Turning Around the Winter of Discontent

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In February the roads finally got snowy enough to pull pulks. 

It’s been a strange winter in Eldora, Colorado. It’s probably the closest I’ve ever felt to the “winter of discontent.” That’s certainly being a little bit dramatic, but there has been a lack of flow that has been disconcerting.

As fantastic as our Continental Divide Trail thru-hike was – and I would never trade it out – it did break up our traditional “rituals” for getting ready for ski season. Personally, late summer and autumn has been prep-for-ski-season time since I was 15 or 16 years old. The norms during these months are lots of roller skiing, running intervals in the mountains, biking up steep trails, lunges and the like. This year, we just walked. And while our fitness was fine the lack of going through the processes started things off weird and effected our mental readiness.  It’s kind of like showing up to work or class late…things are all out of whack.

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Back on the CDT for a Valentines Day ski at Tennessee Pass before dinner at the cookhouse. 

And then, winter just took a long, long time to come. We had some flirty snows in October and November, but then the faucet turned off. December was the warmest and driest twelfth month I’ve even seen here. The nordic center had their latest opening ever by nearly three weeks, and the two ski shops we work in, Larry’s Bootfitting and Boulder Nordic Sport, had customer flow more reminiscent of March than the supposed busiest time of the year.

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This was the first year we ever shoveled in a skin track to keep skiing. Lots of downhill skinning this early season.

We did our best to get out on snow, but it required different thinking and adaptability. Early season was a lot of uphill skinning and then skinning back DOWN on 2-3 inches of snow. The resort opened, so we spent more time than normal honing resort turns, gazing out at the brown hills as we made our way down the man-made strips of white. We bought uphill passes because the backcountry was non-existent. Around Christmas the nordic center finally opened, but it was just a fraction of its normal self in terms of available kilometers.

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More resort days than normal as a result of the low snow. 

Slowly but steadily, snow came. We have yet to have a big storm, but there have been a fair amount of 2-3 inch offerings. Mid-February was actually good. We could finally ski right out the door, usually a norm for most of the winter, but then a warm spell hit and basically set us back another two weeks. 48 hours ago it was 77° F in Boulder, but a cold front hit, and right now it’s 9° F.

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Sled pull up to 4OJ. That’s either a fox track or Gary Neptune’s work on the left there. 

The snow graphs say we are at 90 percent of normal snow pack, but I’m skeptical of this. It seems much less. Down south in the San Juans, they are fairing much worse, and even with some recent winter blasts are sitting around 50 percent of normal. Meanwhile, the east has had polar vortexes and bomb cyclones, Europe has had their best winter in a decade and even South Korea looked enviably cold during the Olympics. Most years you win, some years you lose. And it’s not over yet, but things will start getting warmer now here on the 40th parallel, where the March sun burns long and high.

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Classic powder days have been few and far between, but there have been a few. Let’s hope spring brings more. 

On top of the odd weather, my wife Elaine has had a bit of a rough go. The Continental Divide Trail left her dead tired and really what can only be described as over-trained. Six months of twelve hour days can do that. Most hikers take an entire winter off. We had planned to dive right back into training, but that proved unrealistic. She has battled fatigue and a fair bit of sickness. So while we have skied a lot, until very recently it has not been with the normal aplomb. There have been no nordic races, no intervals, just lots of days exploring the woods and waiting for the body to recover. We were actually a bit concerned about our health, so we got physicals recently, and it turns out we’re in perfect health, albeit overtrained. The only way to get out of that hole is to wait it out.

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Finally, real winter came in February, where we could ski out the door and take runs behind the house. 

Eventually, recovery came. Something clicked two to three weeks ago, the snap returned, and with it a deep endurance born from the long walk along the spine of the nation. She’s been crushing again, we’ve had some strong sled pulls and systems are go for the Greenland trip. That said, we’re taking a year off nordic racing just to let the body build properly without unnecessary stresses. Greenland will require long, plodding strength and mental toughness. The gain versus potential risk of diving into a late season racing program simply is not worth it, We’ll fry that cat in 2018-19.

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After a few months of extreme fatigue and sickness, Elaine has found her mojo again. It’s been fun to watch. 

A highlight of the winter has been the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in Korea. Olympic years are always fun and I find myself feeling more motivated after watching the best athletes in the world at the top of their game. Of course, the shining moment as a nordic skier in the United States was Jessie Diggins and Kikkan Randall winning the team sprint race. While it has been dubbed as something of an upset, the truth is they were primed for this race. Diggins is 3rd overall in the World Cup and Randall is a multiple World Cup sprint champion. It would have been a disappointment if they had not finished in the top three, and once it comes down to the last few hundred meters, and the skis are fast, it’s open season.

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Cold nordic ski days have been rare, but we’ve had a few.

I’m hopeful this will provide a needed boost to nordic skiing in this country, because I really do think it’s the best sport around. Racing is just a small part of that. To me, buying a nordic pass is like buying health insurance – it’s really, really good for the body. The question now is how do we take that momentum and really make the sport grow in the United States? I have some ideas based on personal experience that I will write about in the next few days.

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Nordic skiing makes this girl happy. 

For now, it’s time to ski. Tomorrow is supposed to be in the single digits, so it’s time to take advantage and enjoy what will possible be the last Green wax ski of the winter. It will be our 90th day on skis of the winter, not bad considering it’s been anything but smooth. But in skiing, as in life, adaptability, creativity and persistence are essential.

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Green wax day tomorrow.

Cold Front and Fresh Snow

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A little snow on the Eldora nordic trails makes for some nice classic skiing.

We finally got our Greenland application out just the other day. That’s been a major weight, so it’s nice to have it signed, sealed and delivered. We’ll see what happens. I do worry we don’t have enough requisite polar experience to be accepted for an independent expedition, in which case we’ll have to reevaluate our timeline. We’ll know soon enough. If we get permission, it’ll be time to buckle down and get to work, because there is much preparation to do.

This has been one of the slower starts to winter in many years in the Front Range of Colorado. Of course, there have some memorably bad years, the winter of 2011-12 coming to mind, and before that, the drought years of the 2000s. Beyond the lack of snow, it’s been very warm, most days soaring well over freezing and perhaps one or two days where nighttime temperatures dropped below zero. Certainly global warming plays a role, but a larger factor is the jet stream is sitting just to the north of us. We’re missing the brunt of the action and the cold is having a hard time settling in.

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Front Range Snotel Graph. We’re sitting at 90%. Not bad.

That’s at 8,800 feet above sea level, right next to the Continental Divide. Just a few miles east and 500 feet lower, in Nederland, there is virtually no snow. Meanwhile, Boulder has been downright balmy. It’s a stark contrast from last year, where December and January were like a scene out of the Shining movie, snow piling up in copious amounts on a daily basis. There was so much snow we had to park our cars a half-mile from home and ski home with groceries.

We’re actually better off than most of the state. Down south, in the San Juans, the picture is grim.

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A much worse story down south in the San Juans, where they are at 34% of average. 

It could be an ugly summer down there if this continues. As we learned hiking and skiing thru it this summer, southern Colorado is a tinderbox of dead, beetle killed trees. If I were hiking the CDT this summer, I would definitely go north, at least if things continue this way. Best to get thru the state before things possibly burn up.

We’ve managed our winter decently well thus far given the snow restraints. Thank goodness for Eldora, the nordic center and uphill travel. We’ve spent a lot of time on manmade snow there this winter, only recently getting out more on natural surfaces. That’s been a nice change of pace.

There is a drainage near our home that I’ve been eyeing for a nice backcountry cross country ski “trail” for some time now. It has all the desired factors – generally north-facing, sheltered from the wind and a bit away from the main travel routes. The Little Raven and CMC trails are fantastic nordic touring options, but it would be wonderful to have a bit more. So yesterday we headed out into the forest and did some exploring.

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Good woods.

As is always the case on exploratory days, there was a fair bit of futzing around, making wrong turns and getting stuck in deadfall. I carry a small hatchet on days like these to try to break thru and create something decently passable. Bottom line though – the route could be a good one. There were moments during the two hour ski where we thought, this could be really good. Another good sign – there were moose tracks. I find if animals use an area, it’s probably a good human route too. Numerous times on the CDT we lost the trail, followed a game path, and found a better way. Animals are not dumb. It’s an area of mysterious woods, full of creaking old trees, freshly sprouted firs and deep, deep snow. It has a feeling of good forest. I think we’ll explore it some more.

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The best days are the ones where you can see your breath and you get home from the woods just as it’s getting dark. 

 

Norway Bound!


It would not be an inaccurate statement to say Elaine and I have a thing for Norway. We’ve been there twice in the past two years, and as I’m writing this are heading over there for a third time. What can I say…it’s an awesome country that speaks to us in a number of ways. Of course it’s the hotbed of skiing, and in particular the kind of skiing Elaine and I like to do…Nordic and AT. There is so much passion and stoke for skiing in Norway, and it draws you back for more. The system of huts, the network of trails, the mountains that drop right down to the sea, the public transportation…it’s custom made for skiers. And while it is expensive, the abundance of public transportation, hostels and such make it possible to survive and even thrive without going broke. 

While we love skiing, there is a lot to see in Norway when the country is not white. It is home to a system of interconnected trails that is likely unmatched anywhere in the world. We wanted to see and experience that. Point-to-point travel across wild places brings us more joy than anything else in the world. And so, on the day after Brexit, when a $450 ticket from Denver to Oslo popped up on Hopper, we decided to jump on it. 

This trip is different from our previous two. This time we’re going there to hike. On our winter trips we missed out on some of the highlights of the country, namely the fjords and the mountains in the Jotenheimen Mountains. Simply put, there is epic stuff here that needs to be experienced…Trolltunga, Preikestolen, Bessegen Ridge and the highest peak in the country, Galdhoppigen. These are places we both want to go.


It’s a simpler trip. We’re not lugging around heavy ski bags, but instead just have our Hyperlites and backpacking gear. We plan to hike good distances and camp every day. It’ll be considerably cheaper, and we plan to only use the huts if the weather is horrible (quite possible – August and September are the rainiest months in Norway) – or we need some extra food to supplement what we’ve brought from Colorado. 

We’re not really into just picking off the popular destinations without having to work to get there. It feels much less rewarding and we feel less connected with the place. We want to log some good miles and build more base before ski season comes about. The best way I’ve found to do that is a long backpacking trip. This one certainly isn’t the PCT or CDT in size, but it’s no slouch. The goal is 300 miles in 12 days, which should be a sufficient push to build fitness. We’re starting in the fjord town of Odda, hiking up to the Hardangervidda and then making our way north across the high plateau, over a glacier and into the Jotenheimen Mountains. Along the way we plan to eat as many berries as we can, see reindeer, enjoy that high latitude light, smile a lot and live well in a wild place. We’re not completely sure where we’re going to finish (possibly the town of Sota Seter) but basically the plan is to go as far north as we can to catch a bus to Lillehammer in two weeks. This is not a designated trail or pre-defined route…we’re figuring it out as we go. 


Once in Lillehammer, our final goal of the trip is to visit the Fjellpulken factory and check out sleds. Fjellpulken makes sleds designed for ski trips. We’re doing a race in February that requires we each pull one, each weighted at 44 kg, and we also have aspirations to ski across Greenland in the future, where such a contraption is an absolute necessity. Fjellpulkens have a proven track record in polar exploration and we’re excited to check out their factory in Lillehammer. And while we’re there, we certainly hope to hike to the top of the ski jump and get fueled and energized for the upcoming Nordic ski season. It’s the hotbed of the sport and that kind of passion rubs off strong. 


Now it’s time for some sleep. Our plane touches down in Munich in six hours where we have five hours to see explore that city before it’s back to Oslo and the gateway to the Norwegian wilderness. 

Roll , roll, roller skiing into fitness


One commitment I made this spring was to spend more time roller skiing. Last year we only went a paltry 15 days or so, and that’s a bit of a wasted opportunity since it’s actually easier to improve technique and fitness in the summer than in the winter. I’m not going to get much sympathy on this one, but our access to groomed nordic skiing in the winter is a ten minute drive, whereas roller skiing we can actually walk out our door and have a nice 10 kilometer route without having to drive a minute. Roads are consistent and it’s easy to work on stuff. Want a flat road to work on v2? No problem. A long climb to build your threshold fitness? We’ve got plenty on those. The only thing we don’t have out our door is rolling terrain, but alas our workplace is located in the roller skiing hotbed (I use this term very lightly) of Boulder and it’s all rolling. In addition to great terrain, there is little pressure in the summer and one can just progress at a natural pace. There are no races to break up training, few shitty weather days and less illness to contend with. It’s a great time to become a better skier.

Probably the biggest issue with roller skiing is it’s dorky as heck and there are a lot of other things you can do in the summer. You have to put ego aside a little bit and just enjoy being dorky. It’s actually a lot of fun and there is no better way to build ski specific fitness. We’ve gotten out 31 days so far this summer and the peak season is yet to come. There are few things I like better than roller skiing up Vail Pass or Mount Evans as the leaves are changing. It’s a highlight of the annual preparation ritual.


Elaine and I signed up for a ten-week Tuesday night summer roller ski training group that ended just this week. Our coach was Adam St. Pierre, a honch Boulder area Nordic racer, ex-collegiate racer, coach of the Boulder Junior Nordic Team and all around awesome dude. Elaine and I both improved a lot, which is what it’s all about. I remember back in week one how every divot and bump in the road scared the heck out of me. Ten weeks later, the hills seem a lot less steep and the confidence is way higher. On our last session I decided to do a little one ski pirouette down a fast hill, and while I didn’t crash Adam did give me a “be careful show-off!” Good advice, as I’m at that place where confidence and skill and miles don’t quite match! Fitness has come a long way too, from that first interval way back in June. There is some hop in the stride now and it feels good.

During the class I got to enjoy the simple pleasure of roller skiing in the rain, the brutality of skiing on 110 degree tarmac and everything in between. We skied up and down hills with medicine balls, we skied while towing people behind us, we skied with no poles while bouncing basketballs in front of us, we tackled scary descents and went faster on them than we’ve ever gone before.  The class took us out of our comfort zone, and that’s when you improve the most. 


We’ve found a lot of great routes around our work place, with interval options ranging from one minute sprints to ten minute consistent efforts. That’ll be nice a lunch break as we move into clinic season and morning workout opportunities shrink. We also picked up some classic roller skis which are great for our high elevation climbs near home. I’m quite surprised more AT skiers don’t classic roller ski as it’s a very similar motion to skinning uphill fast. I could certainly see it increasing in popularity as uphill travel gains even more traction. 

It’s been good, and I’m thrilled to have made solid strides during a time of year when I normally wouldn’t think of skiing. Elaine is crushing strong this year, so we’re on track for a good year. Now it’s time to have a strong autumn season and then just basically stay healthy for the entire winter. A cold front just moved in and they are predicting snow above 10,000 feet Friday night. One of my favorite seasons of the year, autumn, is just about here!