[dropcap size=small]”C[/dropcap]ross-country skiing is the best all-around workout” said the headline. Taped to a sun-blasted wall in the Nordic center at Eldora ski area just outside of Nederland, Colorado, already fading from the high altitude sun, this article from Women’s Health caught my eye as I stood in an interminable line waiting to use the bathroom. I was about to begin skiing in the first of two skiing events at Eldora’s annual Chen Cup: the cross-country 5K race. I stepped in at the last minute to support a friend’s team – they needed at least one woman to race cross country and I was the only woman cross-country skier they knew.
Less than 48 hours earlier, I had stepped off of the final leg of a 51-hour, four airplane, five airport journey from Cape Town to Denver. I was so far past jetlag that my body had thrown up its metaphorical white flag. The terms of surrender: relatively normal circadian rhythms tempered by a tendency to lose focus and stare blankly at any moment. As a result, I stared at that article for at least two minutes without comprehending the meaning. Only as I was struggling to affix my race bib outside several minutes later did I finally understand.
Cross-country skiing is certainly an amazing workout. It passes my personal “how hard am I working?” test: it makes me sweat while I’m doing it and makes me sore when I’m done. With cross country, the sweat is intense (great for a cold weather sport as long as you keep moving) and the soreness is all over – legs, core, and arms. It also lacks the damaging impacts of running or alpine skiing. Even cross-country skiing at a slow pace appears as a “vigorous” – the top level – type of activity according to the American College of Sports Medicine and the American Heart Association.
Cross-country skiing is an offset of Nordic skiing, which includes any kind of ski where the heel is free from the binding. I could link you to thousands of hours of discussion about different ski bindings, but I’d rather not start a bindings war here. Let me just summarize by saying: if you’ve ever encountered the bumper sticker reading, “Free the Heel, Free the Mind,” that’s what it means. (This is most commonly found in the wild on the back of a beat-up 10-year-old Subaru with Colorado plates). The sticker is probably referring to telemark skiing (“teleing”), which is a different beast. The core idea is still there: stop locking your heels into your bindings and you will be free to explore the world of off-piste. Unlike most alpine skiing, teleing does not require an expensive lift ticket. Depending on your kit, you can cross-country ski anywhere with a few inches of snow. Some kits are better for backcountry (off track) while others are designed for skiing around groomed trails.
My skis are Rossignol BC70s, and they are specifically designed for back-country skiing. This means that they have metal edges (like alpine skis) to aid turning when going downhill. The bottom has a fish scale texture to provide traction for moving uphill. As such, I don’t do very well in races on groomed trails – in fact, I came in third from last in the Chen Cup. As I pulled up to the starting area, I ran into a friend of a friend who thought that they’d given me the wrong kit at the rental shop. I cheerfully acknowledged that I shouldn’t be running a backcountry setup for a race but that the skis belong to me and I love them so, well, what are you going to do? He, obviously more competitive than I, shook his head and moved on. I hung out alone and did some stretches. When the start gun went, I took off, hard, and was rapidly passed by hordes of racers on skate skis that did not have any texture on their undersides. When I came to the hills, I didn’t have to herring bone – but unfortunately that didn’t quite make up for lost time.
My skis work perfectly for what I wanted them for – backcountry traverses. Shortly after getting them, I went to Grand Mesa on the western slope of the Rockies with a friend who has the same set up. It was a bitterly cold day, well below zero degrees Fahrenheit, with a persistent wind. As we started to ski, it started to snow hard. About halfway through our loop the groomed trail had disappeared and was replaced by powder. My skis made the transition perfectly: the deepening powder presented no problem.
There are a few basic motions to cross country skiing. For going uphill, when the slope becomes so steep that your skis stop being able to move vertically up it, you turn them sideways and dig in their leading edge to form a maneuver called the herring bone – so named because of the pattern that the skis leave in the snow. For moving along flat areas, you do a glide, which involves dipping a knee and pushing. Going downhill, you frantically struggle to remain upright and often wind up face first in a snowdrift. Luckily for you, you’re almost certainly moving at such a low speed that it doesn’t hurt.
I won’t sugarcoat this: going downhill takes some practice. I’ve cross-country skied regularly for two winters and I am just now starting to feel that I have any control whatsoever over my downhill movement. The skis are long and narrow and often without edges, making them difficult to turn. They are very easy to cross. The first time I ever cross-country skied, it was late at night after a hearty meal at a mountain yurt. Skiing back, I fell so many times that I finally lay back exhausted in a drift, letting flakes fall on my face. I thought of how much nicer it would be to just lie there until I died instead of standing up and trying again. Like so many good things we can do outside, this one takes some work.
And it is certainly worth it – not just for the health benefits. Cross-country skiing’s true value – to me – lies in its ability to open the door to winter’s kingdom. I have spent most of my life in a place where winter can hold sway for eight or nine months of the year. A snowy landscape can seem treacherous and difficult to traverse – but with my skis, I can glide in near silence through forests, open plains, city parks, and mountain passes. I can carry a pack on my back and cover lots of ground quickly, travelling between huts or campsites; alternately (as I am sometimes lucky enough to do in Denver) I can ski to my local light rail station, take my skis on the train, and then ski across the golf course near my office to get to work. This beats relying on the deathly slow commuter bus when it is too snowy to ride my bike. Teaching my body to know how to work with these tools provides me with the “freedom of the hills.”
Jamie Anderson was born and raised in Colorado and has returned after spending most of her 20s in the UK. She is an avid skier (alpine, nordic, and learning tele), cyclist (both road and mountain), backpacker (all seasons), and rock climber. She particularly loves winter sports because winter is the greatest season and people who don’t prefer cold to heat are wrong. Her greatest outdoor accomplishments include kayaking across the width of Scotland from Fort William to Inverness, hiking the Drangajökull glacier in Iceland, completing a Class 3 climb of Mt. Sneffels in Colorado, and retrieving a whistle from a cup of jello without using hands in a time that destroyed all previous records during a combined bike/run/obstacle course race to raise money for Make a Wish Colorado.