“The Rolls-Royce of snow crystals”, “diamond sugar crust”, “neige brûlée” – the list of pet names for the favourite form of snow among skating enthusiasts is long and lyrical. But what makes firn so coveted and where can skating-style skiers find this treasure in the Engadin?
At a time when many cross-country skis are already stored away in the basement for the summer, the fun is only just beginning for firn fans. For them, the end of the snow sports season in spring is high season: heaven for firn skaters!
“Firn” snow, cross-country skiers can leave the prepared tracks for open terrain in spring
Spring has arrived, nature is slowly emerging from hi - bernation, and many winter sports enthusiasts are storing away their equipment. Except for the cross-country skiers: spring conditions herald a new season for them. When the sun shines brightly during the day and temperatures climb above zero, the uppermost layer of snow melts. During the night, this freezes again, and after a few days, a hard layer of so-called “Firn” snow forms. For cross-country skiers, this offers a chance to leave the prepared trails and venture with their narrow skis onto open terrain. This would be impossible on deep powder as the skis would simply sink in; but Firn provides an ideal surface for the skating style of Nordic skiing. A favourite location is up at the Bernina Pass, which links the Engadin and the Valposchiavo. In winter, this is a popular venue particularly with snowkiters, who harness the power of the wind to skim across the wide expanses. As soon as the conditions are suitable for Firn skiing, cross-country enthusiasts head up to the heights to glide across the open landscape.
Nadine and Markus Fähndrich are among those who have followed the call of Firn on this April day. The name of Fähndrich is well-known in the world of cross-country skiing. Markus Fähndrich, now 61 years old, represented Switzerland at two World Championships and two Winter Olympics in the 1980s. After retiring from professional racing, this native of the Lucerne region moved to the Engadin and opened a shop, Fähndrich Sport, in Pontresina; later, he added an in-house cross-country ski school. His niece, 25-year-old Nadine, is at the height of her career as a professional cross-country skier; she has already taken part in three World Championships and represented Switzerland at the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang. She first started cross-country skiing at the age of two and has since spent countless weeks in the Engadin, for family holidays as well as for training camps. For Nadine, the appeal of Firn skating is above all the sense of freedom that devotees enjoy: “With Firn skiing, you can head wherever you want, instead of always having to stay in the set tracks,” she says. Her uncle agrees: “Up at the Bernina Pass, especially, it’s fabulous, being able to ski among the high mountains.” In good conditions, enthusiasts can make use of the entire expanse from the base station of the Diavolezza cable car to the end of frozen Lago Bianco. Here, at an altitude of 2,328 metres, winter can be particularly persistent. “There have been years when you could ski up at the Bernina Pass until the beginning of May,” Markus says.
Exploring open terrain on cross-country skis may sound like an adventure reserved for experts, but the Fähndrichs insist that Firn skating does not require special technique – and so is an option for less experienced skiers, too. However, they do recommend setting the alarm early. Under the warming rays of the spring sun, the Firn snow starts to melt again around lunchtime, and becomes wet and heavy. Firn skiing, then, is something of an exclusive pleasure: limited not only to a certain season, but also to specific times of day.