We live in an area with easy access to the wonderful Sierra and four seasons of recreational opportunities. Right now the snow in the high country is attracting skiers, Alpine and Nordic, in record numbers.
Nordic skiers, otherwise known as cross country skiers, have miles of territory to explore. The entire cross country experience is as varied as those of us who strap on the skinny skis and head out for a day on the snow.
Speaking from personal experience of 30-plus years, there are three categories of cross country skiing.
One is not intrinsically better than another. Gear and experience is a bit different, depending on what you want to do and your capability. Snow is slippery stuff and takes some getting used to when any kind of skis are involved. Downhill skiing is very different than cross country.
Downhill skis are wider and shorter with bindings that lock your entire foot to the ski. Boots are rigid and made to fit the bindings.
Cross country skis are generally skinnier, a bit longer and the bindings lock only the toe of the boot to the ski. Ah, but wait — they can also be a bit wider, longer and have a binding that locks the whole foot down.
The boots vary from a low cut shoe, a pretty stiff over-the-ankle boot, to a very rigid boot that mimics a downhill boot. The bindings can be a three-pin style or a New Nordic Norm style. Each has a very different place in the world of cross country skiing.
There are three very different types of cross country skiing: groomed resorts, back country and Telemark.
Perhaps you’ve seen the advertisements for cross country skiing and heard the phrase “kick and glide.”
Sounds simple — just kick and glide and you move forward. It isn’t always that easy, especially in the back country. When you get the hang of kicking and gliding it’s a great experience. Stopping is much more important. That takes practice.
There are groomed trails, rentals, shelter, food and beverages, gear for sale and lessons for every skill level at cross country resorts (Kirkwood, Royal Gorge, Tahoe Cross Country). The gear generally includes skinny skis made for in-track skiing or skate skiing. Your heel will be free of the binding.
The instructors, whose goals are to get you moving, and stopping, on skinny skis are very good. If you are not a beginner you can learn about skate skiing in addition to the kick and glide method. When you are pretty comfortable on the skis the next step is learning Telemark turns. Learning that from a resort instructor is best. Falling is part of the process. I know.
Back country skiing is done in the forest. The over-the-ankle boots are heavier and sturdier, and the skis may be shorter and wider with metal edges.
There is just snow in the back country — no grooming, lodges or warming huts. It’s just you, your partner and the great white outdoors. The first ones out work harder as they break the trails. Kick and glide probably won’t be part of your day. Back country touring involves more work but is worth the extra effort. You may be the only one, or group, to see that part of the forest in winter — and you’re on your own. Be prepared.
Telemarkers ski pretty steep terrain. Their boots are rigid, more like downhill boots. Bindings lock the boot heel to the ski for easier turning but some Telemarkers prefer sking with their heels free. My success rate with Telemark is exactly zero, hence the familiarity with falling down.
Cross country skiing is a great way to spend a day on the snow, whether at a resort or in the back country. This is a good year to try it out.