As I’ve established in previous posts, backcountry Nordic skiing differs slightly from other types of XC skiing. In addition to having a separate style and equipment, the form must deal with different terrain. It is therefore essential to know how to address unexpected slopes and turns. You don’t need to hone your technique before heading out, but you should know the basics of how to deal with this type of terrain. Below, I have described the best methods (in my experience) for tackling level ground, uphill climbs, downhill slopes, and turns.
Level ground—Okay, this one is pretty easy. Most Nordic skiing is done on level ground—that’s why it’s called “cross-country.” On level ground, use the classic kick-and-glide. As one foot slides forward, push down with the opposite pole and kick forward with your back foot. Plant the opposite pole in front of you with each stride to retain balance, and work on keeping an even rhythm.
Uphill—If you encounter a steep uphill slope, try switchbacking instead of powering straight up. Never try to climb too steeply; most textured bases start to slip at just 15 degrees. Instead, put weight on your uphill edges to keep from backsliding. If the steep slope is short, utilize the “herringbone” step—with toes pointed out, put our weight on the inside edges and walk up. This should form a backward, downward-facing wedge with your skis, and the weight on your edges will prevent you from backsliding.
Downhill—If you’ve skied downhill on Nordic equipment, you know how necessary it is to have a game plan. Most newbies will assume they can attack a downhill slope as you might with alpine skis. However, the unattached heel means you won’t be able to turn and stop as easily. If you come across a downhill area, lean back slightly to keep your tips from diving under the snow’s surface. Assume an athletic stance with your feet shoulder-width apart. If the slope is very steep, step down while keeping your weight on the uphill edges. You can also “snowplow” as you would with alpine skis.
Turns—On gentle terrain, completely pick up your ski and put it down in the direction you want to go. If you are moving downhill, ease into a snowplow position and put additional weight on the outside ski. Move your skis back into the parallel position as soon as the turn is complete.
For some, okay for many, downhill runs and terrain parks are the best—if not the only kind of skiing. For thrills and technical expertise, they can’t be beat. But cross-country skiing has a ton going for it, too. Now, it’s easy to think there are two “camps,” cross-country vs. downhill, but pretty much every instance I can remember with friends and acquaintances, it’s more like a sibling rivalry—or even a lover’s quarrel. Now ski vs. snowboard…that’s a legit kerfuffle.
Me? I love it all, but I do think it’s cross-country skiing that gets my vote for most underrated thing you can do on skis and maybe the most underrated winter sport overall. The thing is, I’ve heard a lot of people talk about how cross-country skiing is a “full-body workout.” Okay, I’m not going dispute that cross-country is an amazing workout experience, but it’s not as though downhill can’t also be intense exercise to go with its thrills and lift rides. I will say, too, that I’ve never really understood the significance of a “full-body workout.” Golf is a full-body workout in the sense that it uses all your muscle groups, while simultaneously engaging your sense of balance. But a round of golf is not comparable to a day in the alpine backcountry on your skis and poles. It’s just an experience unlike any other. The quiet and the not so quiet. The solitude of the wilderness broken by the sight of wildlife, sometimes the terrifying sight of a mountain lion or an agitated moose. The conversation and social aspect of those who are with you on this adventure. The personal challenge of determining what you’re capable of. The initial excitement and novelty of getting dropped off by a snow-cat or heli-skiing. I’m an unabashed Nordic Nerd.
Cross-country skiing, for me, means exploring the western United States in a truly intimate way. There’s Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Utah, Oregon, Washington, and California. There’s also the question of personal safety. The occasional encounter with large alpine fauna notwithstanding, serious downhill skiing can be hazardous to your health. Whether you’re a youth telling your friends to “Watch this!” or you’ve become increasingly susceptible to strains and sprains over the years, you never know when you’re going to get a serious injury. Who follows best practices all the time? All right, fine, I admit the prospect of turning out a knee or seriously throwing out my back could get dicey pretty quickly, but it hasn’t happened yet. I mention it, too, because I’ve been going on more and more overnight backcountry ski trips.
Look, I can do the mountain resort experience with the fine dining and hot tubs in your private room and bar scenes with live music and strong drinks. But I also love roughing it and don’t need every meal to taste like someone sacrificed a piece of their soul to make it. Plus, there’s nothing like getting back to the lodge after a long backcountry ski trip. I guess, it’s kind of like my version of a soft masochism in which the focus isn’t just aimless flagellation so much as the relief that comes after the pain is over. It’s kind of a cure or at least a treatment for the claustrophobia I feel when I’ve been on the same mountain or terrain park for too long. Skiing has always been getting to the next horizon for me, and it’s true literally even more so than figuratively.