Against the majestic backdrop of the Mont Blanc massif, I took a brief break in my workout, leaned on my ski poles and inhaled the solitary silence. Just a few miles away, the rest of my family was having fun on snowboards and downhill skis among the crowds, lifts and cable cars. It was Christmas vacation 10 years ago, and we were near Chamonix, France — the site, in 1924, of the first Winter Olympics. There were two cross-country skiing events.
If I ever want to repeat my French Alps cross-country experience, I’m told, I shouldn’t book in December again; there’s no guarantee there would be much snow. However, waiting too late in the season, as I learned on a subsequent trip to the Italian Dolomites in March, can make the Alps an iffy proposition, too. It was my son’s spring vacation, and he still got to snowboard; but downslope from the snow-capped peaks, the cross-country trails were mostly slush.
To be a cross-country skier in this age of ever warmer, drier winters is to feel like an endangered species. To survive, we must adapt. So here are some lessons focused on flexibility that I’ve drawn from my recent cross-country experiences.
Surely, Yosemite National Park would always be a winter wonderland — that was my expectation. But when I finally arranged a trip there, in late January 2016, hiking boots — not skis — were the best way to get around. So I drove on to Lake Tahoe. I arrived in a blizzard (a good sign), but by the next morning, snowy promise had turned into icy rain.
Only in Utah’s Soldier Hollow, an hour’s drive from Salt Lake City, did I find serious snow. Created for the 2002 Winter Olympics, the site not only welcomes solitary skiers but also offers tubing runs and training facilities for biathlon athletes.
The best thing about Soldier Hollow is that from mid-December through mid-March, there’s always snow — at least on the eight kilometers of groomed trails with snow-making equipment. Typically, snow-making begins around Thanksgiving, to ensure a good base, then is used as needed throughout the season. “The last five years we’ve relied on it a lot,” one employee told me.
As many as 40 Nordic centers around the country, including Lake Placid in New York and Breckenridge in Colorado, can make their own snow as necessary. There are drawbacks: Creating artificial snow usually requires the very carbon-polluting energy that contributes to climate change — contradicting the “green” image associated with cross-country skiing. And the noisy machines can quickly shatter the solitary skier’s human-vs.-wild illusion that is integral to much of cross-country’s appeal.
But when I skied the Quarry Road Trails in Waterville, Maine, last winter, I hardly noticed the artificial snowmakers managed by the city’s Parks and Recreation Department. What I did notice — and hadn’t seen before — were cyclists using cross-country trails for “fat-tire biking” (named for the wide wheels that can handle tough off-road conditions). There were plenty of people snowshoeing, as well.
To escape what only fellow cross-country skiers might call “the crowds,” I traveled a few miles west to the snowy shores of Belgrade Lakes only to encounter so many summer cottages, complete with fences, that skiing would be impossible. This brings me to my third tip:
Unwilling to let all the precious snow around the lakes go to waste, I stopped for advice at the only public place open, an old-fashioned country store situated on a narrow stretch of land between Great Pond and Long Pond. (In true understated Maine fashion, these large lakes are called ponds. Appropriately to my mission at hand, they were created by glaciers more than 10,000 years ago.)
Before I could even order a cup of coffee, the woman behind the counter pointed out the window and said: “You want to ski? Have you tried the pond?” And then I noticed tracks on the frozen surface — not groomed trails, exactly, but flattened patterns where snowmobiles had recently zoomed. “I guess if snowmobiles haven’t broken through the ice, I won’t either,” I said, laughing.
Gliding effortlessly over the smooth solid felt at first like a guilty pleasure, because noisy, gas-guzzling snowmobiles aren’t exactly green. Then, after a half-hour or so, it became a bit boring; the flat, seemingly endless expanse offered no surprises. It was, however, sublimely serene.
Skiers at White Grass Ski Touring Center, in West Virginia’s Canaan Valley, are used to making do with far-less-favorable conditions. The resort may be one of the country’s southernmost cross-country destinations, but Chip Chase, its owner and operator, is ever hopeful: “We make use of every flake that falls. We are snow lovers and optimists at the same time and revel in marginally skiable snow” known by winter sports enthusiasts as crud. “No matter what, we will ski every time it snows and happily.”
White Grass also is taking action, as a founding member of the Cross Country Skiing Against Climate Change collective of eight ski areas committed to sustainable, environmentally friendly operations. Using only about $6 worth of electricity daily, White Grass is a recipient of the West Virginia Environmental Council’s Green Entrepreneurs Award. Instead of snow-making machines to cover bare trails, White Grass relies on what’s called “snow farming” — whereby fences catch drifting snow that can then be plowed or shoveled as needed. (Another more formally organized group — Protect Our Winters — represents not only cross-country skiing but all winter sports in the climate change fight.)
Sometimes, however, “the natural snow stinks or is nonexistent,” Chase said. At those times, he counsels good humor and fatalism while exploring alternative activities from hiking to stargazing to enjoying the White Grass natural foods cafe. Nearby is Blackwater Falls State Park and the spa at Canaan Valley Resort & Conference Center.
When researching a cross-country skiing vacation, it makes sense to look at places with contingency planning. Consider Stowe, Vt. A traditional cross-country skiing destination, it seemed buried in snow when I visited more than a decade ago. “But now that weather has become more fickle, there’s always a chance of a warm or rainy spell,” says George Jackman, president of Stowe Nordic, “sort of along the lines of taking a beach vacation and hitting a rainy patch.”
In that case, the Stowe Mountain Resort offers a rock-climbing facility, terrain parks and ice-skating, while the Trapp Family Lodge has carriage rides and its own brewery for Austrian-style beer, not to mention all things related to the von Trapp family of “The Sound of Music” fame.
This openness to other activities is what saved my otherwise disappointing trip to the Dolomites, mentioned above. Unable to ski, I spent a day wandering around Bolzano — serendipitously to discover in the city’s archaeological museum “Ötzi the Iceman.” His 5,000-year-old mummified remains had been uncovered in a melting glacier. A kindred soul, I felt.
The bottom line for cross-country skiers, is that we have to learn to be ready and willing to decamp at the drop of a flake. Chase recommends having your ski gear stashed by the door and being prepared “to rush to the snow when it hits via World Wide Web and your smarty-pants phone.”
The Weather Channel, for example, has an app that will alert you to any change in weather at the location you’ve preselected. And “snow alerts” are available when you sign up for a subscription at snow-forecast.com. Another good resource is snow-online.com.
Planning too far ahead is simply not prudent when it comes to cross-country skiing in today’s climate. Instead, think of catching the snow the same way a surfer patiently waits for a wave. Even unplowed city streets can be fun, or any old open field. It’s a winter variation on making hay while the sun shines.
More from Travel:
70 Rue Monseigneur Conseil, Megeve, France
Nestled in the French Alps, around the town of Megeve, are three cross-country skiing areas with over 25 miles of groomed trails. Day passes for adults $9, ages 6-16 $5.75, younger free.
2002 Soldier Hollow Lane, Midway, Utah
This 2002 Winter Olympics venue offers cross-country skiing, tubing, biathlon training, children’s activities and lessons. Day passes for adults (age 13+) $10, children $5.
Quarry Road Trails
300 Quarry Rd., Waterville, Maine
Besides cross-country skiing, this recreational area run by the City of Waterville allows sledding, tubing, fat-tire biking, snowshoeing and even dog walking. Day passes for adults $12, students 7-18 $8, children age 6 and younger free. Charged only if using groomed ski trails.
Trapp Family Lodge
700 Trapp Hill Rd., Stowe, Vt.
This Austrian-style lodge offers accommodations starting at $200 a night. The Ski School Package (which includes equipment rental, trail pass and lesson) is additional $55 for adults, $35 for children.
White Grass, Canaan Valley
643 Weiss Knob Ski Rd., Davis, W.Va.
This day lodge offers lessons, rental equipment and access to over 35 miles of trails for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. Daily area use fee is $20 for adults, $5 for children.