Man does not live by downhill alone. Well, that’s not entirely true — I have friends who worship at the altar of the alpine gods. But by doing so, they ignore the very origins of the sport. Nordic skiing — or cross-country, to many folks — was the first way men and women went gliding over the snow, the natural evolution from snowshoes.
Ski lifts — from rope tows to chairlifts to gondolas — changed all that. With the mechanical assist up the hill, skiers could become downhill junkies, content to let the natural law of gravity work it’s magic. But there’s also magic in gliding along open fields or through forest trails on a pair of skinny skis.
Marianne Borowski has been skiing the tracks of northern New Hampshire, including Bear Notch Ski Touring, Bretton Woods Nordic Center, Great Glen Trails and Jackson Ski Touring Foundation, since 2003. She taught at Jackson for six years, and was the ski school director for three.
New England Ski Journal: In general, what are the biggest advantages of nordic skiing, both traditional and skating?
Marianne Borowski: Excellent all-over-body exercise. Everything hurts after a good day on cross-country skis. It’s that “good hurt,” the feeling that you have moved and accomplished a big achievement. Perhaps it’s that every muscle feels like it’s been utilized. You feel little muscles never felt before, likely the muscles used for balance. Skate skiing is the best overall exercise that I know. It’s more aerobic than biking. Both the upper and lower body is working hard, even for those like myself who are not racers. It’s an excellent way to stay in shape, or get in better shape, over the winter.
NESJ: In layman’s terms, how would you describe the differences between the two disciplines? Do they require different equipment? And, if so, which discipline do you recommend that beginners start with?
Borowski: Classic skiing is very easy to learn. It has a very forgiving learning curve at the start. But, to get really good at it, to perfect the technique for efficiency and speed, is hard, with a much steeper learning curve. Skate skiing is just the opposite. It has a very steep leaning curve at the beginning. Then once you start to get it, you begin to really move and you progress exponentially. Classic skiing can be done on the groomed trails or in the backcountry, making your own tracks. You can travel on narrow hiking trials or in wide-open fields. You can travel through shallow or deep snow, though deep snow may be more of an effort, but that’s why you bring friends to share the effort of breaking trail. Skate skiing is very different. The technique cannot be done in deep snow. Even a few inches of fresh wet heavy snow is going to make the gliding more difficult or impossible. Skating requires a wide groomed surface, or “platform.” You can classic ski pretty much anywhere in any snow, but skate skiing is more limited. Therefore, you should have both — or many — types of skis in the quiver.
NESJ: What are the biggest challenges of nordic skiing for the uninitiated? How sharp is the learning curve? Would you recommend “groomed” terrain for beginners? Or are local, untracked trails just fine?
Borowski: Balance, sliding forward, and going up and down hills. Groomed terrain for beginners and a lesson is the best way to start. There are some very easy things to learn from an instructor that will just make your day on cross-country skis go much better. Just little “tricks,” like how to efficiently glide forward on the skis, five different ways to go up a hill, five different ways to get down a hill. Basic things like how to get the skis on and off, how to get up after a fall. Those things may seem simple, but when confronted with these long skinny skis, it’s useful to see how it’s done.
A one-hour lesson is all you need to get out there on easy terrain and have a great time. Another lesson that focuses on going up and down hills is then the best next step. Groomed terrain helps the beginner because the tracks keep the skier going forward, with no sliding out to the sides. That’s one less dimension to deal with. They work like railroad tracks, keeping the skier “on track.” For skate skiing, the smooth platform is absolutely essential in order to learn the technique.
NESJ: What are the typical “fears” of first-time nordic skiers?
Borowski: Everyone is afraid of falling. Therefore, a lesson is good to learn how to stay upright. The older we get, the more it hurts when we fall, so technique is even more important. I found that students who had never ever been on skis before, but were either dancers, runners, ice skaters — figure and hockey — or yoga practitioners were very quick to learn the classic technique. They had the balance and body awareness that set them up well for classic skiing, and were sliding and gliding right away. I would always suggest that first-timers learn classic skiing before attempting skate skiing. The skills for going downhills is essentially the same for both. The learning bar is so much lower for classic skiing, and a student can get right out and enjoy the trails.
Skate skiing is tough for a beginner, even if they’re a good classic skier. It’s not typical for a first time skate ski student to stay on the skate skis for more that just the lesson or for a few laps around the golf course before getting tired out. It takes awhile to develop the efficiency required for an enjoyable time out on skate skis. I always recommended a lot of practice.
NESJ: Are there any enduring misconceptions that you’ve heard about nordic skiing that you’d like to dispel?
Borowski: It’s not hard. It’s not always grunting up endless hills. It’s not necessary to be fast or look like a racer. You don’t have to wear a skinny one-piece sausage suit like the racers wear. You don’t need fancy expensive equipment. You don’t have to wax most skis other than to put some glide on then to keep them moving smoothly and keep them from sticking.
NESJ: How does the sport “change” depending on the weather and snow conditions? Is there a better discipline for a variety of conditions, including wet snow, powder and ice?
Borowski: Yes, it can change. Fresh cold powder is slow and quiet. Frozen snow after a rain event can be icy, fast and treacherous. This is all just like alpine skiing, where every day on the snow is decent depending on temperature, fresh or old snow, type of snow, groomed or ungroomed, or having snow worn away or “skied off” by many skiers.
NESJ: What are the best “off-snow” exercises that you’d recommend for people so they hit the trails in the best shape? Given the cardio commitment of the sport, how important is it to come “prepared” to maximize your fun?
Borowski: Biking, hiking, walking. Do hills. Balance exercises, balancing on one foot or the other, and core exercises. Arm exercises are good for poling efficiency.
NESJ: How important is the proper clothing and gear in making sure the experience on the trails is a good one? Can you comment on the importance of layers, and the type of gear that you’d recommend?
Borowski: There is never bad weather; just bad clothing. My typical attire for a day out in 20 to 30 degrees is a lightweight hat, neck warmer, long underwear. Lightweight windproof stretchy pants, a warmer second layer on top, and a lightweight wind- and wet-resistant jacket that is stretchy and allows for good arm movement. A small fanny pack is good for carrying snacks or lunch, wax, scraper, sunscreen, water or hot beverage, extra layer or a place to store a layer that had been removed. If colder, I add a heavier hat and a balaclava to cover my face. Thicker long underwear layers, and thicker windproof stretchy pants and jacket. In warm spring weather there is nothing better than to ski in lighter-weight clothing, especially a T-shirt.
NESJ: What should cross-country skiers look for when planning a trip north to a nordic-specific trail network? Quality of grooming? Rental fleet? Lodge? Instruction?
Borowski: All of the above, most likely, particularly for the first-timers or the once-a-year vacationers. They’ll want groomed terrain and rentals, and need to take a lesson first thing. For beginners or casual skiers, the number of kilometers is not as important, it is more about having good conditions for an enjoyable day out on the snow. Having a fair amount of easy terrain will be important, not just a short easy loop in a field or on a golf course. Lodging and restaurants on the trail or close by makes for a nice long-weekend getaway. For more accomplished skiers, the variety of terrain and the distance will be important, while rentals and lessons and very gentle beginner terrain really isn’t. An advantage of skiing in the White Mountains area is that there are many different cross-country ski areas quite close together, allowing for a good variety of terrain and vibe at each area to enjoy.