It’s one of those mornings you wake up early while it’s still dark, but for some reason you’re feeling perfectly rested. Getting up, you warm your hands on a hot cup of coffee as you watch the first light appear. You wonder what to do with this day, knowing that you want to go out and immerse yourself in nature. But which mode of delightful snow travel is perfect for today? Then that smooth feeling of tranquil gliding comes into your being. Yes, it’s a perfect day for a cross-country ski tour.
Unlike say, backcountry telemark skiing which requires great athleticism, cross-country skiing is for just about anybody. While skate skiing is an ideal activity for an intense workout, “classic” cross-country skiing is perfect for a relaxing kick and glide down a powder-covered forest road or trail.
While it’s hard to believe, yet another couple of pairs of skis are required to round out your quiver if you want to consider yourself a well-rounded mountain enthusiast.
Cross-country skiing is a great winter activity, especially if you want an aerobic workout and peaceful solitude. Whereas downhill skiing provides action and thrills, cross-country skiing offers fluid grace and tranquility.
Cross-country skiing is the oldest type of skiing. The free-heel design enables a skier to go “cross-country” and tour uphill as well as down. Cross-country skiing requires many learned techniques for going cross-slope and for long ascents.
As far as the downhill sections go there are many levels of trails to choose from. A flat glacial valley such as the Homestake Valley offers a workout and easy cruising on the flats. Trails such as the Mitchell Creek Loop, or the ski trail from Ski Cooper to Vance’s Cabin offer challenging uphill climbs and thrilling descents.
Descents are fun because the skis are light, the boots are light and at the bindings you are only connected by the toes of your boots. Tricky downhill sections are where grace enters the picture.
So what are some of the tricks to cross-country skiing? The single most important thing to remember is to look up. Look up and out at the scenery. As we tire it is natural to look down, however resist this temptation and by looking up, the hips come in underneath you and suddenly your overall athleticism and balance improves.
On uphills it is important to look to the top of the hill. This puts your body position over the middle part of the ski that gives you grip.
On the downhills you want to “feel your heels” and heed the warning, “if you feel your toes, soon you’ll feel your nose”. In other words, because your heels are not locked down, you can easily go over the front.
Downhill skiing techniques such as snowplows, edging and looking to where you want to go all still apply in cross-country skiing.
WHICH SKIS TO CHOOSE
Choose the right ski for the conditions of the day. Cross-country skis come in two different base styles. Wax skis require matching special kick wax to the outside temperature and the snow conditions for that day. No wax skis are easy because they have “fish scales” under the middle part of the ski under foot that give you grip. Get metal edged skis if you plan to go into the backcountry because metal edges give you better control in tricky situations.
Each type has its merits, which is why you need two pairs of cross-country skis in your quiver. Wax skis are ideal for fresh snow conditions when the outside temperature is below freezing, say in the 20’s. These are classic “blue wax conditions” which means that the trail conditions are fresh snow, and the snow is dry. As you arrive at a trailhead, get out of the car and grab a handful of fresh snow and try to squeeze it with one hand into a snowball. If it’s dry it will barely pack into a snowball, if it’s wet it will pack easily into a snowball. Wax skis are most often used in the first half of winter when temperatures are consistently cold.
Wax skis are great in dry powder conditions because they glide on the gentle uphill sections, and they are fast on the downhills. Wax skis generally require good uphill technique that includes standing tall while looking up with excellent posture, and actively using your poles in a rhythm. Wax skis are fast and thrilling on the downhill, and anybody who’s ever zipped down a single track trail whizzing past trees on cross-country skis can assure you that total control on cross-country skis is rarely attained.
Now enter the realm of no-wax skis. The term no-wax is a misnomer because of course you want to apply glide wax to the non-fishscaled areas near the tips and tails. These are the glide-zones. The middle area of a cross-country ski base where the fishscales are is the kick-zone, and this is the part that gives you grip for the uphill sections. Often the disadvantage of no-wax skis is too much grip. They are slow on both the uphills and the downhills because the fishscales create drag.
No-wax skis are best used on icy trails, say after it hasn’t snowed for a while, and the snow has gone through a melt-freeze cycle. No wax skis are also handy in fresh snow conditions that are above freezing especially in the warmer months of spring skiing. Warm snow is wet, and the water adds lubricant that makes it harder to grip.
Wax skis are tricky to kick-wax perfectly in mixed conditions of sun and shade, because they are too slick in the sun, and too sticky in the shade. These conditions are precisely what give wax skis a reputation for being finicky. Wax skis are for purists who demand unimpeded glide, and would gladly take extra time fiddling around with special wax combinations. No-wax skis are no-brainers, but offer less of a thrill all around. No wax skis are ideal for beginners because they offer more control.
Now that you’ve decided which pair of skis to unload off of your ski rack, it’s time to hit the trail with a friend, a loved one, or a child on your back. Feel the clean air boost your spirit. Gaze out at inspiring vistas of jagged peaks and faraway glades. Hear the birds chattering in the backdrop, and the wind whispering through the treetops. Feel the exhilaration of gliding down a peaceful forest trail and experiencing a calming connection with nature.
CHOOSE A CROSS-COUNTRY SKI TRAIL in the White River National Forest
Easy- The Homestake Valley is located about 2 miles south of Red Cliff off of Highway 24. Majestic high peaks surround the wide-open glacial valley. The trail is a snowed-in road that is mostly flat with some very gentle uphills and downhills. It is the perfect place to learn or cruise on scenic flats. The road goes ten miles in, so long or shorter out and back tours are available. Elk, coyote, snowshoe hare, weasels and golden eagles frequent this quiet mountain valley.
Moderate- No Name Road is approximately 1 mile beyond the Homestake Valley, also located on the right side of the road. A lonely stop sign at the junction with Highway 24 and a wide pull out is all that marks the entrance to the road. This snowed-in road offers a gentle uphill climb winding through pine, spruce, fir and aspen, and then a long easy cruising downhill the whole way back. The climb is for the first six miles, then the terrain rolls with views of majestic Holy Cross Wilderness Peaks.
More Difficult- The Mitchell Creek Loop is located at Tennessee Pass about 30 minutes south of Minturn off of Highway 24. A wonderful but challenging seven-mile loop skiing both sides of the continental divide at Tennessee Pass awaits athletic skiers. The single-track loop trail can be skied in either direction, but I prefer to ski it clockwise because it sets up a long thrilling powdery downhill through open pines and meadows. Shorter out and back tours are also possible on either side of the parking lot. Additional shorter but thrilling loops are possible on the Treeline and Powderhound Loops.