What I Learned From 5 Days of Cross-Country Skiing
5 life lessons from one of the toughest sports out there.
Every year my husband and I take the week off between Christmas and New Year and go somewhere alone. Just the two of us. This is a big deal as we live surrounded by lots of people including my mother, grown kids in and out of the house, grandchildren, two dogs and three cats.
This year we decided to have an extremely active vacation and burn off a lot of energy so we chose to go to Buena Vista, CO and try something totally new for us: cross-country skiing. Believing we can face just about any challenge we figured we could handle this sport. I mean, how tough could it be?
Familiar with downhill skiing, but not cross-country skiing, we went to our local REI in Denver to get some tips and rented boots, skis and poles for the week. We were told to dress in layers because of the extreme workout you get on various terrain, and we got advice on the best pants for this endeavor (wind resistant in the front) and made that investment as well. The idea of being in the mountains working up a sweat sounded good to us both, not to mention being able to appreciate the beauty up close and together.
Feeling a bit giddy, and also feeling like we were somewhat prepared, we headed up to BV and went to a local outfitters store to pick up the book Skinny Skis and Snow Shoes, a trail guide for all levels of cross country skiers in this region. We readily admitted we were novices so we zeroed in on the trails that were best suited for our newbie abilities. Just in case we also asked and received three more recommendations and wrote them in the book. So we were ready. We thought.
Day One: How can I be in so much pain?
Armed with our gear and trail guide, we took off the next morning for our first adventure: Collegiate Peaks Campground. Stepping into the skis was the first order of business and that was our first clue that downhill and cross-country are not the same. There’s a red arrow at the top of the ski binding to show you where your boot should clip in. But when you’re new to these long, skinny skis you slide all over the place trying to position your boot in just the right place. Once we figured out how to snap into the skis we were pleasantly surprised at the ease a free heel offered us. We did watch several You Tube videos on cross-country skiing but obviously hadn’t paid attention to this detail. Oh well. Now that the skis were on, we tried to replicate the diagonal glide we had seen on those videos. I am so glad there was no one to witness this. Gliding isn’t exactly what we were doing, it was more like stuttering on these thin, long skis. Still within 30 minutes we remained mostly upright, kept moving and it dawned on us that we were really enjoying ourselves, and heating up. About that time all the layering advice we’d received hit home. Wow were we hot. We unzipped our jackets, unbuttoned our sweaters, blown away by how much energy we were exerting. Because you have to propel yourself with poles, you get an amazing upper-body and lower-body workout. But, oh, my hips and groin. I don’t recall any mention of pain like this. There are exercises I could have done prior to heading up here, I’m now told, but I hadn’t and now I was feeling the effects. This wasn’t just a burn, it was pretty excruciating even though I was fairly certain I hadn’t pulled a muscle.
After two hours of skiing through stunning, unspoiled terrain with only the occasional snowshoer or cross-country skier, we decided to call it a day. As I hobbled into the car, I wondered aloud if I’d walk again. OK, maybe that was a bit dramatic but I was that sore. I definitely had not expected to feel such pain. And at that moment I wondered out loud who thought up this crazy idea. Of course my husband reminded me. So I had to think. How do we push through or relieve this pain so we could reach our goal of skiing five days in a row?
That’s when we decided to drive only a few miles to soak in the Cottonwood Hot Springs, known for their medicinal and therapeutic value. They even tout that people come from all over the world to soak in the curative waters. That was our ticket.
Easing into these hot springs we discovered that an hour of sitting in these natural waters really made the difference. Stepping out into the frigid air I realized I could walk just fine. We had figured out how to deal with the pain so we could go on with our adventure. What a novel idea.
Day Two: Sweating it out.
I woke up feeling that we’d had an intense workout the day before, but determined to continue our goal of cross-country skiing for five days. Total sunshine greeted us as we drove north on Highway 24, through Leadville, and arrived at the Tennessee Pass Nordic Center. As this nordic center is attached to Ski Cooper, the first thing we noticed was the people. A lot of people. Everywhere! We had only seen five people on the trail the day before. When you don’t know how to do something very well, being alone is comforting. No one got to see us scooching on our skis, or attempting to snowplow with no control, or looking very unbalanced at just about every turn. Now we would be on display, and that made me very nervous. Coming down that first hill I heated up with a raging hot flash out of sheer embarrassment. Until I reminded myself that no one cared. No one was even looking at us. They, like us, were out here to ski. It took a few minutes but eventually I shook it off and got on my way.
The second huge difference at this nordic center? These trails were beautifully groomed and there were set tracks to make the gliding much more efficient. Once I felt like I wasn’t going to tip over, I settled into the grooved out tracks and rarely ventured out to make my own tracks. We even found a series of loops and laps that worked for us. It didn’t matter that some nordic racers were skiing up to and weaving around us, they just gave us more motivation. But with the additional gliding came additional heat. I have never sweat through a jacket, but on this day I was soaked. Fortunately, our backpack was large enough to hold our sweaters and neck-gaiters because I was pretty overheated. My husband was a fount of information about how many calories we were burning, reciting some facts he’d read online:
The average person burns about 400–500 calories per hour while cross country skiing at a slow pace.
Moderate-speed cross country skiing (think 5–7 m.p.h.) burns closer to 500–550 calories per hour.
Cross country skiing at a brisk, vigorous pace burns closer to 600 calories per hour.
This information was a minor, but positive, distraction. As we finished up our skiing for the day, I once again felt the results. This was much harder than we anticipated.
On our drive back we only had one thing on our minds: get to those hot springs, and fast.
Day Three: Building camaraderie.
The boost of confidence we received on those groomed trails pushed us to head up to St. Elmo, known as one of America’s best preserved ghost towns. The road was covered in snow and the directions for the spot we would ski told us to drive 14.5 miles on CR 162 and look for the parking area with an outhouse on the south side of the road. No kidding.
Hancock Pass, an off road trail, isn’t just for cross-country skiers and snowshoers, it’s a prime snowmobilers haven in the winter and off-road destination in the summer. It showcases alpine passes, old railroads, abandoned mines and borders the ghost town of St. Elmo.
Our ability on this novice trail was stronger than we realized as we climbed and climbed, waved at snowmobilers, talked to hikers, and descended without any issue. I should point out we were also talking to each other, instead of worrying that we would fall or slide or be out of control. This was the day our camaraderie blossomed. For the first time, we each had a stride that felt comfortable enough that we could engage in conversation and take photos and stop and enjoy the scenery. The beauty all around us, the silence, the bluest sky ever and the snow made in impact. As we laughed about our learning curve, we also admitted that maybe this cross-country skiing is for us after all.
Still, not to tempt fate, we went back to the hot springs. Those waters made every ache disappear.
Day Four: Reaching the summit.
Gaining courage every day, we knew we were ready for Old Monarch Pass. The trail, right off Highway 50, climbs gradually from the highway to the Continental Divide at 11,392 feet, with panoramic views of all the surrounding mountain ranges. This time as we continued to climb, we were able to assess that we could navigate our descent without the total fear we’d pretty much had in previous days.
We chatted with a number of new and seasoned cross-country skiers and snowshoers who related their stories of learning and falling and loving this sport for all the same reasons we were enjoying ourselves. One person went on and on about how ‘it’s less crowded, less pressure, and so much cheaper!’ We couldn’t disagree. Unless we were on a groomed trail, we were paying nothing to ski on these passes. There’s something about feeling like you’re getting a great deal while gaining confidence that is very alluring.
And to make it to the summit and take in the stunning 360 degree view? Priceless.
On our way down, we met a man who asked us if we’d summited. Not, ‘how’s the trail?’ or ‘how are you?’ The good news was that we could say yes. Then he told us how this used to be his trail, that no one else was ever on it. I pointed out that we discovered it in our trail guide, so the secret was out. He smiled and skied on up the trail, with his dog running nearby.
Leaving Old Monarch Pass, exhausted but truly satisfied, we headed right to the hot springs to follow up our workout with what we were now convinced were healing waters.
Day Five: Confirmation.
No longer afraid of this new adventure we’d begun, we decided to go back to the place we skied our first day, the Collegiate Peak Campground. We wondered whether we’d be able to notice a difference in our abilities by re-visiting the same terrain. For starters, we knew how to get into and out of our skis without thinking. And from there it was all downhill and uphill with no major issue.
Back on that first day, a woman had told us about the laps she takes on this trail and through some of the campgrounds. While we made it through her routine, it was arduous. Now we took on those laps with enthusiasm. While the trek through the campgrounds was still a bit trying, we saw a marked improvement in our ability to navigate the trail.
I’m sure we may have benefited from some training, a class or two, or a master instructor…and that may be in our future…but because we stuck to it and moved through the pain, finding relief in the hot springs, and continued our adventure for five days in a row, we felt we did what we set out to do.
On day six it was time to drive back to Denver. But this return from a vacation felt far different. For the first hour we both recounted the best and worst moments, laughed about our spills, relished the adventure we experienced, and thought of new places we could go to re-create this feat. We had both achieved a sense of achievement that you don’t often get to measure in such a short period of time.
Arriving at home the dogs and cats greeted us, the gang slowly filtered back in, and now we are back in our work/care/family mode that fits our lives. Those life lessons of dealing with pain, sweating as a result of total effort, camaraderie with my partner, reaching a summit and confirmation that we’d improved in our abilities will serve me well. Our next getaway? Maybe a beach will be just fine.