By Seth Lightcap / Photo by Chris Cox

Light & Fast in the Great Ungroomed

Cross-Country (kros’ kun’tre)
Abbr. XC or X-C, adj.
Moving or directed across open country rather than following tracks, roads, or runs.
Somewhere in the last 50 years of ski history the term “cross-country skiing” has become a bit of a misnomer. Originally defined as an efficient means of moving across untracked expanses of snowy wilderness, a vast majority of today’s cross-country ski enthusiasts now rarely leave the confines of a groomed trail.

This redefinition of cross-country (XC) skiing is the result of a popularity shift from using skis as a means of transportation and exploration to a means of exercise and competitive sport. Ever since the first track machines debuted at the 1960 Squaw Valley Olympics, trail grooming has become a vital facet of good skiing for many cross-country skiers. The manicured trails allow for greater efficiency, more consistent technique, and hence, a more thorough or enjoyable workout mile for mile.

But not all XC skiers have abandoned the Nordic roots that originally defined the sport and its equipment. Empowered by the performance of light and agile skis and focused on wilderness exploration, select skiers still pilot their slim XC skis across untracked winter landscapes just like the Scandinavian ski pioneers did 4500 years ago.

Despite fulfilling the “cross country” definition, this resurging niche in an otherwise trail-dominated sport is commonly known as “nordic backcountry” skiing, or sometimes “cross-country downhill” or “lightweight backcountry.”

Regardless of the terminology, you’re probably wondering … How is this form of skiing any different from telemark or randonee/alpine touring, which are also popular backcountry touring styles based on the nordic free-heel tradition?

The difference is in the equipment and the attitude.

Modern nordic backcountry skis are lightweight, shaped to varying degrees (more shape for greater turning prowess, less for greater touring proficiency) and usually equipped with metal edges and a waxless “fishscale” climbing surface underfoot (particularly in the West, where wildly variable snowpack temperatures make choosing the right grip wax near impossible most days). Imagine a cross between a classic fiberglass XC ski and a downhill shaped ski and you have about the right image. Typically skis are mid-length, ranging from 160 cm to 190 cm.

Standard bindings are robust versions of trail XC bindings (i.e. Rottefella NNN-BC or Salomon SNS-BC) or lightweight telemark (the venerable 3-pin or lightweight cable bindings) or alpine touring bindings (such as those by Dynafit). The ideal boots are high top, natural or synthetic leather with stabilizing straps for ankle support. For more demanding conditions, some skiers choose light plastic boots (such as the Garmont Excursion).

Nordic backcountry ski gear is purpose built for greater speed over rolling terrain. The integrated climbing system and full metal edges allow the skier to skate when the snow is smooth, herringbone and sidestep when the route climbs, and descend with as much confidence as they have technique and reckless bravado.

Nordic backcountry skiers take the light and fast ethic to heart. While the minimalist boots and bindings sacrifice some downhill performance when compared to tele or AT, the weight savings exact a lighter toll with every ski stride. For frugal endurance skiers, this is like energy in the bank. The extra power and the faster up/down transitions allow for ambitious distances to be covered in a day’s journey. Witness a skier gracefully skating up a Sierra valley in half the time it would take a tele skier with climbing skins, and the discipline immediately entices adventurous souls.

California skiers have always been particularly adept at this ski style as the Sierra provides two favorable ingredients for good lightweight touring: the legendary spring corn snow provides an ideally smooth surface, edgeable even on the skinniest of skis, and the rolling drainages and lake basins between the high passes make for moderate climbing and descending.

One of the best-loved Sierra drainages for nordic backcountry skiing is Rock Creek Canyon. Home of the rustic Rock Creek Winter Lodge, this alpine oasis above the Owens Valley has groomed trails that merely flirt with the first few miles of the canyon. Beyond the trails lie miles of interconnected lake basins. The lakes freeze solid allowing skiers to skate lake to lake with just short climbs in between. Other well-known Sierra touring locations include Mammoth Lakes, Tioga Pass, Carson Pass and Donner Summit.

Pioneering Sierra skiers like Orland Bartholemew, Otto Steiner, and Norman Clyde were predecessors to the style as they all ventured out in the high country on wood touring skis. The modern era of nordic backcountry tradition was defined with the introduction of fiberglass skis, however, as Sierra skiers like Doug Robinson, Dave Beck, and Peter Mayfield ignored the latest downhill specific touring equipment in favor of racing out on epic day trips with lightweight XC skis. When conditions were right, they would blitz trans-Sierra routes in less than half the time typically required. In February 1995, Mayfield, a Berkeley native and noted climber and XC instructor/racer, saw the perfect snow window and skied from Yosemite to Mammoth in 38 hours on ultra-lightweight skating gear. (Editor’s Note: Look for an account of his adventure in the March/April issue of ASJ.)

In recent years, the Sierra’s light and fast backcountry practitioners have made their mark on the world ski market. The best known of the modern nordic backcountry ski lines, the Fischer S-Bound series, was designed based on the needs of avid Sierra ski testers and guides.

The latest nordic backcountry ski designs meld the best of downhill and XC racing technologies into one hybrid ski. In addition to Fischer, major ski manufacturers include Atomic, Karhu and Rossignol. Preferred ski choice varies based on the terrain you expect to encounter, your skill level, and your budget. Some skis are geared for mixed on/off trail use while others are designed strictly for off-track escapades.

There are not nearly as many binding or boot choices as there are ski choices but the current offerings are good. Both industry-standard XC binding designs, the Salomon SNS and the Rottefella NNN, offer beefed-up backcountry versions and companies such as Fischer, Alpina, and Salomon make compatible boots. Skiers looking to ski steeper terrain or the wider versions of these skis should consider classic three-pin or light cable telemark bindings, or a Dynafit alpine touring binding.

With countless gorgeous ski tours in the Sierra and beyond, and limited snow time to explore them, it’s only logical to want to cover as much terrain as you can in an efficient manner. Nordic backcountry skiing embraces this quest for endurance and exploration like no other ski discipline ever has. If you yearn to leave the trails and tracks behind, or lighten the load on your already backcountry-savvy ski legs, test out a pair of the new nordic backcountry skis this winter.