Cross-Country Skiing Under Less Than Ideal Conditions

Copyright © 2017 Jared Manninen

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.

Copyright © Jared Manninen
Cross-country skiing in single digit temps while chasing the sunrise at Grass Lake on the morning of Thanksgiving (2016). One of the lessons I learned here was to avoid skiing through any wet areas in freezing temperatures. I made the mistake of gliding through (rather than stepping over) a slightly wet marshy area on this morning, which resulted in the base of my skies icing up quite badly. No matter how much I tried, I couldn’t completely scrape free the ice from the bottom and this decreased my ability to glide. Not as big of a deal on this morning since I was only skiing for a couple of miles, but imagine that happening when you have a dozen or more miles to cover before reaching safety. © Jared Manninen

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.

Copyright © 2016 Jared Manninen
Looking back at Red Lake Peak while en route to Winnemucca Lake near Carson Pass on November 22, 2016. There’s obviously not much snow to work with here, but you do what you can with what you have. These conditions are best skied using a pair of “rock skis.” Jokes aside, terrain that requires an old junky pair of skis (i.e. rock skis) is also super dangerous if you catch an edge and go down. With all of these shrubs exposed, it’s clear that there isn’t much of a cushion to break your fall. And you can almost bet that there are rocks lurking not too far beneath this thin layer of snow. Again, not an ideal situation to be cross-country skiing in but this was what I had to work with that day. And training in variable conditions such as these helps you to become a better and more conscious skier. © Jared Manninen

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.

Copyright © 2017 Jared Manninen
Catching the sunrise at Tahoe Donner Cross County ski area on January 5, 2017. This was one of those ideal and pristine days where cross-country skiing was an absolute dream. As much as I wished every day on skis looked like this, it’s not reality so you have to learn to take the good with the bad. © Jared Manninen

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.

Copyright © 2017 Jared Manninen
Cross-country skiing around Osgood Swamp on January 2, 2017. This was a calm section of trail that my friend and I had broken, but in between the wooded sections we were nearly swept away by gusts of snow. I absolutely love being out in this type of weather, but technique can easily be forgotten when all you’re thinking about is survival. This is why I prefer to ski under these conditions not too far from safety — so I can learn to remember that technique will ultimately be the reason for my survival if ever I’m caught under similar circumstances far from home. © Jared Manninen

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.

Copyright © 2017 Jared Manninen
Cross-country skiing in Washoe Meadows State Park on January 10, 2017. This day about two feet of snow fell and I was mostly clomping around the woods. I barely covered any ground and became exhausted very quickly doing so, but you can imagine my delight at traveling through this winter wonderland. It can’t always be about logging miles under the best conditions. Sometimes it’s just about being outside and embracing nature in all of its glory (and conditions!). © Jared Manninen