Ski season is right around the corner and everything - including you - is heading uphill from here, writes Monique Ceccato
For those well versed in the art of alpine skiing, the thought of skiing up a mountain has probably never even crossed your mind. For Scandinavians, it's part and parcel of a day out on the snow. The northern Europeans are experts when it comes to cross country skiing, and it's not hard to see why they love it. Not only can you head out just about anywhere there's snow, but it's a workout you just don't get from hitting the slopes.
So, what is cross country skiing?
"Alpine skiing techniques are pretty much built on cross country skiing, because people used to have to walk up the mountains and then ski down," says Sebastian Droyer, a Norwegian-Australian cross country, alpine, and park ski instructor based out of Oslo. In its simplest form, "cross country skiing is about getting from A to B on your skis, using your own body as your machine".
Initially, cross country skiing was a form of transport, so there are no lifts or manicured downhill runs to move you along. Instead, it's sheer leg power that will get you through, across, down, and even up mountainous terrain. "You can do more, and you can go more places on cross country skis," explains Droyer. "It's way cheaper than going alpine skiing because you don't have any tickets, day passes, or even season passes to worry about. On cross country skis, the whole mountain is yours. You can go wherever".
Essentially a hike on snow, cross country skiing is fundamentally different to alpine skiing, and a full-body workout like you've never experienced before. "If you're good at cross country skiing and then you go alpine skiing, you'll pick up alpine skiing really quick," says Droyer, who's coached many beginners in both disciplines. "But, if you're going from alpine skiing to cross country skiing, that's a little bit more tricky. It's not like you won't be able to do it, but it will take a little bit more time".
The biggest difference with cross country skiing is in the skis themselves; they're far longer, thinner, and lighter than their alpine counterparts. "Because you're not going to lay on the edge of your ski like you would if you were on the slopes, cross country skis aren't as wide and they don't have that steel edge that goes all the way around," explains Droyer.
What they do have is a considerable amount of flex; it's the key to propelling yourself forward in the absence of a slope. "So long as you don't get a ski that's too stiff for you, you will be ok," he says. "If you're not able to push the skis all the way down with your weight, you won't move forward because you won't be getting any grip on the snow". For this reason, he highly recommends first-timers be fitted in-store for their new skis. Having an expert weigh and size you up will ensure you end up with the most appropriate ski length and flexibility.
While you're there, you may as well get fitted for a new pair of boots too. Unfortunately, alpine boots won't transfer as cross country skis don't have a heel binding so the heel can lift freely from the ski as you propel yourself forward. Droyer likens a classic cross country ski boot to a low top sneaker: "it's not stiff at all and they don't always cover the ankle". They're also far less rigid than what you strap yourself into for a downhill session, giving the foot more range of movement.
How to cross country ski
With different equipment and different terrain, it should come as no surprise that cross country skiing requires a different technique; and there are two distinct techniques to choose from.
Competitive cross country skiers use the more advanced "skating technique", which is akin to the kick and glide motion of ice skating. But, beginners are best starting out learning the classic technique. "It's kind of like walking, but you really have to focus on pushing forward and gliding on your ski," explains Doyer. It sounds straightforward, but the physical demands of propelling yourself across and up the snow will quickly become evident. "You will be using muscles in your ankles, legs, and thighs that you've never really used before".
The key to mastering the classic style, according to Droyer, is just throwing yourself into the deep end and learning without aid. "I make whoever I'm teaching walk ski without poles first," he says. As it is with alpine skiing, the poles are there for power, not balance or stability. So, Droyer recommends jumping on your skis sans poles and only introducing them "when you can keep your balance and feel comfortable moving around freely without them".
Where to go
With no real requirements other than the presence of snow, you can cross country ski just about anywhere you can find powder in New Zealand.
But, for the ultimate in cross country freedom, you can't go past a day trip out to the 23,000-hectare Pisa Alpine Conservation Area in Wānaka. The region attracts deep snow over winter, which can linger on the southern exposures well into the spring months. There aren't any groomed tracks to follow, though beginners can cut their teeth exploring the relatively flat terrain of the interconnected valleys, while the more initiated can have some fun attempting to climb the gentle mountainous slopes. With a little bit of endurance practice, a few hours on the skis will get you to Kirtle Burn hut, where you can stay overnight for a nominal fee of $5 per person (BYO food, water, and sleeping bags).
Within the bounds of the Pisa Alpine Conservation Area is Snow Farm, New Zealand's only purpose-built cross country skiing facility. For $45, you can spend a day traversing some 55km of expertly groomed track, ranging from gentle beginner snow-strolls to full-body, pro racer workouts. There's the option to BYO your own gear or hire it, and there are experts on hand for lessons to help you grasp the basics.
A little further afield, at Lake Tekapo, you can head out on your own freestyle ski through the valleys or opt to join a cross country expert for a fully guided backcountry expedition. Alpine Recreation offers customisable 3 to 5-day tours based out of Rex Simpson Hut, high above Lake Tekapo. Set out daily on an easy to moderate cross country ski through the rolling basins of the Two Thumb Range, or give the slope climbs your best shot before gently cruising back down. The tours start from $940 per person and include all equipment hire and accommodation.