Downhill skiing is rock ‘n’ roll. Nordic skiing is its acoustic cousin.
Nordic is all about solitude and serenity, in contrast to the hustle and bustle of downhill ski areas. Cross country entails pleasant, rhythmic exercise that can range from relaxing to strenuous, while delivering whole-body strength and aerobic health benefits without high impact on joints. And it burns lots of calories, too.
It’s affordable, with passes and equipment priced at a fraction of those for downhill skiing. In fact, a daily trail pass at most Colorado cross country areas this winter will cost you what downhill areas were charging for daily lift tickets 30 years ago.
Those are just some of the advantages of cross country skiing. And if you’ve considered taking up the sport, this might be the year to give it a try, given the COVID-19 concerns hanging over downhill resorts.
Downhill ski areas mean crowds (even with COVID restrictions), lines to get on lifts and the requirement of reservations at some resorts to ski or park. You won’t find any of that at Nordic centers (except the Eldora Nordic Center, which will require reservations for parking in the lot it shares with the Eldora downhill complex).
“Some people say you feel closer to your environment when you are cross country skiing, you’re closer to nature and you can appreciate that,” said Eldora Nordic Center director Nancy Billings-Colton. “Therefore it kind of relieves stress, kind of helps people reboot, especially when we’ve had a lot of stressors in this last year.”
And don’t forget “the beauty of the motion,” as longtime Keystone Nordic Center director Jana Hlavaty thinks of kicking and gliding, mantra-like, in a place set apart for peace and quiet.
“I don’t have to talk to anybody, I can just be here alone,” said Hlavaty, 79, a former Olympic cross country racer who has been at Keystone for more than 40 years. “There is no WiFi, but I feel connected with all my wonderful mountains. It empowers you, in the absolute meaning of the word.”
Usually there is no sound except the whisper of your skis on the trail and the huff-and-puff of your breathing. Maybe the pounding of your heart, too, if you like to push yourself. But it’s up to you.
“What I love about it is, you can go out and just cruise around and enjoy being outside, or you can go a little bit harder, push it, and it’s a nice workout,” said Billings-Colton, who has been at Eldora for 23 years. “You can get a great workout in 45 minutes to an hour, or you can kind of dial it back and go out for an all-day ski.”
You can learn the traditional kick-and-glide “diagonal stride” technique in the controlled environment of a Nordic center and then graduate to the backcountry, if that interests you. There’s also a form of cross country known as freestyle or “skate skiing” that differs from the traditional “classic” kick-and-glide.
Here is the basic information you need to get started.
Most Colorado Nordic centers will be charging $18 to $25 this year for a daily trail pass. Through the Colorado Cross Country Ski Association, you can get a punch card for $150 that is good for two visits at each of nine Colorado Nordic centers, which works out to a little more than $8 per visit if you use all your punches. If you recruit friends to buy punch cards, they get $30 off their passes, and you can earn extra free days.
Equipment rental is likely to cost you $20 to $30 a day, and a beginner lesson will cost you $35 to $45. Most areas have package deals for combining all three. At the Breckenridge Nordic Center, for example, a lesson, equipment rental and a day pass this winter will cost you $93.
If you decide you like the sport and want to buy your own equipment, a full set-up of skis, bindings, boots and poles will cost $325 to $450. You could easily spend more than that just for a pair of downhill skis or boots. Nordic gear is much lighter than alpine gear, and a lot more comfortable, too.
When you get to the trails, you will find that they are regularly groomed, which has two purposes. Groomers not only break up ice that may have formed on the trail and smooth the surface, but they also put down tracks that are set about 8 inches apart and are designed to help you keep your skis parallel, especially while you’re learning. It doesn’t take long to learn how to shuffle along on level ground, but you’ll need instruction and practice to step out of the groove with one ski or the other to feather it out and control your speed on descents.
“How do I descend any kind of a little downhill? How do I go down if there are tracks? How do I put one ski in a track and the other ski out of the tracks doing the braking wedge or so-called snowplow? That’s what every beginning lesson teaches,” Hlavaty said.
How long does it take to learn? That, of course, depends on the person.
“I’ve been playing tennis for 50 years and I’m still bad; it’s just not my sport,” said Hlavaty, a native of the former Czechoslovakia who competed in cross country at the 1976 Olympics for the United States. “A reasonable goal would be, take your first lesson, and in the afternoon you ski a three- to four-kilometer loop (two to three miles) on very simple rolling terrain. That’s a good accomplishment.
“You gain a little more confidence that you can do it. Some people go twice around (that loop). Usually that’s a pretty good workout.
“Don’t forget, cross country skiing is burning about 650 calories a day. I think a beginner is probably burning over 1,000, he’s using muscles even in his eyeballs because it’s difficult for him. But it’s a great exercise. If you don’t feel tired the first day, you didn’t do it right.”
While Nordic centers draw far fewer visitors than downhill areas, they also have had to develop COVID-19 plans.
“None of them have a capacity limit,” said Cassidi Peterson, spokesperson for the Colorado Cross Country Ski Association. “There’s not a limit on how many people they can accommodate, because they have so much open terrain. The majority are doing drive-up window scenarios to get your trail passes. In some cases, it’s all hands-free.
“Some Nordic centers have bar codes you scan with your phone. From a food perspective, there’s grab-and-go at some resorts, but they highly encourage folks to pack their own lunches.”
There is one thing cross country skiers may miss this winter in counties where indoor gatherings are restricted or prohibited due to the pandemic. One of the sweetest aspects of the cross country experience is sitting by a fireplace in a rustic Nordic center, sipping hot cocoa or cider while savoring the pink-cheeked afterglow of an exhilarating workout in the woods.
Alas, this winter we may have to do without that, but the trails will still make our souls sing.