Gear Review: Åsnes Mountain Race 48 Cross Country Skis

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Åsnes Mountain Race 48 skis. Narrow and light enough for fast skiing around the track, wide and sturdy enough for serious backcountry pursuits. Waxable with skin lock, 60-48-53 width, 3/4 length metal edges and a sintered race base. It may be the one cross country ski to rule them all!

When I was a kid I had one pair of cross country skis. They were made of wood, had 3-pin bindings and worked for everything. I’d use them to go for weekend skis with my mom and dad on the endless tracks at Nordmarka outside Oslo. If we decided we wanted to leave the tracks and bushwhack across the forest or meadows, I’d use them for that too. Our school would have monthly cross country ski races and at recess, we’d build jumps and launch ourselves off them (I got a good black eye from an errant landing). They worked for that too. They were utilitarian, jack-of-all-trade skis.

A quick look at our ski rack today and it’s easy to see we’ve diverted heavily from the one ski quiver. To our defense, we’ve been working in the ski industry for almost a decade now, where pro-deals are the candy to entice people to stick around. Lately though, I’ve been thinking about simplifying things and I’ve been wondering if it’s possible to have a ski that actually works well on groomed tracks and in the backcountry?

On a recent trip to the motherland I spotted a new Åsnes ski in a shop in Oslo called the Mountain Race 48 that caught my attention. Featuring a narrow profile and sporty, green racing stripes, it was svelte, sexy and light to the touch. And yet, it had some features to make it backcountry worthy, including 3/4 length metal edges and Åsnes’ signature skin lock system for climbing steeper hills deeper in the mountains.

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Elaine spots the Mountain Race ski at a ski shop in Oslo. Now THAT’s a backcountry nordic ski selection! 75% of those skis are waxable, a far cry from the U.S. where waxless skis rule.

It is also a waxable ski. In the U.S., when people buy backcountry nordic touring skis, they almost always buy waxless skis. Most of these skis handle poorly, to the point where they really detract from the enjoyment of the sport. It’s kind of like…if mountain bikers were all still riding fully-rigid 26″ inch bikes with steep head tube angles. Yet in America, waxless backcountry nordic skis are pretty much the name of the game. Things have not evolved much and as such the sport has stagnated in this country.

To truly enjoy backcountry nordic skiing, I believe a willingness to delve into wax is essential. Yet it seems the concept of waxing has paralyzed most U.S. recreational nordic skiers to utter fear. Sure, racers use a gazzillion different waxes, but for touring it’s so simple. Pick up some Green, Blue Extra, and Violet and call it good. Learn how to apply it and wax away, a process that takes about sixty seconds at the trailhead.

In addition to a simple wax kit, Åsnes’ skin lock system is a game changer. Utilizing a narrow 35 mm mohair kicker skin that is easily applied under the ski, a skier can completely avoid using sticky and cumbersome klister wax when temperatures rise above freezing. The little kicker skins glide, they kick, they do everything needed for a good day on warm snow.

Elaine and I picked up a pair of the Mountain Race skis with the intent to use them on light and fast nordic backcountry adventures,  As such, we decided to shun heavier NNN BC gear and installed standard NNN track bindings on them. We did an adventure last week during a rare April cold snap that highlighted the perfect scenario for these unique skis.

When we woke up it was 15° and snowing, the kind of day that absolutely begs for a nordic classic ski. But it’s been a long season and Elaine and I were looking for something a little more low key and in nature than another seven laps around Eldora’s groomed trails. We also didn’t want to slog around in our leather boots. We wanted the best of both worlds, so we grabbed our Mountain Race skis, stuffed our anorak pockets with wax, a cork, kicker skins and some chocolate and headed to Eldora.

We started our ski on groomed trails, covered with an inch or two of new snow. We quickly found the sweet spot for ideal kick on the wax pocket and commented to each other, “hey, these ski like normal classic skis.” In the track they kicked and glided fast and light.

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Åsnes Mountain Race 48’s are just as home in the track as they are in the backcountry.

We hopped on an aptly named trail called Roller Coaster and immediately noticed that they descended a lot better than normal classic skis. Wind had blown in some snow drifts that deflect race skis, but these cut through the consolidated new snow no problem. The tips have a smidge of early rise rocker, which helps them maneuver and negotiate rough terrain.

For fun we looped over to Beaver’s Revenge, the steepest downhill at the entire area, and pointed them straight. The skis were absolutely confidence inspiring and fun…they rocked on the downhills. We backtracked and herring-boned back up the steep hill.  Instead of doing the same loops over and over, these skis wanted to play and explore.

We looped around Buckeye Basin, impressed by how well they performed in the track, not slow at all, even nimble. We continued skiing to the base of Rising Sun, a steep backcountry nordic trail that would be an absolute nightmare on normal classic racing skis. We pulled out our 35 mm mohair kicker skins and began working our way to the top of Tennessee Mountain and the high point of the nordic center.

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Eldora, like many nordic centers in the U.S., has some nice backcountry trails trails that jut off the main groomed routes. At places with this type of trail design, the Åsnes Mountain Race is a dream ski.

The trail was steep enough that we still had to occasionally herringbone, but for the most part the skins allowed us to walk right up. For this type of “mixed” skiing, it’s a good idea to put a slightly bigger basket on the poles, as my race baskets were occasionally sinking in on the soft side snow. There is no need to go with a backcountry pole however, as the intent of this type of skiing is to be able to ski in the backcountry but still have a functional set-up for the track.

We crested the climb, and kept the skins on across the rolling terrain to Tennessee Mountain Cabin. The 35 mm mohair skins glide well and offer more purchase on the loose new snow than just blue wax. A light snow was being whipped into a frenzy by a strong wind blowing off the Continental Divide, so we gladly ducked into the cabin, lit a small fire, and enjoyed some Norwegian chocolate in the rustic simplicity.

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Is there anything better than enjoying good company and chocolate around a wood stove in a rustic mountain hut part-way through a cross country ski? Probably, but I haven’t found it yet.

This is something I miss with just straight track skiing – the ability to be deep in nature, away from people. On the other hand I love the light, fast and free feeling of a fast classic or skate ski. It seems the Mountain Race skis offer the best of both worlds: wild and fast freedom. It is an intoxicating combination.

We left the cabin and made our way through the deep-and-getting-deeper snow along a ridge line to the Setting Sun trail. The trail climbed steadily to an opening, where it switchbacked and crossed over Volkswagen sized drifts shaped from a winter of windy rowdiness. This type of terrain is a nightmare on regular classic skis – kind of like driving a rough jeep road in a Lamborghini – but the Mountain Races ate it up with aplomb.

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For snow up to a foot in depth, the Mountain Race’s break trail just fine.

We crested the top, removed the kicker skins, and began a long descent back to the groomed nordic trails. It was a ripping downhill and we were even able to drop the knee and make some telemark turns, whooping and hollering with the joy that only skiing in a snowstorm can create.

Back on the nordic trails, we hopped onto Phoebe Snow and Meadows Loop – passing some skate skiers along the way, something that would never, ever happen on a wide backcountry nordic ski – and enjoyed perfect kick and glide and the sensation of moving fast. It was time to go home, but not before a fast drop on Gandy Dancer, where once again the descending capabilities of the skis shined.

It seems, more and more, genres of sports are blending. The most popular type of cycling these days is gravel riding, a melding of mountain biking and road biking into a style that is tough, fast and versatile. Same goes for trail running and hiking, where the lines and gear used for backpacking and traditional jogging are completely blurred. In this era of increased reliance on complex technology there seems to be a movement towards outdoor gear that offers versatility and less complexity, or in this case, one nordic ski to rule them all! It makes sense: the simplicity of the outdoors is a needed medication to the complexity of the other, real world.

Even without a higher cause for the greater social good, this type of hybrid Nordic skiing is fun. Probably the coolest thing about it is it opens up the mind to new possibilities. In essence, it basically doubled the skiable terrain we can normally enjoy at Eldora Nordic Center, and in turn enriched the experience. The only thing I’m disappointed about is we didn’t figure this particular ski out until the very end of the season. It’ll certainly be something to look forward to next winter.

Of course, no gear is perfect and this set-up has some limitations. If I was trying to win a 50 km classic race, this would not be my ski of choice (bigger lungs would be my choice). It’s a little too heavy and there are better skis out there for that endeavor. Conversely, if my daily ski consisted of running a trap line in Canada’s Northwest Territories breaking trail through 18 inches of new snow everyday, this wouldn’t be my ski of choice for that either, as I’d want something a lot wider and beefier. But for somebody who enjoys skiing the track and backcountry equally and doesn’t want a bunch of different pairs of skis, the Mountain Race is about perfect.

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Hot laps before dark at Brainard Lake on the Mountain Race 48’s.

The most difficult decision regarding this ski is what binding to put on it. I skied it with my normal Madshus classic NNN boots, and felt a little under-gunned on the tight, twisty trails at Brainard Lake. Elaine used it with a combi boot that has a stiffer sole and, more importantly, more lateral stiffness, and had good luck. In this case, I’d recommend steering clear of the most expensive boots, as more recreational models are generally stiffer and have more insulation.

No doubt, this ski paired with NNN BC bindings and boots would absolutely rock for Brainard-style, tight, twisty conditions, while giving up some performance at the track. For something like skiing across Greenland or Expedition Amundsen, where pulling a pulk adds additional balance concerns, I’d certainly install an NNN BC binding and use an appropriate boot (At Expedition Amundsen, it was THE ski of choice for the fastest competitors). And while I love the simplicity of 3-pin boots and bindings, to me that’s not a good option for a ski I plan to use at least a little bit in the track, as the sides of the binding will drag on the grooves.

I’d say if the intended purpose is 70% or more backcountry, install it with NNN BC. Anything less than that, and it’ll work better with a regular nordic NNN binding and a combi boot with some stiffness in the uppers. Of course, better skiers can get away with less boot stability, and visa versa.

The biggest single problem with this ski is availability.  Åsnes skis are very hard to get in the United States, and the Mountain Race 48 ski isn’t something shops currently bring in because it breaks the image of a traditional backcountry nordic ski. A grand total of three Mountain Race skis were shipped to the U.S. last year (a 180, 190 and 200 cm) It’s a tough sell in a category that doesn’t generally generate much enthusiasm in the first place.

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These skis scream adventure. A warning though – they are so much fun they tend to lead to late arrivals back to the car because a skier just ends up wanting to go deeper into the wild.

Which, I suppose, is part of the motivation for writing this review…showing the beauty of this type of hybrid skiing and making the skis more available to North American nordic skiers! If the people demand it, it will arrive.

In the interim, what’s a skier to do? Go to Norway and buy a pair there? Well, there are worse options in the world. Roundtrip flights to Oslo on Icelandair or Norwegian Air cost about $500 in the winter. It wouldn’t be that difficult to fly in with just a backpack and boots, take the train into the city, go to a shop that sells the skis, give the shop tech a little tip to mount them quickly, and head out into the amazing Norwegian forest for a backcountry/track adventure of a lifetime. If this seems intriguing, message us and we’ll gladly share more information.

In the interim, we’ll keep our eyes peeled for other skis that are waxable, narrow, 3/4 edged, offer a skin lock system and are available in the United States. As far as we know, the Åsnes Mountain Race 48 is the only ski in the world right now that has all these traits.

Leather 3-pins, snowy forests and wind: A ski trip around Brainard Lake

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Enjoying a nice early season ski after a snowstorm on the CMC Trail.

One of my favorite places locally to go for a ski tour is Brainard Lake. While Eldora ski area offers the type of nordic skiing most people think about when conjuring up images of the sport – perfectly groomed tracks for skate and classic skiing – Brainard is a different experience. This is the place where backcountry nordic ski touring reigns in the region.

Brainard is hardly a secret, which is why I’m not particularly reticent to write about it. As Edward Abbey so eloquently wrote, “I have written much about many good places. But the best places of all, I have never mentioned.” Let’s just say Brainard is a really good place. And, I also have some concerns that nordic ski touring as a sport is fading in the United States as Alpine Touring skiing and fat biking become more popular. I’d like to do my part to reverse this trend, as I believe nordic ski touring is the most pure and soulful type of skiing there is (another blog for another time).

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Nordic ski touring gear is different from nordic track gear. The skis are a bit wider, they often have metal edges, and the bindings support a bigger boot. Here we’re all using leather 3-pin boots and bindings, a classic option. Note the wooden skis. They work well!

Brainard Lake is staggeringly popular in the summertime, so much that we almost never go there from July 4 to Labor Day. Even on weekdays, the crowds can be oppressive. This is a shame, because there isn’t a better concentration of peaks, trails, snowfields and lakes in the entire Indian Peaks region.

In the wintertime, the crunch of people at Brainard Lake can be oppressive, but it’s more manageable. Truth of the matter is the parking lot could be full but very few people go in more than a half-mile from the gate. Indeed, as skiers, there is an advantage. Certainly a hardy few snowshoers will make the three mile trek from the Red Rock Trailhead to Brainard Lake, but the vast majority will not. Meanwhile, the distance is easily covered on skis.

Brainard Lake has a rich cross-country skiing history. In 1928, a group of University of Colorado professors in the Colorado Mountain Club pooled their funds and hired a gentleman named Joe Stapp to build Brainard Lake Cabin. Rumor has it that in 1929 a rowdy group skied completely naked to the lake and cabin, “save for boots and skis.”

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Doorway to the CMC Brainard Cabin.

The war years in the 30s and 40s and the growing popularity of alpine skiing in Colorado limited use of the area. That changed in 1969 when a Norwegian named Ingvar Sodal started the CMC Cross Country Ski School. Ingvar and his staff – usually varsity ski racers on the CU ski team – would teach waxing techniques and skiing lessons to the general public. Ingvar began ordering skis from Norway, worked on making the CMC cabin more winterized and encouraged CMC members to build ski trails so they would have alternative routes to the road.

The South Trail, now called the CMC Trail, was built in 1970. In 1971, the more technical and rolling North Trail was constructed. It’s name was changed to the “Waldrop Trail” to honor Harry Waldrop, a CMC member who was killed in a kayaking accident. To complete the system, the Little Raven Trail was built in 1988.

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Enjoying some spring nordic skiing at Brainard Lake.

Cross country ski races used to be held at Brainard Lake. Courses were either the North Trail, the South Trail or around Long Lake. The Colorado Mountain School hosted the Gold Spittoon Races in the area, but all races ended in 1984 as liability insurance costs became too expensive.

Today, the infrastructure of ski trails and the cabin are still there. While the CMC is less of a force than it used to be, they still play an active role in the Brainard Lake area. The CMC Cabin is open and staffed by volunteers on weekends from Thanksgiving to April. During these times, the cabin serves as a nice spot to eat lunch and get out of the elements. Outside the weekends the hut is locked, available only to folks who rent it for overnight use. To stay in the cabin, one person in the group has to have gone through a CMC hut training program.

Meanwhile, the trails around Brainard Lake are alive and well and require no special training or key. The Waldrop Trail was rerouted by mountain bikers in a couple places a few years ago, but other than that the trail system hasn’t changed since it’s original construction. A group of long-time local skiers head out on the trails at the beginning of every winter and clear deadfall. Of the three main trails, Little Raven and CMC are “skier-only” and the easier options. The Waldrop Trail is multi-use, and features faster downhills and more excitement.

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Map of the Brainard Lake Trail system. Click to expand.

A popular and pleasing loop begins with a ski from the Red Rock Trailhead up Left Hand Reservoir Road to the eastern terminus of the Upper Little Raven Trail. The initial road climbs 500 vertical feet and is a nice warm-up for the trail ahead. It’s a relatively gradual climb with a few steep sections that will test the skier’s wax or ability to herringbone. If you’re fortunate enough to have a pair of skis that feature the little notches for kicker skins (Åsnes and Fischer both make these), it’s not a bad idea to have these skins available in your backpack for this section if needed. That said, 95% of the time I can get up this first climb with just the proper wax-of-the-day.

After 1.25 miles on Left Hand Reservoir Road, turn right and west onto the marked Upper Little Raven Trail (not to be confused with the Lower Little Raven Trail that heads east from Left Hand Reservoir Road and drops down to the Sourdough Trail). The trail starts with rolling terrain in beautiful pine, spruce and fir forest for another mile. This is the highest part of the entire ski and usually has the best snow on the loop, with occasional views of Mount Audubon and the Continental Divide when the trail breaks  into meadows. If you’re lucky, you’ll get first tracks after a new snowfall. If you’re luckier still, you’ll get 2nd or 3rd tracks so you don’t have to do all the work breaking trail.

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Upper Little Raven Trail usually features some fantastic snow conditions.

After the first mile Little Raven changes character and begins to head downhill. The descent is fun and increases in challenge the further along the skier gets. The final drop to the intersection of the CMC trail is guaranteed to garner a whoop of joy or a scream of terror.

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CMC and Little Raven Junction. Skiers Only!

You’re now exactly three miles into the ski and at a decision point. If you turns right you begin the journey home on the CMC Trail. The original built of the three trails, the CMC is also probably the easiest. It doesn’t have any big climbs or descents, although there are a few few tricky short downhills heading east, including one about a half-mile from the Little Raven junction that features a fast descent and quick right turn over a creek bed. In mid-season with lots of snow it’s no problem, but in early season when rocks are prevalent and the creek isn’t quite frozen, the crossing can be on the spicy side.

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Early season creek crossing on the CMC Trail.

The trail enters a gully and then meanders it’s way back to Left Hand Reservoir Road. You’ll pass a couple signed intersections, including instructions for snowshoers to go one way, skiers to go the other. Stay on the skier trail and follow it back to the road. Turn left on Left Hand Reservoir Road and enjoy a zippity half-mile drop back to the car. This loop is about six miles total and a great option for a short day or less experienced skiers.

If you are looking for a longer, more adventurous ski with the possibility of some creature comforts, turn left at the Little Raven/CMC junction. Follow a winding trail that takes the skier out to the far west side of the Brainard Lake Loop Road. Turn left on the road and enjoy the splendor of the lake and mountains in front of you.  This is a popular moose hangout, so be on the lookout for those sometimes ornery characters.

Turn left again on Mitchell Lake Road and continue straight past Long Lake Trailhead Road until you see signs for the CMC Cabin/Waldrop Trail on the right. Turn right into the woods, and after about 100 feet arrive at the nicely protected CMC Cabin. If it’s a weekend, drop into the cabin, donate $1 for a cup of hot cocoa, talk to other skiers and enjoy a piece of wilderness history. If it’s a weekday and the cabin is closed, keep moving because this area can get hammered with brutal wind chills off the divide.

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Enjoying a little “Worst Case Scenario” board game in the CMC Brainard Cabin as a storm rages outside.

After enjoying the cabin, continue north just past the front door of the building. Pay attention to the little blue markers on the trees, as the drifts in this section can get huge and disorienting. You’ll soon pop out onto a large, heavily drifted open section with spectacular views of Mount Audubon and Toll. There are a lot of signs and intersections here – your general goal is to keep following signs for the Waldrop Trail.

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Drifted area views near the CMC Cabin.

After the drifted area it’s time to buckle in and get ready for some fun descents. The first one is a real rip-roarer and intersects with the South Saint Vrain Trail. Keep following signs for the Waldrop Trail, making note of the black diamond rating markers. The trail offers some twisty descending that, when conditions are right, is some of the best nordic ski touring around. Be aware that the Waldrop Trail is multi-use…stay in control on the downhills to avoid freaking out snowshoers and fat bikers!

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Navigating the descents on the Waldrop Trail.

After a mile-plus non-stop descent the trail crosses a bridge over Saint Vrain Creek. This is a wonderful place to take a little snack break and enjoy beautiful forest. Be on the lookout for Grey Jays – aka Camp Robbers – looking for a free handout. From here, the trail gradually climbs to a meadow, where there is an option of cutting back up to Brainard Lake Road for an easier – and possibly very windblown – ski back to the car on the road. A better option is to stay on the Waldrop Trail and enjoy some whoop-dee-doos and gullys. Snow levels effect the ease of travel here greatly. Gullies that are no problem in mid-season conditions can be quite exciting in early season when rocks are popping out everywhere.

Keep your eyes peeled to the north for some fantastic views of Longs Peak. These can be especially enjoyable in the evening as winter alpenglow basks the land. The trail continues east for another half-mile or so before dumping out at the Red Rock Trailhead and your waiting vehicle. All told the Little Raven/Waldrop Loop is 7 miles long.

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December Alpenglow off Longs Peak from the Waldrop Trail.

The routes listed here are the classics, and are great options for learning the lay of the land. Of note – dogs are not allowed on any of these trails. If you want to ski with your pup, the Sourdough Trail is a terrific option. There are a lot of other great skiing options in the area, including a thorough examination of the South Saint Vrain Trail, the Niwot-Cut Off Spur with a loop around Long Lake on the Jean Lunning and Pawnee Pass Trail, or an adventurous exploration ski from the Mitchell Lake Trailhead up the frozen tundra to Blue Lake.

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Heading up to Blue Lake with the intrepid Gary Neptune himself!

Above all, be sure to enjoy yourself. Everybody has a different agenda, but to me a nordic ski tour around Brainard Lake is great way to spend time in nature, get outside during the winter and enjoy a thermos of something tasty with friends. Do your best to keep the p-tex on the snow and have a good tour!

A Million Forks

DCIM100GOPROGOPR0316.JPGIt’s dead winter. Eight degrees Fahrenheit tonight, but the numbers mean little. It’s been cold for two weeks, the kind of cold we haven’t seen in Colorado in about a decade. When we ski, the snow crunches. No, make that squeaks. While the lowlanders and recent transplants are bitching about how they miss spring and warm weather, our little winter tribe of two is in absolute heaven. At night, coyote howls echo across the valley and the full snow moon turns the land into a brilliant, beautiful, haunting white glow.

Elaine and I are deep in Expedition Amundsen training. We alternate between pulling 120 pound sleds into the alpine, and then recovering with easy skis, with no weight, to stretch the legs and remember what it feels like to move at something faster than two miles per hour. Like today, day 87 on skis for the winter, an easy classic ski around the Eldora trails, where a light coat of Guru Green kick wax was all that was needed for a simple evening glide around the perfectly groomed trails.

I honestly have no idea how well prepared we are for the event. I suspect we’re prepared well enough, but until you put yourself on the line and go, it’s all a bit of a mystery. We’ve been putting in the time and doing the work, but there are so many variables to the event. Honestly, my main concern right now is just being mentally tough enough and getting enough rest before the shotgun blast kicks things off on March 8. Life has been chaos the past two weeks, but we’re finally getting to a place where a stoke and calm is taking over.

IMG_5919Tonight, after our ski, I was hanging out at my at wife’s parent’s home, spinning an old globe they have on the table. And while spinning it, running my fingers over raised mountain ranges and gazing at plateaus and river valleys, I got to thinking – my God it’s a massive world, and there is so much to do. The little problems of our daily lives – the things we put so much emphasis on – block us from doing what we really want to do. Of particular interest to me was the top of the globe, the land to the north. There is so much unexplored territory there, from Canada to Siberia to Greenland to Baffin Island. It gets me giddy just thinking how much there is to do up there. It makes me want to do it all, drink the wine of the north country, pack in as much as I can in my time here.

Did you know that the coldest town in the world is Oymyakon, Siberia? I didn’t know that till I found it on the globe tonight and looked up what it was all about. The average winter temperature in Oymyakon is -50° C. That’s average – the lowest temperature ever recorded was -89.9° C. I want to experience what that’s like. I want to see if I’m tough enough to stand it. I want to hear the sap from trees explode, I want to know what gliding on snow in that kind of cold feels like. But who in their right mind goes to Oymyakon? People seeking real adventure, that’s who, modern day Indiana Jones’, Magellans and Nansens. Adventure is still out there, but if it’s a place on the tip of the tongue for most, or a place that sounds cool on social media, it’s probably not real adventure anymore. If you want real adventure, go to Oymyakon, Siberia, or Nome or someplace that has no guidebook, no hype, just unexplored potential.

Oymyakon, Siberia

I must admit, like this blog entry, my mind these days is all over the place. That’s the problem with a world of unlimited opportunity in front of you – it’s hard to know where to start. When there are a million paths to choose, it’s hard to pick one. For the last eight years of our lives, Elaine and I have been on a pretty consistent work path. It was a relatively comfortable path, not really going anywhere, and getting more rocky by the day, but still, it was a chosen path of employment. And then, we grew a conscience, tired of moral and ethical injustice, of people just getting treated wrong, of getting treated wrong ourselves, exploded the situation and chose a new path. So now here we are, and there are a million paths leading away from this fork. Some paths seem safer than others, but are safer paths really the right path for ultimate happiness? That’s really the goal of life in my opinion – the quest for ultimate happiness.

DCIM100GOPROGOPR0314.JPGToday, on our ski, my mind was in a million places (like this blog), some on the ski, but mostly in other places. And then, frustrated by this lack of focus, I forced myself to slow down. I forced myself to stay in the moment, the exact moment, to focus on the breathe, to focus on a perfect stride and glide, perfect balance, perfect synchronicity with the snow on this cold winter day.

Rapidly, the world became clear. The woods shifted from a blur of chaos to a distinct outline of each tree. I was back in the moment, feeling that skier’s high, and once again, calm and a sense of confidence reigned. Maybe that’s the key to navigating these new waters. Less focus on everything, and all the focus on what can be managed in the here and now – this exact moment in time. I’m no expert, but that feels like the right path to me.

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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!