Skiing Vs. Snowshoeing   Leave a comment

The LaSalle Mountains in southern Utah are a fantastic place to cross-country ski.

The LaSalle Mountains in southern Utah are a fantastic place to cross-country ski.

I am not used to waiting until the first week of January to get up to the mountains for cross-country skiing.  But the early season saw me in southern latitudes, so I guess it couldn’t be helped.  My recently completed western U.S. odyssey was a loop that was designed to avoid snow.  And except for an October hike in Colorado that traversed early-season snow, and also getting snowed on in Utah’s canyon country (see images below) things went pretty much to plan.

In the first snowfall of winter in the Colorado Rockies, bear tracks mark the animal trail.

In the first snowfall of winter in the Colorado Rockies, bear tracks mark the trail.

The year's first snowfall and a cold morning turns the road trip to one where staying in the sleeping bag seems like a great idea.

The year’s first snowfall and a cold morning makes staying in the sleeping bag a bit longer seem like a great idea.

But once back in real winter-time, I was eager to get up there into the cold air, to find a quiet trail with snow-covered evergreens, to cut long graceful turns down a soft white slope.  Well, you get the idea.  I went up to Mount Hood just an hour east of my house in Portland, arriving in mid-afternoon.  This is too late for most people, but for me, it was perfect.  Firstly, I wanted pictures near sunset.  Also, I know that were I to ski 5 hours or so on this first day of the season, I would end up with painfully sore muscles in strange places.  Cross-country skiing works the muscles of the hip area mercilessly, particularly the adductors.

There had been 4 or 5 inches of new snow over the previous two days.  I headed to the Trillium Lake area, which is a popular area near Hood for both XC skiing and snow-shoeing.  I like Trillium Basin because you can ski relatively easy, skier-groomed “trails” (really snow-covered gravel roads) where there is plenty of room for both snowshoe and ski tracks.  See below section for a discussion on this.  But Trillium is also great ’cause you can explore narrow trails or go off trail using clear-cuts and natural openings.  There are even a few slopes, not very steep, that are great for telemark turns.

I went up the Mud Creek Loop (a road) and did the normally snowshoe-free Lost Man Trail (a fun trail that loops through forest and meadow).  Then I climbed a hill for a view of the Mountain as the sun set (see images below).  In the gathering dusk I descended a large partially cleared area, gliding down through amazingly light & fluffy snow (for the Cascades at least).  I had just under an hour’s ski out using my headlamp.  I like skiing by headlamp, but it does lead to occasional disorientation.  The light tunnel and the rhythm of skiing can sometimes mesmerizes you.  It’s a strange but not really unpleasant feeling.

Mount Hood, Oregon glows as the sun sets in mid-winter.

Mount Hood, Oregon glows as the sun sets in mid-winter.

XC SKIERS VS. SNOWSHOERS

Many cross-country skiers do not like snowshoers because it is easier and MUCH more fun to ski in a ski track than on a trail stomped out by snowshoes.  When you’re snowshoeing, stepping over a ski trail is easier than walking through fresh snow.  So you can see the obvious point of conflict here.  It works best when snowshoers make their own trail whenever possible.  But by the same token, skiers should always try to create a separate trail as well.  Of course this involves a lot of work for the first person down a fresh trail, and it requires a certain zen attitude to plow through deep snow right beside an already broken trail.

It’s especially frustrating to break a ski trail then return on the same trail only to see two snowshoers side by side (so they can chat easily), with one person in the ski tracks you just set, the other person in the snowshoe trail.  Sometimes it seems that you are the only one in the forest who is aware of the etiquette.  But whatever happens, it is never cool to get uptight when people do not know the etiquette, or are unwilling to cooperate.  You are out there to have fun after all!

My attitude towards this conflict has of late become even more mellow than it was; I would even say I’m resigned.  The fact is that these days snowshoers outnumber cross-country skiers by a fairly large margin.  Nobody wants to go to the trouble to learn how to ski anymore.  Walking seems easier, even though in the long run (once you’ve learned) skiing through snow is both more efficient and more fun than walking through it.  I hope if you’re reading this that you take the time to learn how to cross-country ski.  Trust me, it’s WAY better than snowshoeing.  But however you do it, the key is to get out there,  to experience that feeling you can only get in the crystalline air of winter-time.

Mount Hood and fresh powder make the first day skiing a fine one.

Mount Hood and fresh powder make the first day skiing a fine one.

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