Today I realised that Norwegians through countless treks into the mountains, have learned to speak the language of snow. In surfing or sailing, you learn to speak to the ocean, you learn the language of the waves. In the mountains, the water takes another shape, and you need to face ice, frost, powder and ‘skare’. ‘Skare’ is a Norwegian word, which means a type of condition where the top layers of snow has frozen to ice, resting on the softer snow underneath.
As you flow down narrow slopes in the wilderness, through pine trees and past frozen lakes, your body will naturally try to keep itself in balance, but like the waves on the open waters, snow is unpredictable. Every small edge and layer of the track calls for a shift in weight and adjustment. From early childhood, we have learned to conquer these conditions by reading and adapting to the constant stream of the snow covered surface passing by underneath our skis.
Adapting to the snow on cross country skis also requires a certain type of wax, from solid to melted. In the stone-age, they used slithers of leather or fur to find the grip, which later evolved to other substances such as tar or resin from pine trees or birch. Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen used liquid stearine under his skis when he trekked over Greenland in 1888. The first know ‘professional’ wax was made in Sierra Nevada in the 1860s, and called Frank Steward's Old Black Dope, containing spermaceti (found in the head cavities of the sperm whale), pine, tar, and camphor.
What blessing to learn the language of the elements, and to go deeper into nature’s shapeshifting qualities. However, as many of the indigenous peoples turn away from traditional lifestyles, the expertise and wisdom held together in both their written and kinetic vocabulary fades. We still have a great deal to remember and to keep alive..
It is a common myth that the inuits have over 200 words for snow. In Western Greenland, for instance, they only use two basic words; qanik which means 'snow in the air', and aput, which means 'snow on the land'. In Northern Canada, they use elaborate terms to describe their frozen landscapes: “aqilokoq” for “softly falling snow” and “piegnartoq” for “the snow that is good for driving sled,” to name just two. The Norwegian indigenous peoples, Samis, were nomads and raindeer herders and therefore needed more words to describe how the snow changed shape, in order to find the best conditions to set up tents and tend to the herds. So fascinating. I wonder how they speak of snow in the Himalayas..
If you set out into the mountains this Easter, reflect on the qualities of the snow on which you are moving, your body's language, and how your mind is constantly working to stabilise on the surface. Maybe there’s a life lesson hiding somewhere in the experience..