Skinny-ski jibber at Tahoe Donner. Photo by Mark Nadell

Skinny-ski jibber at Tahoe Donner. Photo by Mark Nadell

Preconceptions of XC go downhill fast once gravity junkies try skate skiing

By Tim Hauserman

Cross-country ski instructors began to notice it about five years ago, and now it’s a full on trend: Downhill skiers taking up skate skiing. Some downhillers only skate when the powder is tracked out, others have made the switch to skate skiing every day.

Tahoe City local Vicki Kahn has been downhill skiing for decades. Ten years ago she tried skate skiing. “Initially it was a time factor. You can get a great workout in just an hour and still get to work by 9 a.m.”

Soon she fell in love with the sport, finding that gliding over the snow was a natural high. Now she has found that having both sports in her repertoire is a perfect combination. When the downhill skiing is hard and icy, the skating conditions are excellent. On a bluebird powder day the downhill is awesome, while the skate skiing is slow and punchy. “You can ski every day, just pick the right medium,” she says.

Superior Cross Training

For many it’s all about the exercise. Dean DeGidio, manager of the REI in Reno, grew up in Minnesota playing hockey. When he tried skate skiing he discovered it’s “a natural movement for me, because it’s like hockey. And it’s an incredible workout.” He bought a pass to Tahoe Donner Cross Country and now frequently ventures down into Euer Valley, enjoying the gentle gliding through the meadows, followed by the grueling climb back out.

After a year of skiing Tahoe Donner regularly, “I was in the best shape I have ever been. It’s also a little easier on the body than my other winter sport, tele skiing. I feel less beat up after a day of skate skiing.”

DeGidio is an avid cyclist as well and he has been encouraging his cyclist friends to try skate skiing. Elite athletes such as three-time Tour De France winner Greg Lemond are big advocates of the strength and cardio gains that can be made through skate skiing. Many runners and cyclists find it provides them the opportunity to stay in top aerobic shape all year round, and is a lot more fun than running or cycling on wet or snowy roads. Truckee’s Katerina Nash, 31, a cyclist for Team Luna Chix and a three-time Olympian in cross-country skiing and mountain biking for her native Czech Republic, continues to podium on two wheels in pro mountain, road, and cyclocross races. In the offseason, she stays in top shape by charging up and down hills on her skate skis.

Less Hectic, More Fulfilling

Renee Rintala, an elementary school teacher in Incline Village, took up skate skiing about six years ago because her only option for downhill was on the weekends. “It was not a fun time to be at a ski resort. The whole crowd was not what I enjoy about outdoor activity. I like the wilderness. I don’t like having to deal with all the cool kids.”

One of the big selling points for her is that she can skate ski before and after school (which is made easier by Tahoe Cross Country’s policy of allowing season pass holders on the trail early in the morning). Skate skiing gives her a great workout, and provides “everything I love about Tahoe. No lift lines. Being out on the trail, enjoying the wildlife.”

Although she still relishes a good powder day, “often I just don’t want to fight the crowds. Everyone is all amped-up on a powder day. It makes me so much happier to not have to face it. Even on the busiest day at a cross-country center you are away from the crowds in 10 minutes.”

For families, the relaxing atmosphere of XC resorts are a big selling point. Endorphin junkies now raising kids find that cross country ski areas are a perfect fit for their lives, starting with the parking lot. As XC racer Adrian Tieslau, a father of three, says, “It’s two minutes from car to skiing in comfortable skate boots versus 20 minutes in clunkers.” And the low-key atmosphere of the lodges make them the perfect place to hang out. Taking your turns with the kids is easier when your spouse is only gone for an hour or two. And there are kid sleds that allow you to pull young children around the trails while they nap. In addition, Tahoe Cross Country and Kirkwood Cross Country consider the dog part of the family as well, allowing you to take them for a spin on several trails.

Take off the Heavy Training Wheels

While skate skiing can certainly be relaxing and serene, few downhillers know what an adrenaline rush it can be flying down a narrow, winding trail on a couple lightning-fast skinny sticks. And just like downhill, spills often come with the thrills. Anyone who’s ever witnessed the end of The Great Ski Race from Tahoe City to Truckee knows this.

Skate skiing can also make you a better alpine or tele skier, not only physically but technically. The lightweight skating gear provides hyper-sensitive feedback to body positioning, edge pressure, weighting imbalances, and other physical input that are not as easily assimilated when wearing stiff plastic boots locked on to fat alpine skis. You’ll learn the difference fine motor skill adjustments can make to your skiing quicker and with greater acuity. And when you do get back on your downhill rig after skate skiing, you’ll feel more invincible than ever.

In this way, and the fact that skate skiing conditions are often very good when downhill conditions are poor, skate skiing is the perfect complimentary sport for lift lovers.

Start with a Lesson

If you are someone who has been downhill skiing for decades and are now thinking of trying skate skiing, do yourself a favor – take a lesson. While expertise as an alpine or telemark skier will greatly aid your transition to skinny skis, it by no means is a direct or immediate transfer. A good instructor can teach you all the basics before you have a chance to develop bad habits. There are many nuances to propelling yourself efficiently up hill and dale that are difficult to pick up without instruction.

An important part of skating is pole technique. In skate skiing, different poling techniques are used like gears on a bike. If you are just learning and you are using a poling gear that is designed for the flats while you are going up a steep hill, you will quickly pay the price. I still remember my niece, who was just learning how to skate ski, complaining how hard it was to make it up hills. After watching her ski for five minutes, I quickly realized that she only knew how to use V2, a double-poling gear that is designed for the flats. Once I taught her the V1, a low-gear technique designed for going up hills, she was happy as a clam on ice, and now skis almost every day. All of the major cross-country ski areas provide skate skiing lessons and many offer free or low-priced skate ski clinics.

One good way to initiate yourself to cross-country skating is to take a day off from the lifts when conditions are less than prime. Downhill resorts such as Northstar-at-Tahoe, Kirkwood, Squaw Valley and Bear Valley make it easy because they all have their own cross-country centers in close proximity. Northstar’s XC center, in fact, is located directly adjacent to the downhill area at mid-mountain, making it easy to connect with kids and other family members who want to stick with the lifts.

Snowboarders on Skinny Skis?

Since downhill skiers have already spent time on skis, the transition to skate skiing for many is fairly seamless. But for those who have only snowboarded, it can be a trial.

“My first day was really hard,” says snowboarder Melissa Siig of Alpine Meadows. “I was the worst in the group. I was having a very hard time getting it, and I am used to being coordinated. As a snowboarder, skate skiing just wasn’t intuitive for me. I think for skiers they get the motion from skiing to the lift line. I went three times last year, the first time with an instructor. I did another lesson. Then by the third time I felt like I was getting it.” Now she thinks of it as a good alternative to snowboarding.

While she still likes to be on her board in the powder, with cross-country skiing, she says, there is “no fight for the freshies. You don’t have to beat someone to it.”

Tim Hauserman wrote “Cross-Country Skiing in the Sierra Nevada: The Best Resorts & Touring Centers in California and Nevada.” He has been teaching skate skiing at Tahoe Cross Country Ski Area for seven years but is still scratching his head trying to figure out a new approach that will work for snowboarders.