Snowshoe...cross country ski...skate ski...so many choices!
Winter in the mountains...for some, a snow-covered landscape brings chills and dread, for others, it brings excitement and new possibilities. Not only does a deep snowpack transform our magnificent mountains into an Ansel Adams photograph, but it can also diversify your outdoor aerobic opportunities. In my opinion, the best way to embrace and enjoy a long, hard winter is to adopt a snow sport. Instead of resenting the snow, you’ll begin to appreciate each storm as it refreshes and enhances your recreational conditions. For me, winter sports allow me to cross-train and maintain great fitness while recruiting a different set of muscle groups.
Unlike the Northern Rockies, the Southern San Juan Mountains may be the calmest, snowiest, sunniest location in the world. How is that possible? Our storms tend to be large yet infrequent, which means we can enjoy our sun-drenched snowpack with hardly any windchill! I’m always amazed at how easily I sweat and shed layers in our warm, windless, winter sun.
For good reason, downhill skiing is often most associated with winter sports. There’s nothing like snorkeling through deep powder at Wolf Creek, but for me, the lift ticket, gear, travel time, and travel cost add up quickly. Ironically, the carbon-based energy requirements of traveling to and operating a ski resort imperil the industry’s existence. And although downhill skiing tires my quads, riding up a lift doesn’t improve my aerobic fitness.
Those lucky enough to live in the Southern San Juans have access to low cost, highly aerobic winter activities from our own backyard! But how do you choose whether to snowshoe, cross country ski, or skate ski? I will elaborate on the advantages and disadvantages of each snow sport using the criterion listed in the table below.
Snowshoeing was my first wintertime hobby because it’s the cheapest and requires the least amount of balance and technique. Snowshoeing merely requires you to exaggerate your stride and avoid stepping on your giant feet. Trekking poles can be used to provide emergency stability and recruit your upper body. Snowshoes are durable, maintenance-free and versatile because they don’t require a groomed path and work even on the steepest slopes. My sister prefers to snowshoe because she likes to feel in control instead of worrying about excessive acceleration or braking. However, traveling on snowshoes is inefficient and less aerobic than nordic skiing (cross country and skate skating). One important note on winter etiquette: snowshoers should stay off groomed paths since they can negatively impact the conditions for nordic skiers.
Eventually, I transitioned from snowshoes to cross country skiing, which for me is a more efficient and enjoyable way to travel. Cross country skiing (or classic skiing) requires more technique, but you can glide between each step allowing you to cover a greater distance with each stride. On the uphill, they are limited to gentle slopes and aren’t much faster than snowshoes, but you can double your speed and increase your fun on the descent by coasting all the way back down.
Compared to downhill skis, most cross country skis are skinnier, non-parabolic, and lack metal edges (however models that are wider, slightly shaped, metal-edged models are available). These differences make it easier to fall and harder to turn than downhill skis but you can minimize your chances of falling if you stick to a groomed path with set tracks.
Cross country skis come in 2 varieties: waxable and waxless. Waxable skis require the mastering the art of ski waxing and carrying a couple of types of wax in case the snow temperature or texture changes. Waxless skis require less maintenance but can clump up in warm, wet snow making them no more efficient than snowshoes. Both types of cross country skis need a base layer of wax to help them glide and this base layer may need refreshing a few times per season.
Cross country skis require special boots that fit into a variety of binding systems, but they are much cheaper than downhill boots and can be scored from local thrift stores. I’ve been skiing on thrift store skis since I first started.
Cross country skis are versatile in that you can explore the forest without having access to a groomed track, but that can mean you have to break your own trail. And unlike snowshoes, you can’t climb steep slopes easily. Before the Pagosa Nordic Club began grooming local trails, I would break my own trail through the forest and then turn around and follow my own tracks in reverse, which was a great way to experience some winter solitude.
If you’re just starting out, practice on a flat, groomed nordic trail that has set tracks, which help keep your skis parallel even on the turns. I’d recommend asking a friend to teach you the basics or take a lesson or two. The Pagosa Nordic Club offers free clinics several times per season. In the Pagosa Springs area, Cloman Park and the West Fork Nordic Track are great places to learn since they have long, flat sections.
Personally, my favorite outdoor activity is skate skiing! Out of all the aerobic sports that I’ve tried, skate skiing offers the greatest workout with the least impact on your body (unless you crash). I love trail running, but skate skiing is more efficient and activates more muscles than running without the pounding. After a season of skate skiing, my legs are stronger, my abs are firmer, my upper body is more toned, and my cardio fitness is better, which sets me up for a great trail running season once the snow melts.
The downsides to skate skiing is it’s difficult (technique and cardio-wise) and the least versatile because you can’t skate without a groomed trail. Skate skis are straight, skinny, and lack metal edges, which makes them difficult to balance and turn. Skate poles are longer than cross country poles (they should come up to your nose) in order to provide thrust well behind your center of mass, but they can get in the way because they are so long. Rather than keeping your skis parallel, you have to use a diagonal, ice skating motion, but it’s tougher than ice skating because you’re on plastic edges and you have to coordinate your ski motion with your poling motion all while maintaining good balance.
Skate skis need wax, but it provides no traction unlike the wax or tread on classic skis. As a result, the only way to move forward is to push your edges into the snow at an angle while pushing with your poles. At the ski area, most downhill skiers have employed the skating motion to travel short distances uphill and generally pick up the technique quicker than non-skiers. Lastly, it doesn’t make sense to pursue skate skiing unless there’s a frequently groomed nordic trail system nearby.
In summary, snowshoeing is the cheapest, easiest, and most versatile of the 3 winter activities, but it’s the least efficient and offers the lowest fitness benefits. Cross country skiing is also versatile, but it’s more efficient and recruits more muscle groups than snowshoeing. However, cross country skis requires a little more maintenance (wax) and more technique than snowshoes. Lastly, if you live near a groomed nordic track and want to master a challenging technique that will enable you to fly efficiently across the snow and while getting the ultimate full-body workout, then skate skiing is for you. Regardless of which activity you pursue, you may begin to embrace and enjoy our long, snowy (but sunny) winters a bit more.
Visit the Nordic Skiing section on my website for trail descriptions, maps, and photos (https://www.southsanjuans.info/nordic-ski). For grooming updates and social outings, visit the Pagosa Nordic Club (https://pagosanordic.com/).