserves after work. The first time I fell fewer than 10 times in an outing was like winning the Olympics! Soon I was an evangelist trying to talk everyone into cross country skis. I learned to ski, learned to teach and winter has never been the same.