Taking a walk with old man winter
TOur valley is a pinpoint on the map a miniscule dot in the greater Northern Hemisphere, which falls into shade, darkness and cold during the long winter months.This means big snow and big fun for guests, visitors, and those who make skiing a priority in their lives. But many of our valley’s hard-working residents spend the winter months getting up before first light, working indoors during the day, and returning home in darkness again as the sun is setting.With cold and darkness dampening motivation, the winter has a tendency to put our health and fitness goals on ice. But more and more people are looking to snowshoeing (the nation’s fastest growing outdoor winter sport over the past three years, according to the Snow-Sports Industries of America) as a solution for cold-weather doldrums.”As far as general health and fitness goes, it seems that winter is a more sedentary part of our lives,” says Brian Metzler, editor at large for Trail Runner Magazine and snowshoe writer for Hooked on the Outdoors. “People who get into snowshoeing are the same kind of people who, in the summertime, are out hiking and biking, and they’re looking for something similar that can be done during the winter, even at night.”Snowshoeing has undergone a boom since 1988, when Redfeather Snowshoes began making lightweight snowshoes designed for running. Aluminum snowshoes have been around since the 1970s, but large, wood-and-rawhide shoes were still the norm into the 1980s.Once lighter, faster shoes were on the market, local races began cropping up around the mountains. Tom Sobel began the Off-track Off Beat 10K snowshoe race through powder and wilderness near Leadville, and Bruce Kelly of Pedal Power sports in Eagle-Vail followed suit with his Pedal Power Nordic Snowshoe Adventure Series (see our calendar for more information on the Pedal Power and Beaver Creek snowshoe racing series). Those races and the Vail Valley’s annual Snowshoe Shuffle, one of the largest snowshoe competitions in North America, helped contribute to the growing culture. Soon snowshoers were trekking through deep snow, far into the wilderness and back again, using headlamps to navigate during the dark hours before or after work.For Kelly, the sport became a favorite way to maintain his active lifestyle during the winter months. It literally and figuratively opened up new views of backcountry terrain something immeasurably important to his quality of life in the valley.”I’ve lived here now for 28 years, and I’m not doing much downhill skiing anymore,” Kelly says. “It’s not that I don’t like it, it’s that I did it. That scene isn’t for me.”Lifelong ski bums may not need another winter outdoor activity, but Kelly is among many who have fallen more in love with snowshoeing than they ever were with skiing or snowboarding.Easy to learn, hard to masterNational trail running champion Anita Ortiz is among those who have happily converted to the snowshoeing faith, but it wasn’t easy.As a trail runner, Ortiz had to learn a few things about racing through the woods with 8-inch-wide baskets on her feet.”The first time I was at a snowshoe race I turned to everybody and said, ‘I just hope I don’t fall down and make a fool of myself,’ and everybody sort of laughed,” she says. “Then I learned that everybody falls down multiple times you just have to get used to that feeling that any minute the surface beneath you could give way.”Ortiz, who attributes her recent trail running accomplishments to her snowshoe training, says her first snowshoe race ended in frustration and tears. But she learned the tricks of the big-foot trade with a little help from her friends in the Downvalley Running Club.But not every snowshoer looks to attain Ortiz’s high level of technical and athletic ability, and Redfeather CEO Alan Kettlehut says most people are looking for a relaxing way to enjoy time with their families.”It’s a low-cost sport, you don’t need training, and you don’t need a lesson first or any sort of special equipment,” he says. “If you can walk, you can snowshoe.”Kettlehut also says snowshoeing provides an alternative activity for ski vacationers who are fatigued by a full day of downhill skiing. The average length of a family ski vacation began to drop in the mid-’90s, and snowshoe manufacturers like Redfeather, Tubbs, Northern Lights, Atlas and Crecent Moon began encouraging resorts to market snowshoeing and provide flat, groomed trails for family use. The idea was that snowshoeing could provide an inexpensive, relaxing winter activity for kids, the elderly, and those who wanted a less strenuous way to enjoy the mountains.Olympic dreamsThe snowshoe boom has been relatively quiet, especially when compared to snowboarding, which has been the second-fastest growing winter sport over the past three years (according to numbers from the SIA and the National Sporting Goods Association).”It’s an aerobic sports and it’s not flamboyant,” explains Sobel. “There’s never going to be anyone doing fakies or triple-360s.”Still, Sobel is leading a movement to have snowshoeing entered into the 2006 Olympics as a demonstration sport. Part of the reason snowshoeing’s numbers have multiplied so fast is because very few people did it in the first place, and it’s overall numbers still don’t compare to snowboarding.For athletes like Sobel and Ortiz, however, snowshoeing doesn’t need to be popular to be enjoyable. Ortiz will continue to cross-train with snowshoeing, and she will help grow the sport by joining the U.S. National team at an international snowshoe race in Italy during the first weekend in January.
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