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A Cross-Country Journey

[click to enlarge]

One man laces
and re-laces
his colorful
ski boots –
red, yellow,
purple, green.


Without warning,
a barely
audible "Go"
is uttered.
And the race
is on.


At times,
it falls nearly silent –
except for the
shushing of
skis or the
pricking of
poles in the

[click to enlarge]

Story by Randy H. Milgrom
Photography by Bob Garypie and Peter Ottlakan

Nendaz to Siviez

The trip from Nendaz to Siviez, where the cross-country skiing events are held, is winding and slow. Most athletes travel by bus, on a road barely wide enough to accommodate a passing cyclist. Bordered first on one side and then on the other by a steeply rising mountainside dotted with tall evergreens and an occasional, lonesome cabin, the path snakes and trudges upward, switchback by tricky switchback.

As we travel along the rim of the ridges surrounding the Canton Valais, the small sprawl of Sion, its capital, can be seen following along the thin line of the Rhone River that runs through it. Its small airport runways, which hug an odd parcel of plain land, beckon visitors bold enough to fly over the snowy peaks and then dive swiftly and safely toward level ground.

More and more snow gathers as the bus ascends, and only the prickly tops of evergreen trees are visible – and nothing more – until the road settles back and eases toward Siviez – a skiing outpost far smaller than Nendaz, and without the many local shops and specialty restaurants and hidden night spots. Here skiing is the thing – the only thing – and the cross-country course awaits.


Preparing For the Race

Suspended high and relentlessly wide in an utterly cloudless sky, the sun hovers above a distant sheet of towering ice-rock and gently warms the participants readying for the start of the grueling one-hour race. On a protruding platform just off the designated course and crowded by the looming mountain peaks, the 40 or so men and women mill and fidget, speaking different languages, shaking hands, and raising voices of greeting or advice. At times, it falls nearly silent – except for the shushing of skis or the pricking of poles in the snow.

Some competitors wax their skis. Others simply examine them, as if performing an intricate measurement – or a thoroughgoing checkup. One man laces and re-laces his colorful ski boots – red, yellow, purple, green. Another gouges at the undersides of his skis with a putty knife.

Race officials steady their stopwatches and rifle through pages of race rosters and course information. A large container of hot tea and cups are placed on a table near one portion of the track, which is a long, sloping, looping oval – with three sets of ski tracks firmly embedded in the hardened snow from the preceding hour’s course inspection and practice session. The corner nearest the scorer’s table contains a hairpin turn – a devil of an uphill climb heading into the home stretch.

As one, the competitors rise and move toward the starting line as a race official begins a reading of the roll. All together, they crowd and bunch among all three lanes, and the faster racers edge closer to the front. Without warning, a barely audible “Go” is uttered. And the race is on.

A Test of Endurance

A few at the front take off with a jump. Toward the back, two men and two women wait for the pile to clear before they ease into position and start gliding away. The vast middle, elbowing and grunting and clamoring for space, dig in against the odds and push forcefully and quickly from the gate.

This race lasts an hour – a lifetime on skis. And as in any lifetime, there are ups and there are downs. The fastest skiers fly uphill as if they wear sneakers – nearly popping out of their bindings onto the balls of their feet and just running! – while others tend to hustle to the top using forceful little strides. And then there are those who struggle, who turn sideways on occasion, and who gain strength from those who cheer.

But the pain of exertion is on everyone’s face. Some rest on the downhill stretches, while others push ahead. Some lunge and stab with their poles, while others just lengthen their strides.

In less than one full lap around, the pack has thinned considerably. One or two are way out in front, and then a series of groups of five, and then four, and then three, soon follow. By the time the slowest skier passes the start line for the first time, the leader, and eventual winner, has done so twice. And so it goes. It’s a test of endurance. May as well enjoy the ride.

"You must just keep going," shrugs a smiling Ursula McGouran, wife of Peter McGouran, who since his sudden need for a kidney transplant in 1992 has competed in all four Winter World Transplant Games, and every annually held British event as well.

There's Peter now, smilimg and almost waving as he passes. "Same split time as last lap," she encourages. And he just keeps on skiing on.