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On-track cross country skiing in the Pyrenees

Listed under Skiing in Midi-Pyrenees, France.

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If you were to glance at this page and see the words 'Fart' and 'Fartage', you would be forgiven for thinking that this article refers to the after affects of eating lentils. In fact, the word 'Fart' means 'Wax' in French, and rather than talking about wind, which would be a dubiously enjoyable read, I am writing about my experience of cross country skiing in the Pyrenees with a mixed ability group, which should be of far more interest!

At the moment, cross-country skiing does not have the same fame of other skiing disciplines such as downhill. However, the potential for this sport is huge as it offers something for everyone. Not only is there the buzz of the downhills (where a good snow plough stance is very helpful as the classic x-country ski is longer than a downhill ski, and has no metal edges), but there is the physical challenge of the uphills, and the joy of the glide on the flat. In addition, there is every opportunity to enjoy the stunning scenery of the Pyrenees as you go, within a tranquil atmosphere and with the feeling of being 'at one with nature'.

France does not lay claim to the beginnings of x-country skiing, although it is now a popular sport here, with excellently developed facilities in various areas across the Pyrenees and Alps. Rather, skiing is thought to have been developed by the migratory Sami who lived near the Arctic Circle over 4000 years ago, to allow them to hunt reindeer in deep snow. The word ski also hails from Norway as it is developed from the old Norse language where a 'skith' means a stick of wood (though thankfully technology has moved us forward to lighter materials!). However, with well established cross country ski stations such as Plateau de Beille, Chioula and Font Romeu in the midi Pyrenees alone, France is an excellent alternative to Norway and Finland for a cross country skiing holiday, with higher ambient temperatures and varied and stunning scenery.

So, how does this sport work? Basically you stand on 2 ski's (no surprise there then!), but you wear comfortable boots - one up on alpine skiing perhaps? The base of your skis are waxed (thus the 'fartage') in order to give you both glide and grip on the snow. The easy option is to use modern classic skis which have a central area of 'fish scales' which give you precisely this ability to go fast downhill, but grip going uphill. The alternative is to become deeply involved in the art of ski waxing and snow temperatures; a little beyond a 'debutante' like me..

Classic x-country skiing is in prepared parallel tracks which are meticulously groomed in order to give optimal conditions for maximum fun. The tracks are fantastic for beginners and experts alike - for me it meant that I could concentrate on staying upright and deciding where to put my poles, rather than trying to direct my skis around corners. For the more experienced skiers in the group, it meant that they could get up some great speed and glide, perfecting their technique. Obviously for me, a challenge did come in getting in and out of the tracks in the first place, but then where would the fun be if there were no opportunities for falling over?

One of the best things about this sport is that you can really push yourself in terms of speed and distance or just as easily potter around and enjoy the views. As a novice you can begin to notice an improvement in your balance and technique in a very short time, meaning that a weeks holiday gives you the chance to really get to grips with the sport and feel both confident and relaxed. Having said that, anyone in our group who felt like a more relaxed afternoon was able to sit in the sun and enjoy the après (or midday!) ski at the refuge/restaurant at the station. I can highly recommend the vin chaud for any time of day, and the food was delicious - including the sausage and lentils 'plat de jour' at Chioula refuge - which takes me more or less back to where I started with the Fartage I think…

Written by  James Thompson.

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