Although I have tons of experience backpacking throughout the year, I’ve only winter camped a handful of times. In March of 2016, I completed my first cross-country ski overnight tour. The route I skied was only 13 total miles (split up over two days), but I had such a blast that I planned to complete more overnight excursions the following winter. Unfortunately the snowpack in the Lake Tahoe region during the beginning of the 2016/17 winter was highly unstable due to a mix of big snowfalls followed by warm temps and torrential rain. This cycle happened twice between Thanksgiving and just after New Year’s Day. Then, more massive snowfalls continued to fall routinely during the rest of the winter. As much as we all appreciated this “Snowpocalypse,” especially after so many winters of drought, it resulted in dangerous backcountry conditions for the entire season (i.e. less than ideal conditions).
Needless to say, I only made the commitment to complete one overnight cross-country ski tour that season. In spite of not feeling comfortable skiing long distances in the backcountry and staying out overnight due to the unstable nature of the snowpack, I did log numerous days on skis thanks to all of that snow. And the beauty of that season was that I got to experience a whole range of conditions in which to cross-country ski.
Like many people who become highly proficient at a thing I, too, tend to shy away from performing my favorite activity or sport under less than ideal conditions. Once you alpine ski or snowboard epic powder, it’s hard to get excited about hitting the groomers. But if you want to be safe and enjoy yourself in the backcountry, you cannot allow yourself to fall into this mental pitfall. Life is seldom an “ideal condition,” and everything is amplified (for better or worse) in the backcountry. If you’re not mentally and physically prepared to deal with the conditions before you, catastrophe can strike.
Unlike our minds which can absorb, process, and assimilate information in many ways, the body really can’t know until it experiences. You can think about how cold it is by looking out the window and watching the snow pile up, but imagining will never fully prepare your body for actually being exposed to that cold weather.
So based on the unstable snow conditions of the 2016/17 season in Tahoe, I shelved my plans for overnight cross-country ski tours. However, that didn’t mean I didn’t prepare for the adventures. In fact, I used the diverse winter conditions to embrace beneficial training experiences. Namely, I began to focus more on the concept of frequency over duration with regard to my training and preparation.
Thanks to having a part-time winter job in the rental shop of a cross-country ski area on the north side of Lake Tahoe, I have access to groomed terrain and expert skiers (co-workers and friends). Leading up to the beginning of the 2016/17 season I had been part of a trail maintenance crew at the cross-country ski area, so although I was not actually skiing I could test out clothing and gear in adverse weather and under physically demanding conditions.
Once we opened, I skied before work and then again during my lunch breaks. This gave me the chance to experience different snow conditions and temperatures during the same day. I also built strength and balance while honing my diagonal striding technique.
Most of my co-workers are instructors, ski technicians, and racers in the cross-country skiing industry. Many of them are also experienced backcountry skiers and mountaineers (to one degree or another). I took the opportunity to riddle them with questions about technique, ski maintenance and preparation, and backcountry travel.
I watched training videos and read books about cross-country skiing and mountaineering. One book that I recommend is called Two Planks and a Passion, and is basically an encyclopedia of mankind’s history of skiing. The book is a bit on the dry side, but provides context for our use of skis over the millennia as tools for survival rather than just a fun pastime that we do on the weekends.
When not at work, I ski near my home as often as time and conditions permit. All of the ski trips I take at home have been off-track as there are very few groomed cross-country ski areas on the south shore of Lake Tahoe (where I live). This is fine by me, particularly since my home is near wild lands. I can literally ski from my front door. In spite of the brevity of these trips, however, even a few miles of off-track skiing provides the body with a ton of valuable information. And this is what I typically use these shorter sessions for — recording information into my body.
- How much does my diagonal striding technique deteriorate when I’m off-track? When I’m tired? When I’m caught in whiteout conditions?
- How long does it take me to travel a mile or two in six inches of fresh snow? How about 12 inches?
- How many of layers of clothing do I need when it’s snowing, 26 degrees, and I’m skiing on flat terrain? What about the same situation and distance but with an elevation gain of 1,500 or more feet?
Ultimately you just cannot know the answers to these questions and scenarios until you experience them firsthand. But better to do so under more controlled circumstances (like not too far from your house or car) rather than while you’re miles deep in the backcountry and caught in a blizzard.
The week of January 9, 2017, provided multiple feet of fantastic snow that set the Lake Tahoe region up for a long winter season. As I waited for the snowpack to stabilize, and in between multiple sessions of shoveling and snowplowing, I took short trips from home to build into my body the information and experience I need to make the most effective decisions and calculations for safe backcountry travel.
Although few of my ski sessions lasted for more than an hour at a time, my focus for the season was to train using frequency over duration. Ultimately, I wound up skiing about 75 days that season and my technique and experience progressed exponentially as a result.