By Dimity McDowell ||
After a couple days schussing through the downhill portion of a snowy mountain resort, facing long lift lines and crowded slopes, you may start wondering what’s beyond the groomed trails.
The answer: Plenty. A variety of snow sports give you more ways to enjoy the environment, so park your downhill skis and go exploring. Discover the backcountry on newly redesigned (and stable) cross-country skis, try a sledding adventure or get rejuvenated in the silence of the woods with a snowshoe outing. You’ll exit the mountain satisfied, with a full menu of snow experiences under your belt, both thrilling and serene. To help you optimize your time in the snow, we scoped out the best trends in snow sports this winter. Here’s what to look for.
Trail of Sighs
Cross-country skiing is still one of the best ways to get away from it all in the winter. At more than 390 Nordic centers in the United States and Canada, you can glide into the quiet woods, along frozen lakes, and enjoy the peaceful serenity of the winter landscape. While there is a thriving race scene dominated by speedy skate skiing, the traditional touring segment of this sport is booming. That may be one reason why Nordic centers saw a 23 percent increase in use last year. “There was a huge boom in skate skiing in the past 10 years, but now we’ve seen that even skate skiers enjoy traditional skiing. It’s a chance to slow down and enjoy your surroundings more,” says Michael Chiasson, manager of Salomon’s Nordic division.
One reason for the increase might be the new equipment that makes cross-country skiing just a bit easier for the new or sometime skier. For example, Salomon and Atomic took a cue from alpine ski designers and gave their cross-country boards a carved shape – roughly, the skis look like elongated hourglasses. The shape makes turning easier; shift your weight slightly and the ski turns itself. The heaviest part of the ski is in the front, so gaining speed isn’t a chore. Finally, these new shaped skis are also shorter, so you’ll feel a bit more coordinated executing every maneuver, from loading them on your car to turning 180 degrees.
Fischer, another major player, has gone the opposite direction and introduced a ski (and a new division of skis, called the Nordic Cruising line) that has a wider base under your foot, which promotes stability and increased grip, especially when climbing.
What it takes, physically: Because cross-country skiing involves your whole body, a decent level of fitness (working out three or four times a week) lets you extend your activity while moving at a decent clip, but even fitness beginners can tolerate a slower pace and shorter outings.
What it takes, mentally: Although classic skiing involves the same movement as walking, you need a little concentration and practice to get the mechanics down. Then it’s a breeze.
Where to find it: www.xcski.org offers locations of over 350 Nordic centers in the United States and Canada. For information on the latest skis, visit www.salomonsports.com, www.atomicsnow.com, www.fischerskis.com.
Out of Bounds
The idea of floating through fresh, ungroomed powder has always lured skiers. Most downhill skiers dream about heli-skiing, but at about $800 for five or six helicopter runs to the mountaintop, it’s a bit pricey. And there are only six heli-skiing operations in the lower 48. A less expensive and now widely available option is cat-skiing, which involves riding a snow cat up to untracked terrain. “Nearly every major resort has a cat-skiing operation near them,” says Kent Vertrees, office manager of and guide for Steamboat Powdercats, based in Steamboat Springs, Colo. Cat-skiing with Steamboat Powdercats is about $350 for 10 to 18 runs of about 2,000 vertical feet each.
If you’ve seen extreme backcountry skiing on videos and in ads, don’t be intimidated by the thought of fresh powder. Steamboat Powdercats separates people by ability, so novice powder skiers aren’t expected to keep up with experts. John Humphries, manager for Telluride Helitrax, in Telluride, Colo., echoes this. “We’re not out there to ski the steepest, gnarliest stuff,” he says. “We’re out there to powder ski and have a great time.”
What it takes, physically: At a minimum, the ability to ski at an upper intermediate level. Strong quads help, as your legs will burn after epic runs through the powder. Bring a Camelbak so you drink water throughout the day.
What it takes, mentally: Because guides will be there to lead you and provide instruction, you really just need concentration and the ability to have fun. Although operators will give you an avalanche beacon and not lead you into dangerous areas, having a basic knowledge of avalanche skills is a good idea.
Where to find it: For heli-skiing, check out www.heli-ski.com. There’s no organized cat-ski association in the United States currently; check on the Internet or with the ski area or town you’re visiting to see if there’s an operation nearby.
With snowshoeing currently enjoying its adolescent growth spurt, adding 3 million new participants from 1998 to 2003, you’ve probably already been on your maiden voyage. If not, what are you waiting for? Plus, there are plenty of reasons to go again, not the least of which is the activity’s peaceful, meditative nature.
Through Umiak Outfitters, in Stowe, Vt., you can stomp through the woods on land near the Ben and Jerry’s ice cream factory, then, afterward, indulge in some Chunky Monkey. If you want to view wildlife, or at least their tracks, there are a multitude of guided programs with naturalists, including tours in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park, Vermont’s Mad River Glen and Utah’s Solitude Canyon.
Guided moonlight hikes are also very popular at ski areas around the country: Umiak Outfitters offers one (complete with cheese and wine in a remote cabin), as well as Keystone in Colorado and Northstar in Lake Tahoe. (You can, of course, also hold your own moonlight snowshoe.)
For even more fun, join a group. If you’re a beginner, check out the Explore Winter Women’s Workshops, put on by Atlas Snow-Shoes, at 52 REI stores around the country. Or do a shuffle for charity by participating in the nationwide Tubbs Romp to Stomp Out Breast Cancer Snowshoe Series (choose from a 3K or 5K walk).
What it takes, physically: The ability to put one foot in front of the other, and a baseline level of fitness. It’s worth the effort: Snowshoeing burns 45 percent more calories than walking. A toned lower half helps navigate steeper terrain, as does a strong core. Poles aid balance and boost calorie burning.
What it takes, mentally: Being able to appreciate your surroundings. Easy enough. Speed demons should also prepare to slow down: This is not a rush-rush sport.
How to find it: Pretty much out your back door, if you live where the white stuff falls. For naturalist hikes, call the local chamber of commerce, ask at the local ski shop or, for the aforementioned tours, log onto www.umiak.com, www.nps.gov/romo, www.madriverglen.com or www.skisolitude.com. For clinics at REI stores, log onto www.rei.com or www.atlassnowshoes.com, which also lists other snowshoe events. For the Romp to Stomp Snowshoe Series, log onto www.tubbsromptostomp.com.
If you sledded as a kid, you probably remember the feeling of being simultaneously terrified and totally exhilarated. Adults can get that sensation again by airboarding. Introduced in Switzerland in 2002 and in the United States in 2003, Airboarding – riding an inflatable bodyboard made of extremely durable nylon – is “basically like ocean boogie boarding,” says Ann-Elise Emerson, president of Emo-Gear, importers of the Airboards.
Lying chest down, with your legs extended behind you and your hands gripping the handles, you turn by shifting your weight and directing the two runners, which provide edging capabilities, on the bottom of the sled. You stop by turning the board 90 degrees, just as with skis. Because it’s small and weighs only 6 pounds, it’s easy to tote in a backpack. So you can snowshoe up to some epic, quiet terrain, then fill the silence with screams of delight.
What it takes, physically: Not much, especially when you compare it to learning to ski. “Since you don’t fall, you pick it up a lot faster than anything you do on your feet,” says Emerson.
What it takes, mentally: Probably a little convincing, since (although it hasn’t been scientifically proven yet) the love of speed seems to decrease with age. Throw in a few turns, though, and you’ll slow yourself.
Where to find it: Keystone, Colo.; Northstar-at-Tahoe, Calif.; and Loon Mountain, N.H., are just three of the resorts that rent Airboards; log onto www.airboard.com to find more or purchase one ($269 for adult size, $149 for children).
If you live or vacation in snowy terrain that’s flat, there is a new way to rip around on boards. The sport is snowkiting, or flying along on skis or a snowboard harnessed to a kite. Frozen, snow-covered lakes, free of hindrances like power lines and trees, are the preferred setting for snowkiting, which has been a pastime in Europe for decades and recently migrated to the United States, where interest is growing. “I can’t quantify how many people do it,” says Rachael Miller, owner of Stormboarding in Vermont’s Lake Champlain Basin, “but I do know it’s grown exponentially.”
Snowkiting is significantly easier to master than its water-based cousin, kiteboarding, because struggling and sinking in the water isn’t an issue. Instead, you simply strap yourself into your skis or board (Miller recommends skis for the first-timer, because they’re easier to edge on the ice), a harness and a helmet, launch your kite and take off. “At the end of the third hour, people are well on their way to having it mastered,” says Miller.
What it takes, physically: Not much besides a healthy body, although good balance and a strong core help. Miller has taught everybody, from the complete novice to adrenaline junkies.
What it takes, mentally: “If you can figure out how to fly the kite,” says Miller, “you’re basically set.” Different size kites allow for varying ranges of speed, so if you’re not a full-velocity fiend, you can casually cruise along with a smaller kite.
Where to find it: Log onto the site for the Professional Air Sports Association, www.pasakiteboarding.org, to find a school or instructor; they had their first teacher training for snowkiting last winter.