Nordic skiing is still a dear, especially this time of year
Ask any diehard skiers what their favorite ski resort is, and they rarely mention us. That’s OK, I understand. Alta will always be the best for my deep powder fix, Jackson for the steeps and backcountry. Friends from other ski towns just can’t fathom why I live in “Disney world,” so I tell them that lots of intermediate ski terrain is indirectly responsible for paying my bills. But whenever I fall in love with other ski resorts, I go through the same process of reminding myself that there is one winter sport that will never be as good as it is in Summit County – and more importantly, one I couldn’t live without: Nordic skiing. By that, I mean, the Nordic skiing found in the backcountry on our trails and roads is supreme (and our Nordic centers are top notch as well).
I’ve explored the West on skinny skis for 20 years, and haven’t found anything that can top Summit. We have all the ingredients: avalanche-safe terrain with our gentle valleys and mellow peaks like Baldy or Handcart Peak, but still awesome scenery of rugged high-alpine basins like Mayflower Lake or Chihuahua Gulch. We have a huge network of mining roads and trails. New summer trails are built every year, which in turn become winter paradise. Those cold temperatures that last into March are a blessing for us Nordic nerds. Most other ski towns are at lower elevations and cursed with warmer temperatures, which means icier snow. Our cold, dry snow is great for traction and glide and easy for waxing. I have a friend whose wife hits the Nordic trails daily, but he just can’t rally. “It’s boring,” he tells me. “And scary sometimes on the downhills. I just don’t want to get hurt.” He is a committed ski area guy and I can relate. The adrenaline rush from a full day of powder skiing is incomparable, but I can’t say I ever find those pumped-up days on the hill very “calming”; that’s where a dose of Nordic comes in. Last Friday morning I skied my favorite winter trail, Spruce Creek. Even though it was warm, this wooded trail is so shaded that the snow is usually dry. No one was at the parking lot, two inches of new, a bluebird day. Perfect. I was alone, the woods were beautiful. My head cleared, all the stress from being in trouble last week dissipated, and of course, I got a killer workout.
I can see why people find Nordic skiing boring, but I bet they haven’t really learned the finer art of it. Anyone can strap on a pair and shuffle up Boreas Pass road, but many are stuck in this notion that all you need to do is “walk” on these things. If you do, you miss out on the whole rush of improving your glide, maintaining speed around corners, or timing your pole plants better. If you are athletic, think of the sport you love. Whatever that may be, part of the rush in any physical activity is perfecting the subtle adjustments you have to make with your body in order to maximize efficiency.The same is true for the Nordic skier. I’m never bored. I’m always looking ahead, changing my stride to meet the demands of the terrain, sometimes gliding more, sometimes shortening up, double-poling at the crest of a hill, even the herringbone is an accepted technique when all else fails.Descending on Nordic skis is sketchy. On past birthdays, I organized a costume party-triathlon, with the main event a ski tour up Spruce Creek and down the treacherous Crystal Lake Road. Wigs and arms flying, knees wobbling, it was quite entertaining to see the terrified faces as we all flailed down that hill. Once you get the hang of it, though, descending on a trail even as narrow as Spruce Creek is a blast. Taking corners with both skis on edge in a parallel stance, bopping over a little blip … maybe not quite as graceful as skiing powder, but certainly more humorous.
Right now Nordic skiing is at its best – cold temperatures, lots of snow and a little extra time on my hands since most of the ski resorts still need more coverage. With the Christmas crowds heading home, this is my favorite time to hit the woods and burn off those holiday chocolates. See you out there.Ellen Hollinshead lives in Breckenridge and writes a bi-weekly column on the outdoors. She’s been on hiatus for a couple months, but now she’s back.
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