What do you mean by “skiing”?

Jouni Laaksonen 5.2.2018

What do you mean by word skiing? I did a minimal research: typed “skiing pics” in Google, and what did I get? Of first 30 pictures 29 showed downhill skiing in various forms, and one showed cross-country skiing. Same distorted distribution seemed to continue when scrolling downwards.

Downhill skiing, especially by using a lift to climb the uphill, is a very recent variation of skiing. For example here in Finland we have skied since the Ice Age ended (about 10 000 years ago) and first hunters and collectors started to arrive here. Downhill skiing with motorized lifts has been around, eh, for one hundred years or something like that?

Now, how did I start this post so negatively? It was not my intention to criticize downhill skiing, but to praise skiing in general. But I guess I wanted to make a point that in my vocabulary skiing does not mean (only) downhill skiing. Nowadays there is plethora of activities you can do with skis. Solely in Pyeongchang Olympic Games there are, at least, cross-country skiing (with classic and free style, both sprint and distance competitions), alpine skiing (downhill, giant slalom, alpine combined, super-G, slalom), biathlon (many different competitions here, too), nordic combined (as well), ski jumping (as well), freestyle skiing (mogul, aerial, slopestyle, halfpipe, ski cross).

Crown snow on spruces in Syöte National Park. Winter sunset.

None of these is the original way of skiing. Through most of mankind’s skiing history there were no ready-made tracks for our ancestors to ski on. Let alone wide, hard-packed lanes to free style ski on, or lifts to hoist them up the hill and hard-packed slopes to glide down.

No, our ancestor felled a tree and carved his or her skis, and then started his/her journey through pristine snow. Well, a bit of exaggeration in there, but not much. Either you made your skis yourself, or maybe your tribe or village had a better ski maker and you traded a pair from him.

Vilminko sukset

The skis of our ancestor could have looked almost like this – though not as polished as this pair. Wooden skis are made still today: this Finnish ski maker made these skis (link page only in Finnish, but you can see some pics). They are really beautiful, and when temperature is below zero, they work nicely. However, more common nowadays is to use factory-made skis with plastic bottom.

Now, skiing without ski tracks is not ancient history at least here in Finland. Let’s see how Kalevi Oikarainen, who won world championship in cross-country skiing in 1970, related his relationship to skis:

I started to try to ski during World War II. I was all of three years old. It was a necessity, for it was a dozen kilometers from my home to the nearest road. During winter we only shoveled our staircase free of snow. (1) (Sorry that you totally miss the original dialect in this translation)

And speaking of World War II, you may have heard of the miracle of Winter War? In short, Soviet Union planned to invade Finland during winter 1939–1940. One crucial goal was to cut Finland in half by marching across Finland from eastern border Suomussalmi to western border Oulu.

Soviet Union had superior numbers both in manpower and in tanks and other armament. There were 14 000 men attacking and at first only a couple of hundreds of men defending Finland. In total about 6000 Finnish soldiers took part in these battles of Raate road.

Result? The Soviet troops were almost completely destroyed and Finns lost only 310 men.

How can this be? One key factor was Finnish winter. During the battles the temperature was –30 to –40°C and there was about one meter of soft snow. Every Finish soldier was familiar with these conditions, of course, they met them every winter. The Soviet troops came from warm Ukraine, and in addition they were given too light clothing.

The other key factor was skiing. Finnish soldiers knew how to ski, and I mean how to ski anywhere in the woods, outside roads or tracks. Soviet troops had to stick to Raate road, and the quick and manouverable Finnish troops caused great havoc.

Sorry about this war talk. I’m definitively against wars and for peace. But this is just too good an example to be missed when talking what skiing means.

My bottom line about skiing is: Skiing is a word that means all kinds of skiing. Not only the original way (off-track), and not only some recent way like downhill skiing or cross-country skiing on ready-made tracks. It is a great thing there are so many ways to enjoy skis and snow. Pick your own and enjoy!

Off-track skiing championships

All this time I tried to come to my point, but boy, didn’t that take time! Now, the point. Skiing outside tracks is still nowadays normal procedure in Finland. Of course our athletes compete in the Olympic games in those above mentioned sports, and us, normal Finnish people love to cross-country ski on well-made ski tracks, and downhill ski with help of lifts, and so on.

But, it is also normal to go and ski off-track. Winter hikers do this all the time, as well as hunters, nature photographers, and so on.

There is even a World Championships competition in Off-track Skiing. Well, the word World is exaggeration, for out of the competitors 98–100% are Finnish. At least so far. 🙂

This is super nice event! I might be a bit prejudiced, for I have participated in the competition since the very beginning, for 20 years in row now, but you just have to believe me. 🙂 Ok, for someone coming from abroad this would most probably seem quite exotic.

There are about 300–500 men and women skiing during the second weekend of every February in or near Syöte National Park. The landscape is magnificent, for the spruces are loaded with thick crust of crown snow, and the atmosphere is unique between the competitors.

How does it work?

You can compete either in a team (3–5 persons), or as an individual. Men and women and all ages are in the same category.

Off-track skiing

Saturday morning: Start line (Lähtö = Start).

On Saturday every competitor/team has to navigate through four or five obligatory checkpoints. There are tests in each of these. You need to show your skills in for example nature lore, first aid skills, distance evaluation, some kind of knowledge related to winter outdoors skills etc. The more mistakes you make, the more penalty minutes you get for Sunday.

Off-track skiing

Saturday: Skiing from one checkpoint to next. On Saturday you are allowed to use the ski track the teams before you have made.


Saturday: One of the obligatory checkpoints. In addition to making the test, many teams stop for a little while to eat, wax skis or something similar.

While the obligatory route is about 25–30 km, there are also additional, voluntary  checkpoints. If you ski via them, you have to ski 10–20 km more, but you also get bonus minutes for Sunday.

An important part of the competition is that you need to choose correct equipment and clothing for the winter conditions. Also you carry your own food and water, or, naturally you melt more drinking water Saturday evening in your camp.

Winter camp

Multifuel stove

One of the dozens of Saturday evening camps: Big campfire gives warmth and light, and you can melt water and prepare food with it, and also dry your boots, mittens etc. But while it is possible to melt snow to water and prepare food with fire, it is slow. For five men you need a lot of water, and a gasoline cooker is the fastest way.

While the competitors camp in the snowy forest from Saturday evening to Sunday morning, the organizers count bonus and penalty minutes and get the starting list for Sunday. Who has the best total starts at 9.00 am., and those who got more penalties and/or less bonuses, start as many minutes behind.

While on Saturday it is allowed to ski along the ski track the teams ahead of you have made, on Sunday this is forbidden.

Off-track skiing

On Sunday every competitor/team has to ski on pristine snow. Of course within a team you change the front man/woman often. The one skiing in front makes most of the work, those skiing behind him/her get a short rest – before it is their turn to go to the front.

The competitor/team that reaches first the goal is the winner.

Why do I participate every year?

Some reasons I mentioned already: beautiful scenery in Syöte National Park, great togetherness between competitors, and good overall feeling. A very important reason for me personally is to see my old friends, my team mates. We live in different parts of Finland, and there just isn’t a better way to meet friends than outdoors.

During the competition my thoughts are totally drawn away from everyday life. We are completely focused on the competition, and winter conditions and managing them.

The feeling of the Saturday night camping area is magical. There are dozens of campfires between the snowy spruces. Every team/competitor has their/his/her own bubble of light, bubble of togetherness, but at the same time all of us belong to one large bubble.

Also I like the idea that there is no temperature limit in this event. During these 20 years it has been three times below –30°C. It is heartening to see how hundreds of men and women know how to ski the day and sleep the night under their tarps without problems in those temperatures. Twice it has been just above zero, which means the snow sticks to the bottoms of your skis like glue – unless you know how to wax them. And everything in between.

So, upcoming weekend I will be skiing and enjoying myself in Syöte.

* * *

Next week’s subject, hmm. What about how to make a fire in winter conditions? Yes, that’s what it will be.

(1) In book Paavo Noponen, Susi-Kalle: Koillismaa. Karisto 1971.

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