P.S., Unusual Ski Race

Riley is travel columnist for Los Angeles magazine and a regular contributor to this section

Move over, Norway, and Wisconsin, too. Make room for the Palm Springs "Birkebeiner."

Coming up Sunday, March 3, is the first-time-ever "Ski Palm Springs" Cross-Country Ski Race.

This could be the beginning of the world's most unusual Birkebeiner, patterned after the classic cross-country ski race over the old Viking trail from Lillehammer to Rena in Norway.

Cable, Wis., introduced the American Birkebeiner in 1972, and it draws 8,000 cross-country skiers from around the world, plus spectators to book every available accommodation.

So why not a Palm Springs Birkebeiner as a visitor attraction?

But maybe we should first make clear that this isn't a bit of Miami humor to twit Palm Springs about the snow that powdered swimming pool covers during the most unusual cold spell of January.

That cold spell did enough to hurt what should have been the highest of high season tourism, without any jokes being made about it now that the weather has turned balmy again.

Spinoff Benefit

But the touch of real winter produced a spinoff benefit of sparkling white snowfields in Mt. San Jacinto State Park at the top of the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, 8,500 feet above the swimming pools of this desert spa.

The result has been to boom the year-by-year growth of interest in bringing cross-country skis as well as tennis rackets, swim gear and golf clubs on a winter weekend or vacation in and around Palm Springs.

This makes the timing perfect for the first ski race of what could well become an annual counterpart to the Bob Hope Golf Classic.

There will be two races on March 3, a 5K and a 10K. Terrain is available in this 13,000-acre state park, with its 54 miles of hiking trails, to expand the cross-country course into the 55-kilometer distance of a Birkebeiner.

Already the tram has quite literally become the No. 1 Palm Springs attraction this winter. When we rode up on the tram with cross-country skis on the sunlit warm-again Sunday of Feb. 10, we became part of the 2,300 riders for that day.

Our tram car, and every other one we saw start up the mountain, carried a capacity load of 80 passengers. Some brought their own skis; others rented skis, boots and poles from the Nordic Ski Center at the top, which also has gear for youngsters who just want to sit and slide gleefully down a small slope.

Skiers and Spectators

At the Birkebeiners in Norway and Wisconsin we have shared the snow with skiers and spectators from as far away as Japan, Australia and New Zealand. The base for such an international event has already been set at the Palm Springs Tram, which distributes free information leaflets to visitors printed in both English and Japanese.

Sharing our tram car was a tour group from Japan; four were dressed for cross-country skiing. Standing next to us beside the window was a young family from Frankfurt, West Germany; the wife and husband and their 9-year-old son. All would rent skis.

We traveled the nearly 6,000 feet of vertical rise, a cable span of 12,800 feet, in about 13 minutes. Looking ahead, we could have been ascending a canyon in the Swiss Alps. Behind and below us, small lakes sparkled on a golf course.

There has long been an awareness of cross-country skiing at the top of the tram, but the specifics are not yet known to most Palm Springs visitors.

Ski trails, as do the summer hiking trails, begin at the Long Valley Ranger Station a few hundred yards from the walkway that winds down the slope from the Upper Tramway Terminal. If you bring your own skis, you can begin on this slope.

We watched a perfectly executed telemark turn when we paused to snap a few photos about halfway down the walk. We also watched children throwing snowballs and clomping on snowshoes. Grandparents applauded their efforts.

Clearly Into Focus

Paradoxically, the snow-covered meadows and slopes brought a microcosm of Palm Springs in this winter of 1985 more clearly into focus than you could ever see it down on Palm Canyon Drive, on a tennis court or golf course, or around a pool. This isn't the elite tourism of the past or the mass tourism many in Palm Springs fear.

Many people from the Los Angeles area were among this international smorgasbord in the snow: young families and middle-aging families, grandparents who could still be nostalgic for the snows of yesteryear in the East and Midwest, just so they could descend from it to sun beside a pool.

There was affluence up here, but also enough budget consciousness to appreciate the values offered by an $8.95 round-trip tram ticket, or $4.95 for children 3 to 12. We met Canadians on the ski trails as well as visitors from Montana, Vermont and Texas.

We've been cross-country skiing up here for at least a dozen winters, but never have had such a feeling of being with the present and future of Palm Springs and the other desert communities.

The 5K and 10K cross-country ski races will begin at the Long Valley Ranger Station and start off on about a two-mile run into Round Valley, an altitude rise of only about 700 feet. From there, it's just a half-mile trek below Cornell Peak into Tamarack Valley.

It's an easy succession of trails, but a day-hike Wilderness Permit from the Ranger Station is required, and it's for your own safety. You state where you plan to ski, and if you don't return in time, a rescue team will look for you.

Also pick up a trail map at the Ranger Station, and a pamphlet on "Four Lines of Defense against Hypothermia," the point at which exposure and exhaustion can lead to shivering, collapse and death.

The weather this Sunday warmed to a gentle 35 degrees at 8,500 feet. This is pleasant for cross-country skiing, and we had put on some sun-screen lotion. But the park rangers don't want you to get careless with nature. There are special instructions for those who ski into the wilderness to camp overnight.

Another Good Value

If you don't bring your own skis, rentals at the Nordic Center are another good value: $12 for skis, boots and poles, and no trail fees.

There's not even an entry fee for the March 3 races. All you need to pay for is your tram ticket.

But entries for this first "Ski Palm Springs" event are limited to a field of 200. You have to certify that you've undergone a recent physical examination to assure that you can race at this altitude. Late entrants can register as late as race day by calling ahead to determine that there are still entry places available. Phone (619) 325-1449.

After racing or watching the race, the real trophy will be the joy of coming down the hill to plunge into a pool. But after our Sunday of cross-country skiing we didn't plunge immediately into our pool. This is a good time of the year to plant lemon trees, and we delayed our swim to plant our first lemon tree beside the pool.

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