Wednesday, September 29, 2021

The Fleeting Fastness of Frost

morning ski

Down in town at the new diner they’re cursing, spitting out that gardeners’ f-word; frost.   Meanwhile, I’m ecstatic, I’m up the hill having a great time gliding across Kathy and Bob’s lawn, so glad to be on my skis at last.

It’s frost time and as my gardening friends’ season tapers off, so finally begins mine.   Skiing, today for the first time since April, feels so good, my whole body involved, nothing like it, kick and glide, kick and glide, breathe in, breathe out, kick and glide, breathe in, breathe out, glide, glide, glide.

Cross-country ski season has been right around the corner for months, waiting has been so hard, but now at last I’m skiing.  The sun’s up, the frost is melting fast, and I’ll have fun until it’s gone.

During the long summer, some skiers can’t wait, they need a little something to keep hanging on.   Many rely on roller skis and ignore the road rash.   I had top end roller skis once, with inflatable tires, and loved them, but after cracking two helmets in just a month concluded my next pavement tumble might not be so lucky.

frost ski

Other skiers, with big budgets, travel to Europe to ski in Scandinavian “snow tunnels,” long, narrow refrigerated buildings covering artificial snow.  Serious competitors sign up for weeks-long training camps, mostly weightlifting and running, with occasional, stingily allocated forays into the snow tunnel; too intense and too expensive a program for a do-dah skier like me.

Once I was invited to a helicopter-serviced Nordic ski camp on a glacier in the Canadian Rockies held on the last three days of July and the first three of August, a chance to ski two virgin months while draining thousands from my bank account.   Not having the cash or the gumption, I had to decline.

In the Adirondacks, as actual snowfall nears, a crowd assembles at the Whiteface Mountain Memorial Highway toll gate, ready to compete for what they’ll claim are the season’s first tracks.   And now skiers in the Placid region have another option; the Mount Van Hoevenberg Nordic center, after spending millions of state money, has an extensive snow-making loop.   Both though depend on colder conditions than we have now.

What’s left for those on a budget who want an early start and can’t wait, and can’t afford ski tunnels or trips to glaciers?  Frost.  Yes, for ordinary, pedestrian cross-country skiers like you and me with limited means, there’s frost, frost coated grass to be specific.  Not as exquisite as fresh power, frost nevertheless is still great skiing.   And it sure beats waiting for snow.

In the Adirondacks we sometimes see frost in the first week of September, though it usually comes later.   According to the National Weather Service, optimal frost conditions are clear skies which allow heat to leave the atmosphere, calm winds which permit super-cooled air to develop at the surface, cool temperatures which encourage ice crystals to form, and local topography with cold air descending into valleys and moisture rising from lakes and ponds.   And let’s not forget frost’s double-f-word cousin, freezing fog.   Freezing fog, while hated by motorists, can make some good skiing too.

the author skies on frost

The author skies on frost.

Look closely at the grass on a frosty lawn- every blade is coated with thin ice.   As your ski slides across, friction melts the ice, forming a layer of water molecules rolling and tumbling between the grass and your ski.  One pass though and that ice is melted, leaving green streaks.   Sidle onto fresh frost to keep skiing.

Experiment to find the best frost skiing near you.   One of my favorite places is a soccer field beside a pond where I ski patterns until the sun comes up, leaving a complex grid of green stripes in the white frost.  Another favorite is a riverside golf course where trees coated in freezing fog turn golden in the rising sun.   The place I’ve consistently skied earliest in the season is a Kathy and Bob’s lawn, at 2,200 feet elevation.  They’re near the top of a ridge with a pond on one side and a lake on the other so there’s plenty of moisture in the air.

To be a frost skier, you’ve got to be ready, and you’ve got to be quick.  We don’t get frost every morning and when we do, it’s over fast.   Though constantly alert for opportunities, my records show in most years I’ve logged only two to five frost ski days.

Learn to do your own frost forecasts.  The Weather Service’s frost warnings, while helpful to skiers, are really focused on agriculture and after the first killing frost, their warnings stop.   But late October and early November are prime time for frost skiing- watch for the right conditions- clear sky, dry ground, no wind, dropping temperatures, the dewpoint right around freezing.

If you think there could be frost in the morning, set out your gear the night before- it isn’t always easy to dig out your boots that first time.   When you do wake up and see frost, get right out there because as soon as the sun rises the magic’s over.

My wife, normally a morning lingerer, sees white on the garage roof and gets herself up and out with a rare urgency.   She knows skiing on frost is ephemeral, knows it’s rare, knows it’s wonderful.

A word about equipment-   Not every Nordic ski is good for frost.   You want the slipperiest you can find.  Forget those waxless skis, heavy backcountry gear doesn’t work either.   My frost skis are an old pair of former skating race skis- narrow, high camber and waxed for glide.  Forget skating, the inside edges dig in too much.  Kick and glide classical technique is best for frost, you’ll have plenty of grip and need just a little more effort than normal to glide.   And we all know, glide is good.

Lastly, no matter what you do, be careful who you tell why you left the house early.   Later in the day when it’s t-shirt weather hardly anyone will believe you’ve been skiing.

frost on grass

All photos provided by Andy Coney

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Aims "Andy" Coney is a lifelong Blue Mountain Lake seasonal resident. He is a Nordic skier, guideboater, paddler, orienteer, three-time 46er, and a member of the Protect the Adirondacks board. In 2019, after a twenty-five-year break, with a superb partner he completed his eighth Adirondack 90-miler, finishing 22nd overall. Andy's favorite season though is winter, and he tries to ski every day.

6 Responses

  1. Pete says:

    I wouldn’t mind another month of ‘summer’ but the downward slide is inevitable. Looking forward to snowmobiling.

  2. Tom Kligerman says:

    When I worked for Adirondack Hut to Hut in the 80s, Walter Blank used to call it Fast Grass. Its all good. Roller skiing aint dangerous if you keep to less than 3% grades and use high resistance rollers.

  3. Todd Eastman says:

    Excellent analysis! Ice is nice but frost will suffice… 😊

    Lert’s prep for a fine winter.

  4. william kelleher says:

    they are killing the grass, why do you think they have frost delays on golf courses

  5. Kathleen Egan says:

    I never thought about being able to ski on frosted grass – how very cool! Thanks for the article, and enjoy the frost!

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