You're kicking and gliding, you're in the zone. At 21 degrees, you're downright hot. Peel off another layer. Stop. Look up at the clear sky, smell the sweet air. Feel as if you are the first person to discover this spot, this view, this exhilarating aloneness. Take off your skis (no big production); walk, sit, hear yourself think.
This is the "country" in cross-country skiing — pure-driven, wilderness solitude — and a prime reason why it's one of the fastest growing sports in the nation.
Cross-country used to be about braving that wilderness without markers, maps and groomed trails. To get deep into the backcountry, a skier had to carry a pack and be prepared to spend the night in the snow or a rustic hut. Today, though, the cross-country experience is being tamed, tracked and civilized. There are more than 350 resorts in the U.S. and Canada that offer lessons, guides and just about any level of comfort and safety a skier could hope for. The packaging of serenity is winning new recruits, but is the traditional experience losing its spontaneity and sense of adventure in the process?
Jane Dulaney, a former Wisconsin cowgirl who got sick of fracturing various bones in hard-to-reach places doing downhill, is a guide and marketing manager at the Royal Gorge cross-country resort in Soda Springs, Calif. She says it all boils down to degrees of serenity. The greater the risk, the higher the payoff. "I have spent a lifetime acquiring the skills I need to risk my own life and limb," she explains. "Being in the backcountry alone is invigorating and scary and empowering."
These days for Dulaney, though, the raw and unknown have been replaced by the more predictable backcountry of Royal Gorge which, with 205 miles of groomed trails, is the largest cross-country ski resort in the world. And when they say resort, they mean it. In the hand-hewn stone lodge, French cuisine and wines are served. Vintage posters of Gstaad, Arosa and Mont Blanc, saunas and hot tubs add to the feeling of comfort and elegance. The only risk here is overeating your way to a Maalox moment. Every night the trails are scoured for stragglers. "It may be a managed, contrived experience," notes Dulaney, "but it gives people a glimmer of the wilderness experience."
Royal Gorge is the most elaborate response to the growing market for less-crazed mountain playgrounds, lower-impact exercise and the solitude of powdery wilderness. Gene Foley, chairman of the Cross-Country Ski Assn., which promotes skiing on groomed trails, says there are 210 exclusively cross-country resorts in his group. Many are expanding their offerings, from state-of-the art equipment to spa facilities. But here is where free enterprise gets tangled up in itself. Skiers want serenity and a cheap way into the winter wilds, so someone had better package it up and sell it to them, even if commodifying it dilutes the very qualities sought. And even if marketing something anyone can do at no cost is akin to selling breathing.
Chasing solitude with a bunch of other resort guests doesn't add up for Lisa Paak, 47, who has been skiing the Southwest for 30 years. "Resort skiing requires interaction with people," she says. "If solitude is what you want, you won't get it at a resort."
For Gordon Henriksen, a telemark skier who lives in Durango, Colo., the packaging defeats one of the main purposes of cross-country skiing: self-reliance, which is among a host of skills not required by the groomed environment. He recalls an eight-hour traverse from one hut to the next through avalanche territory outside Telluride, Colo. "Because we were breaking trail through deep snow, we had to gauge who the strongest person was and, when that person was tired, we had to act like a team. It got dark before we got to the second hut, so we had to decide whether to bivouac or keep going. We had to be confident of our self-rescue skills." The traditional backcountry foray on skis, says Henriksen, requires everything from proper physical preparation and stamina to knowing how to pack and not overload yourself.
Yet even veteran wilderness hands will admit to the appeal of a less hard-core approach. Doug Kerr, a guide and instructor at the Mountaineering School in Yosemite, says some people just "want it a little more sugar-coated. I've slept in the snow. But as I get older, I want it a little sugar-coated too."
That's a sweet sound to the burgeoning cross-country resort industry, which has modeled itself after the downhill business. "We try to be as much like a downhill ski resort as possible," says Dulaney. Royal Gorge even boasts four chairlifts. But with adult all-day passes topping out at $26 and rental package rates of $18 a day, the cushiest cross-country experience is a whole lot cheaper than the cheapest downhill outing. The core attraction, though, is its groomed track, the longest contiguous cross-country system in North America. The 20-foot-wide trails are groomed each morning at 5, carved by short metal skis attached to either a trail groomer or a snowmobile.
Although the downhill ski industry has flattened out at around 11 million skiers per year, cross-country, with 3.5 million devotees, is growing. That includes an assist from increasing numbers of snowshoers and no doubt more than a few refugees from the lift lines of overrun downhill resorts.
Dulaney believes that what's behind the boom is that more and more people just want to escape "the rat race" of downhill. "After 9/11 people are trying to experience something more down to earth," she says. Kerr's take is that people want to get away from "the machinery of life."
The baby boomer quest for ever-evolving fitness strategies has certainly added to the number of skiers looking for cardio and fat meltdown. Cross-country skiing burns more calories (700 per hour) than any other sport.
Up, over and down
On a crisp, blue morning with 2 feet of fresh powder, Tim Breay has flown from Minnesota to Royal Gorge to spend a quiet week training for various races. He's thin, middle-aged, athletic, and he's eating a whopping breakfast of French toast and you-name-it. In many ways, Breay is your typical cross-country skier for the 21st century. He's not a granola-munching tree-hugger, but he cares about the environment and his effect on it. He carries a huge duffle bag with equipment for every possible condition. And he is a self-confessed wax junkie.
"I don't spend money too much," he says, but he has been known to pay several hundred dollars for a vial (two applications) of fluorocarbons for his skis that will allow him to achieve maximum speed at temperatures above 25 degrees. Although waxless skis have been around since 1970, even the casual skier needs a boost or an added grip now and then. Breay doesn't care much about the myriad advances in the technology of cross-country clothing, but he does love his wax. "The point," he says, "is to go up and over the hill and then down."
As a competitive sport, cross-country has its glamour players (Bjorn Dahlie of Norway has won more gold medals than any other Olympic skier) and its scandals (Johann Muehlegg of Spain was expelled from the 2001 Olympics for doping).
But for most cross-country skiers, the real thrill lies elsewhere. It's about knowing that winter can't stop you from being outside. Not only is it environmentally more conscientious than downhill, it's also a local resource. California, particularly the Sierra Nevada, has some of the best cross-country conditions in the world, awarded the highest rating on the Ski Area Environmental Scorecard, created each year by the Western Ski Area Citizens Coalition, which rates ski areas inside and outside of national parks.
Packaged cross-country skiing doesn't always have valet service. To get to Yosemite's Glacier Point, you have to ski a hardy 10-plus miles from Badger Pass, half of them uphill. The skier has to carry water, changes of clothing and bedding in a backpack, though dinners are served and there are comfortable bunks and toilets (composting, no running water). It's close to a traditional cross-country traverse, except it requires a guide who knows winter safety procedures. Because it's in a national park, Glacier Point activities involve educating participants in the "leave no trace" philosophy. Skiers are encouraged not to make unnecessary trails off the groomed route and to leave nothing behind.
Badger Pass offers 90 miles of marked trails, 25 of them groomed. Only 17% of the millions of visitors to Yosemite each year arrive in winter. And for them, skiing is the only way to get to Glacier Point (7,214 feet), where Half Dome (8,842 feet), North Dome (7,542 feet), Clouds Rest (9,926 feet) and the Echo Peaks (11,000 feet and up) greet you in the morning, and you can hear Bridal Veil, Nevada and Yosemite falls roaring into the valley below. Sentinel Dome looms just behind the lodge. Around 900 people a year do this cross-country circuit, in groups of up to 20, with reservations that can be made a year in advance.
"It is thrilling to be here," says Dave Bengston, who runs the Mountaineering School at Yosemite, drinking hot chocolate by a wood stove in the lodge. "The thrill comes from the effort. And the effort gets you places that not many other people get to."
After dinner, cooked by a guide at the Nordic School (one who has carried her share of enormous packs and sometimes even exhausted skiers to Glacier Point) the skiers go out to the point on snowshoes and look down on the lights of Yosemite Village. The High Sierra loom behind Half Dome, which seems close enough to touch. The Clark Range stretches to the south and the Cathedral Range to the north. "This gets inside you in a way that nothing else can," says Bengston, who has done this trip dozens of times.
So which is better, backcountry skiing or the "groomed" experience? "I don't mean to make it sound macho," says Henriksen, the telemark skier. "But not everyone can climb El Capitan. That doesn't mean we should put a staircase up it. You don't want to sound elitist, but these things take work and skills that some people have devoted a lifetime to achieving."
But on the trail back to Badger Pass from Glacier Point, a lone skier can hear the various sounds her skis make: a musical strumming, guitar-like sound over hard snow and a shushing whisper over softer powder. A father and son rest by the trail, the son making a snow cave while his father heats tea on a Coleman stove. An elderly couple in woolens, no fleece and still using wooden skis, fly by. Three teenagers in T-shirts, young John Muirs in the glorious backcountry of California, stretch and struggle up a hill. "How far to Glacier Point?" they call out, not waiting for an answer.