- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 17, 2002

''Downhill skiing is noisy, crowded and boring," says cross-country skier Peggy Alpert of Kensington. Though not every cross-country, or XC, skier shares Ms. Alpert's sentiments on downhill (alpine) skiing, they all agree there's nothing more peaceful and quiet than the winter wilderness soft snow blanketing the land in a coverlet of white; clear, crisp air; tree limbs coated in fine powder; dangling icicles dispersing sunlight into a rainbow of colors; the unmistakable tracks of forest animals leading back to cozy, silent burrows.
"Sometimes it's so quiet you can hear the snow fall," Ms. Alpert says.
The path to this tranquil embrace of the snowy, frozen landscape may be entered with a good pair of hiking boots. It's far easier, and safer, however, to visit this realm on XC skis, snowshoes or telemark skis.
Cross-country, or nordic, skiing is the oldest form of skiing. Primitive skis have been discovered in Norway that date back 5,000 years. By the 10th century, vikings relied on skis for transportation.
Modern skis work in the same basic manner as the ancient ones. Though downhill skis lock the toe and the heel of the boot to the ski, XC skis keep only the toe connected; the heel remains free.
The free-heel binding works with the boot to allow pivotal motion at the connection. By lifting the heel, the skier can move forward with each stride while most of the ski remains flat on the snow. Pushing off with a pole adds to propulsion. Opposite hands and feet work in unison to create a classical gait known as the diagonal stride. Once under way, each stride is extended as the ski glides along the snow.
XC skis have a simple but ingenious design. They are shaped in a gentle arc, highest at the center, where the boot attaches. When a skier stands on them, they flatten out, but they spring back to the arc shape when lifted. The front and rear portions, the "glide zones," distribute weight to permit sliding.
The center section, the "kick zone," grips the snow. As a skier lifts a heel to kick into a step, all of the weight is pressed into the kick zone to provide traction at the beginning of each stride.


Kick zones come in two styles: waxed and unwaxed. In the first, and original, type, a sticky wax is applied to the smooth underside of the ski. (A variety of waxes are needed for varying snow conditions and different temperatures.) Waxless models have a zone with a pattern resembling fish scales.
Says Barbara Mandula, secretary of the Ski Touring Section of the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club (PATC), "If waxless skis had been invented first, no one would have bothered to come up with waxed skis."
Choosing the right wax remains a fairly exotic skill that often is thwarted by the weather. Temperature changes during the day may diminish the gripping power of a chosen wax. Only 15 percent of skis sold are of the waxed type, and most ski resorts rent only waxless models.
Many traditionalists swear by wax. Beginners, however, are advised to use waxless skis so they can concentrate on perfecting their skills and enjoying the experience of gliding through the countryside.
Maintaining momentum to continue this fluid, gliding motion requires a consistent rhythm.
"It's incredibly good exercise," Ms. Mandula says.
The simultaneous use of arms and legs at a constant pace over long distances makes the sport the best aerobic workout in the world. Skiers often reach and maintain a heartbeat of more than 180 beats per minute for many hours while taking in the frosty scenery. Nearly every muscle in the body is exercised.
Beginners, however, shouldn't be put off by fears of overexertion. The natural motion is learned easily, and newcomers can take to it slowly and work at their own pace. Unlike jogging, XC skiing is low-impact, with no jarring of joints on hard pavement.
For the truly passionate, the allure of the sport leads to a healthier lifestyle. Says Ms. Mandula, "I jog and run in the off-seasons to stay in shape for skiing."

As with running, a thirst for speed and being the fastest also drives the sport. A variety of races (sprints, relays, marathons) are held everyplace that can be counted on to have snow.
The Winter Olympics include a vast array of XC skiing events, including such seemingly odd amalgamations as the nordic combined event (XC skiing and ski jumping) and the biathlon (XC skiing and target shooting).
The quest for faster times even has led to the development of another gait: freestyle or "skating." In freestyle, skiers push off with each stride in a motion that resembles speed skating.
Both styles can be seen during competitions, but, alas, Washington is not known for its snow. Those wishing to compete or see races must travel to upstate New York, New England or the West. Races at local resorts are confined to the downhill variety.
Cross-country has a major advantage over downhill skiing: a very low injury rate. One need not worry about crashing at high speeds on a patch of ice or unexpected mogul or worse, having an out-of-control skier slam into them like a runaway truck.
When one is sliding along at slow speeds on relatively flat terrain, a fall in soft snow is a non-event. Getting back up may initially prove to be a bit trickier. It helps that there's no steep hill. The technique for unscrambling legs, skis, poles and arms; rolling onto one side; and then using the poles for help in standing back up can be learned in a few minutes.
The disadvantage to XC skiing is that it's confined to level ground or gently rolling hills. The length of the skis limits the turning radius. Most skiers use step turns, lifting the skis and stepping to the new direction. To head down steep slopes requires another skill, the telemark turn.

Telemark skiing was one of the first forms of downhill skiing and uses deep alternating knee bends on free-heel bindings to carve graceful turns.
The inventor of the telemark turn, Sondre Norheim, came from the town of Telemark, Norway (hence the name). He also created the Christiana parallel turn (or christy turn) and demonstrated both turns at ski races in Christiana, Norway (hence the other name) in the late 1800s.
Over time, the less strenuous parallel turn, combined with improvements to fixed-heel bindings and the invention of lifts to whisk skiers back to the top of the mountain led the tele-turn to all but disappear. In the mid-1970s, however, Colorado ski instructors revived the sport after watching Norwegian ski jumpers use the turn after landing their jumps.
While the tele-turn can be made on XC skis, its use has evolved into a unique type of skiing for exploration of backcountry terrain where XC skis would become bogged down.
Many of the design aspects of downhill skis have been incorporated into the new telemark skis. They are shorter and wider than cross-country skis. The boots are stiffer and offer greater ankle support. Also, tele-skiers can tackle the downhill slopes at local resorts.
The primary aim of the sport, however, remains the same as when it was invented skiing both downhill and cross-country on the same pair of skis and taking on hills that otherwise would be inaccessible
The thrill of conquering the toughest double-diamond expert slope barely holds a candle to the rush of adrenaline when rocketing down sheer ravines, avalanche shoots and tightly wooded mountainsides littered with unknown obstacles, all in a natural setting.
"You're not looking down at a parking lot," says Chip Chase, owner of White Grass Touring Center in Davis, W.Va.
Learning the telemark style is harder than learning other skiing methods. Skiing on ungroomed snow in the woods adds to the difficulty, but Mr. Chase optimistically adds, "If you give someone a challenging area to ski, they'll learn it."
White Grass offers lessons and clinics in both cross-country and telemark methods and has more than 31 miles of trails on open plains and deep into mountain forests.
"With telemark skis, you can choose where to go flats, hills, woods. You never cross the same tracks, and everything seems new," Mr. Chase says.
In addition to running White Grass, Mr. Chase considers himself to be a "snow farmer." The touring center doesn't use man-made snow. Instead, when certain areas are patchy or there hasn't been a lot of snowfall, he uses a series of portable nets to catch windblown snow and relocate the powder to the trails. The trails then are groomed.
"But it's all natural snow," Mr. Chase adds. The center also offers snowshoe rental and lessons.

"The great thing about snowshoeing is that it's incredibly easy," says Dusty Wissmath, director of the Outdoor Adventure Program at Snowshoe Mountain Resort, near Elkins, W.Va. "You just put them on and you go."
Modern snowshoes bear little resemblance to the wooden snowshoes used by early Eskimos. Purists still can find wooden models that look like wicker baskets. Most of today's snowshoes, however, have gone high-tech, with aluminum frames and plastic flotation surfaces.
Each foot is secured to the snowshoe on a pivotal binding that is strapped to the toe and then wrapped around the heel of the boot. (Sturdy winter hiking boots are recommended.) Metal cleats protrude from the toe portion. Another cleat extends from the bottom at the rear of the main deck. When going uphill, kick with your toes. When going downhill, stomp down on your heels.
Trekking poles aid in balance. A variety of styles exist for different purposes and weights of users. The large surface area of the deck distributes weight to prevent a skier from sinking more than a few inches into the snow with each step. Though an uncomplicated activity, breaking trail in deep snow, especially going uphill, can be as much of an aerobic workout as XC skiing.
Snowshoeing enthusiasts, however, delight in bounding down hills covered in deep powder. As they bounce into the air with each stride, powder explodes upward all around them.
"You feel like a kid again," says snow lover Karen Carra of Takoma Park. Snowshoes also excel at traction on surfaces inhospitable to skis ice or ice-encrusted snow. The cleats act as crampons, digging into the ice.

For any of these sports, it's important to dress appropriately. Poor clothing may lead to hypothermia or frostbite. Frostbite attacks first at the extremities. Wear good-quality gloves and socks designed for winter activities.
Because physical exertion generates heat, some instructors recommend starting out cold, with only light layers of insulation so you'll be unencumbered by heavy clothing when you heat up. Others say to wear multiple layers and then unzip or remove layers as you go and store the clothes in a backpack.
Breathable fabrics allow perspiration to escape. Avoid cotton because it traps moisture and stays wet. With the added possibility of a fall, a final layer of a waterproof and breathable fabric, such as Gore-Tex, may mean the difference between a fun day of playing in the snow and a wet, soggy ordeal.
Also, it's well-known that 50 percent of the body's heat loss is through the head. A good hat will keep you warmer than numerous layers of clothing. The opposite likewise holds true. To cool off from exertion, just take off the hat.
To compensate for the glare from the snow, wear sunglasses or tinted ski goggles. On sunny days, don't forget sunscreen. Sunburn can occur year-round, and the sunscreen also helps prevent windburn on blustery days.
Barbara Mandula also advises, "Go with experienced people the first few times and never go it alone in the backcountry."
The Ski Touring Section of PATC sponsors weekly winter outings to the most popular nearby XC skiing, telemark and snowshoeing destinations. Unfortunately, most of these locations are a few hours' drive away from Washington.
On the rare day when snow carpets the nation's capital, however, every bike trail, open field or hill; all the side streets that have been left unplowed; and even the Mall become part of a free and serene ski resort.
"You don't need to drive anywhere and buy an expensive lift ticket," Ms. Mandula says. "When there's snow, you just put on your gear and go."

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide