I taught skiing at a New Hampshire ski area for a few years in the late 1970s and early 1980s. My claim to fame? I could make you an expert on your very first day. No lie.
Now, before you accuse me of hyperbole or flat-out lying, please consider my definition of the “expert skier.”
I look for three clues to see if someone has reached expert level: A smile, a smile and a smile. My point? No matter what trail you are on, no matter your speed, no matter if you’re still pushing pizza wedge turns, moving toward carving or ripping it up, if you’re happy, you’re a pro.
That said, learning to ski – alpine or Nordic – is a process, and one that is best put in the hands of a true pro. That’s the way to get to that big smile point I call “expert” from Day 1.
Nordic skiing is a popular this winter: Season passes and lesson reservations have been going at a good clip. This is not a surprise, when you recall that outdoor pursuits like cycling and hiking were hot last summer as people sought out new and fun activities close to home.
With the holidays behind us and the usual New England winter stretching ahead, it could be the perfect time to get out there and become an expert Nordic or Cross Country skier. And just like the joy of new outdoor pursuits so many found this past summer, there’s happiness to be mined out on those trails.
What is Nordic skiing? Skiing is broken down into two main categories: Nordic, when the toe is connected to the ski but the heel lifts, and alpine, when both the toe and heel are connected to the ski.
Alpine skiing is done, for the most part, at planned ski resorts, although a type of Nordic called Telemark combines a Nordic-like ski set up with alpine trails.
Cross country skiing is done in a Nordic set-up on planned and for the most part groomed trails, with parallel grooves in the trail that act as guides for your skis. Classic Nordic skiing involves flatter locations but takes the skier off those trails and “off piste” going up and down hills from time to time.
Alpine’s power comes from turns and gravity. Nordic’s comes from the power of your glide.
What’s extra-great about Cross Country and Nordic skiing? Once you learn from a pro, you can do it just about any place you find snow.
Why learning correctly is smart
Think of your brain as a giant untouched blueprint, just waiting for the lines of your Nordic ski life to be drawn.
Learning from a trained pro and a reputable spot ensures those lines will be drawn correctly from the start, meaning you’ll never have to go back and try the tricky (and sometimes expensive and near-impossible) task of “rebuilding” that foundation.
Start the right way and you’ll ski the right way, not just technically, but overall. Skiing is meant to be joyful. Sure, you might push yourself to some challenging moments, but overall, the act of getting a ski to glide along should be one that lifts your spirits every time. Lessons make that a reality.
One difference between Nordic and Alpine: you can probably get out on Nordic skis without a lesson. But doing that means, in most cases, you’ll never feel the joy of doing it the fun (and correct) way.
“You can be ‘safe’ without a lesson,” said Ellen Chandler, executive director of Jackson XC in Jackson, New Hampshire, one of the world’s most respected Nordic/Cross Country spots (www.jacksonxc.org). “But you’ll mostly be going out to be trudging around like you are on really big, really ineffective snowshoes.”
“Nordic,” she added, “is all about the glide. You feel effortless once you start that glide, and it’s magic.”
Chandler said learning to glide is usually mastered in the first lesson, and follow-up lessons focus on control on smaller hills and then opening up to even more terrain to master.
A few lessons in, a person should be ready to pop on their skis and glide at locations close to home on those new snow days this winter.
What kind of lessons to take?
This pandemic season, there are a few tweaks to the usual.
At Jackson XC, you can do a group family or bubble lesson (that includes those who are in your social distance bubble).
Family lessons are somewhat new, Chandler said, and are winning folks over quickly.
“It’s fun” she said. “We hold them in a flatter area so that the instructor can work with different levels (of learners). The parents love it because they can watch their kids; and the kids don’t feel too ‘watched’ because the parents are busy learning too.”
Privates are a great idea too, particularly for your first lesson. This year, in all lessons, instructors have to social distance, she said, so that means they cannot help you get up by pulling you up, or help you guide your skis hands-on. But, Chandler said, the team has adapted well.
What’s it like to learn?
Marla Zucker, a southern transplant who now calls Massachusetts home, decided to learn after she and her wife purchased a home in Jackson, where Nordic is big.
“I was nervous,” she said of her first lesson at Jackson XC. “Putting me on snow isn’t always easy.”
She said the lessons truly helped her embrace the sport quickly.
“I had to learn some important things first, like learning to stop was helpful,” she said with a laugh. “And I had to learn the correct way to fall and get back up. It makes sense when you learn it. And then there is the technique. Getting the right rhythm with the poles and skis is what makes you glide.”
Now, readying for her third lesson, she feels confident and has found that expert smile.
“I have so much fun out there,” she said. “When you hit that correct stride, you think: ‘I’m doing it! I’m doing it!’ My wife is very happy I’m learning. And I like it, so I’m happy too.”
She’s now the proud owner of her own gear and a season’s pass. She’s also booked more lessons.
“Why lessons?” she asked rhetorically. “I don’t enjoy struggling, particularly outside in the winter. I’m 46 and I want to enjoy it out there and not hurt myself. I’m doing it the right way so I have fun.”
Chandler said that’s the key to it all.
“Learning in a controlled environment at a learning center brings you that,” she said. “Then you can go out on your own. You’re so much happier when you know how to do this correctly.”
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