How the thinner half lives
In this world, two communities co-exist: the skinny-skied nordic community and the edged-skied alpine community. While all live in the same realm of mountains, cold temps, trail maps, and ski wax, there are many differences between nordic and alpine skiing. Different equipment, different brands, different muscles, different waxes, different costs, different jokes: simply put, different cultures.
This is not to say a skier can’t frolic in both worlds. The overlap between downhill and cross-country skiing continues to grow. Kathryn Middleton, owner of the ski shop at the Vail Nordic Center, said downhill skiers on vacation come in to rent nordic equipment all the time, seeking to try something different.
“Often times they had no idea how much they would enjoy cross-country skiing,” she said. “They’re elated after trying it and say what a peaceful experience it is.”
Most nordic skiers also have a foot in the alpine community, and are often the graceful telemarkers you see cutting down the mountain.
So there’s no rivalry between the twin winter sports? “No, it’s much more that we work together,” Middleton said. Bonnie Campbell, a senior volunteer at Snow Mountain Ranch Nordic Center in Winter Park, agreed. “Nordic skiing broadens skiers’ horizons. Usually people discover the fun in downhill skiing first. Then later they learn the satisfaction that can come from nordic. It’s more solitary, it feels like just you and the outdoors.”
However, not everyone who likes downhill skiing will dig cross-country. Kansas native Andrew Hoffman, the supervisor at Winter Park’s Nordic Center, says nordic skiers have to be committed to fitness. Hoffman grew up in the alpine world, but has spent the last two seasons at the nordic center as a coach, ski technician, and retail agent.
“We get a lot of those hard-core people in here who run on their lunch break, only shop at Whole Foods, and live highly competitive lifestyles,” he said. “But at a recreational level, you can still have a blast on skinny skis.”
There also is a common misconception among downhill skiers, who capriciously flirt with the sport of nordic skiing, he added.
“People think that downhill skiing is the original form and nordic is a different version” he said. “Nordic was first, the grandfather of all other skiing. With the loose heel, people nordic skied as a means of travel, to hunt; wars were even fought on nordic skis.”
It wasn’t until we built chairlifts and Snocats that we could click in our heel and cruise down the hill without worrying about cranking back up it. This timeline also reflects the way nordic skiing is still evolving from a means of travel to a sport.
“Not everyone realizes how developed the sport is. Nordic skiing has a World Cup tour, Olympic classic and skate competitions, biathalons, and a growing racing community,” said Steven Wantuck, head groomer at Snow Mountain Ranch.
As the sport has evolved, so has the culture. The alpine world already enjoys a colorful mosaic of North Face ski pants, ArcTeryx coats, Burton gloves and Billabong goggles. When it comes to style, the nordic world lags a bit behind.
“Some people are irked when they see cross-country skiers in tight spandex and ’60s and ’70s colors schemes, and they’re not sure they want to identify with this crowd,” Wantuck said. “But designs are becoming more mellow and modern and people are realizing they can just wear their board pants to nordic ski, too.”
Middleton’s nordic shop in Vail carries brands like Swix, Rodefella, Alpina, Madshus and Fischer. The clothing is lightweight, fitted and breathable, designed to break the wind but also keep you cool.
A final cultural gap pins nordic and alpine skiing as separate sports: that not-so-little party element. The fun quotient on a day of downhill skiing is usually off the charts. Just observe the daily migration of skiers from the mountain into the bars for their quintessential apres, a reward for spending the whole day outside in the cold. You simply won’t find any happy hour specials at your local nordic center. Nor do the trails close at 3:30 p.m. to nudge you to the lodge. Shane Sluder, a ski technician at Vail Nordic Center, noted, “Nordic is way more fitness-oriented. You don’t see nordic skiers taking beer breaks.”
So have nordic lovers sworn off lift lines, downhill gravity and apres in favor of the tranquility of nordic skiing? No way. They still hit the slopes for their fix of speed and adrenaline. But when not in the mood to pay to park, fight the lines, dodge flailing beginners, and pay $7 for hot cocoa, they can click their toes in their skinny skis and glide away from it all.
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Vail’s updated plans regarding the state guidelines and isolation housing requirements is one of several pieces of information guests are waiting on heading into the 2020-21 season.