Skiing downhill, with or without an audience

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As you can see from some of last week’s photos, despite the appearance of warmth in the sunlight last week, Sundsvall was under a blanket of snow for the whole of our visit. This reminds me of my earliest winter in the town, and skiing cross-country.

Whereabouts and weather

I was talking about our last week’s visit to Sundsvall with my cousin Michael on the phone yesterday. Michael lives to the north of London, but not far to the north. He asked me for the whereabouts of Sundsvall relative to the UK. It’s difficult to say. Gothenburg, where I live now is roughly on the same parallel as Aberdeen. (Gothenburg is at 57.7°N, Aberdeen at 57.14°N). But Sundsvall? It’s more or less level with Shetland, I told him. I’ve always believed this, but I just checked and I’m wrong. Sundsvall is at 62.39°N, but Lerwick in Shetland is “only” at 60.15°N. A better match is Torshavn in the Faroes at 62.01°N.

Skiing: Snow on fir trees
Snow on fir trees

It’s thirty-three years since my first winter in Sundsvall; twenty-three since my last. I’d forgotten quite how cold it can be in northern Sweden, and quite how slippery underfoot. Yet it was surprising how quickly I adjusted. Muscle memory remains, it seems.

In the days before Mrs SC and I travelled, we were checking weather reports and predictons on a daily basis. A home the cloud cover was constant and it was raining more often than not. Up in Sundsvall it looked dry and even sunny. OK, our temperatures were around 12°C while theirs were closer to 3°C in the daytime. Still, we could cope with that. A day or two before we travelled we heard there had been a snowfall, 5 cm. Quite a lot. But the sun. The above freezing daytime temperatures. I, at least, expected the snow would have melted and gone before we arrived.

It hadn’t.

Skiing out from Granloholm

I forgot two things: that northern days are short, and that the ground temperature is at least as important as air temperature for snow to melt. After dark, Sundsvall was freezing in the literal sense, and the ground was hard as iron. In a few places, it’s true, the snow in the streets did melt under the rays of the sun, but then it froze to ice as soon as darkness fell, making it treacherous to walk. Still, we coped without falling over, and we had a good time.

Skiing: Trees over the winter hill
Trees over the winter hill

On the Friday, during the day, we met up with a friend and one-time neighbour. Anja drove us around the district where we all three first lived in Sundsvall. This was Granloholm, now very much more built up than it was 30 years ago. Back then, in the winters, it was possible to put on a pair of skis outside our front door, ski a hundred metres down the hill and join a prepared ski track for a cross-country route through woods and around a lake. It seems almost incredible now, but I used to do that, on my own, in lieu of a morning walk. At least during the winters when there was a decent snowfall.

I was never great on hills. (Just as I’m not an enthusiast for heights.) But even so, my ski round sometimes had me skiing down hills (and struggling up them).

Eddie the Eagle

Once, out on my own, I came to the crest of low hill and found myself lookin down a long and, to my eyes, steep slope down to the bottom of a little valley and up again into trees on the other side. There was a prepared track – so all I really needed to do was grit my teeth and push off, letting the track guide me down. I was gathering the courage to do this, when from the fringe of trees, a kindergarten class emerged. All these little kids in their colourful padded ski suits and woollen hats, all of them on skis. Chattering away, herded by two teachers.

Enthusiastically they started to climb the hill towards me. Because it was a steep-ish slope they were walking up it beside the ski track, their feet in their skis turned out to either the side, leaving a herringbone pattern behind them. Very professional.

The leader of the pack, a little girl about six years old, got to the top of the hill quite a way ahead of the others and stopped to engage me in conversation. We went through the usual back and forth.

Skiing: Morning sun behind trees
Morning sun behind trees

She: What’s your name?
Me: John, what’s your name?
She: Where do you come from?
Me: I’m English. From England.
She: Like Eddie the Eagle?
Me (a little surprised, but this was soon after the 1988 Calgary Olympics): Yes. Very like.
She: Do you like skiing?
Me (without conviction): Yes.

She asked me what I was waiting for. I said I was waiting for the kids to get out of the way as I didn’t want to run any of them down. It was an answer she seemed to accept.

Absent witness

The class came up the hill and poured over the top, chatting and laughing, the teachers gathering them together, and then they swooshed off down the other side. But not my conversationalist. She had settled in, it seemed. She wanted a show. I don’t know if she was expecting me to fly into the air, lose my skis and land in a broken heap, but now I felt I would be letting down my nation if I didn’t try.

With great reluctance I tucked my ski sticks under my arms, bent my knees as I’d been instructed, and pushed off down the slope, gritting my teeth, desperately keeping my legs roughly the same distance apart, determined to stay upright. I managed it. All the way to the bottom and part of the way to the treeline on the other side. It was exhilarating and I did not fall over. At the end of my run, hugely pleased with myself, I looked back to the top of the ridge. I meant to wave in triumph to my audience. But the girl was no longer there. No one had witnessed my achievement.

No skiing photos

I spent this morning going through some of my boxes of old photos. I thought I must have at least one decent picture of me on a pair of skis from all those years ago, but no.

Instead, I’m sharing three photos of snowy landscapes under what I think is a morning sun. I took these in days BD (Before Digital) with my old bellows-front Agfa Isolette around Sticksjön, which is the little lake that used to be behind Granloholm. Judging by Google Map’s satelite view, nowadays it’s almost surrounded by the suburb.

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