Thursday, February 16, 2012

Why we have left the ski hills behind

When I was in elementary school my mom used to take my brother and I cross country skiing in Northern Alberta on some local ski trails a few times each winter.  We had the classic 3-pin skis and wore our knee socks proudly over our jeans.  I'm pretty sure everybody skied in jeans back in the 80s and I have no idea how we stayed warm.  Sadly I have no photos to post, but maybe that's a good thing.  I have fond memories of skiing and can still remember how much I loved to get out into real nature; no crowds, no loud music, no ski lifts or machinery, the smell of pine trees as we skied through the forest.  We could tell when spring was coming because the smell changed and everything was fresh and new.  I would have chosen to go skiing any day rather than stay in the city.  It's worth noting too that cross country skiing was the only sport I liked.  Anybody who went to school with me can testify that I was not exactly a jock!  I  got a job teaching junior high physical education one year and I still laugh to think that somebody actually hired me to teach volleyball!  I'm terrified of the ball to this day.  I was once asked if I liked to read books when I was recruited to join a game with friends in my 20s and obviously wasn't playing so well.  True story. 

I didn't learn to downhill ski until I was in my senior year of high school.  I took a 6 week class at our local ski hill and managed to progress to the easiest intermediate run by the end of the 6 weeks.   It was fun and obviously stuck with me because I own downhill skis to this day and used to head to the slopes at least once or twice a month.  I never got really good at downhill skiing but then, I never truly pursued excellence at it either.  I've always been quite content to speed down the groomed intermediate runs and leave the moguls, tree-skiing, and double blacks to my husband. 

I think what I liked best about downhill skiing was the ski weekends.  We'd go away with friends for a weekend, rent a condo and sit in the hot tub after skiing all day.  Around 2007 though I started to lose interest in the sport.  I didn't have a child yet, we were still a double income family who could afford the sport, and there was an abundance of amazing ski hills close to Calgary to indulge in.  What changed?  I realized there were more things I disliked about the sport than things I liked about it.
  • I hated having to get up at 6am on a Saturday to get to the ski hill for first runs.  It's a two hour drive from my house to reach Lake Louise.  Sunshine Village is closer but then you have a gondola ride to add on to your time in order to reach the ski base.  Nakiska, in Kananaskis is by far the closest ski resort but it's always very hard-packed and a fall at Nakiska can spell definite injury!  We loved ski weekends at Jasper's Marmot Basin, Fernie, or Kimberly but they are too far away for a day trip and once you add hotel or condo and meals to the weekend, the price really adds up!
  • I only liked skiing perfectly groomed corduroy.  That meant I had good skiing for the first hour of the day and if it had snowed the night before I was screwed.  I've never mastered powder skiing and now that I have a delicate right hip, I don't imagine I'll be learning anytime soon.
  • I only liked skiing when the light was perfect.  How scary is it to start down a run realizing that you can't tell where it drops off because the light is too flat?  I was also terrified of skiing when it was snowing and again you couldn't see clearly where you were going.
  • I started to get sick of the obnoxious behavior taking place on the ski hill around me.  Youth would go rippin' past me with their i-pods on, oblivious to anything going on around them, and then God forbid you had to share a lift with somebody; they wouldn't talk to you or engage in any social conversation.  They kept their headphones on and shut you out.  And that wasn't just the youth!
  • I felt like I was taking the city with me to the mountains.  Everybody and their dog was certainly going to be on the hill with me and since I worked, I couldn't exactly go out on a quiet Wednesday.  I like to escape the city on weekends and it's hard to do when you are on a crowded ski hill filled with the people you wanted to leave behind.
  • I couldn't justify the cost of skiing anymore.  The current cost of a day at Lake Louise is $79.95 per day.  The current cost of cross country skiing in Kananaskis is $0.00.  
Hence it was in 2007 that I started to focus exclusively on cross country skiing.  And before you start to think, boring, I'm going to insert some photos here that will hopefully show you it's anything but boring when you are cross country skiing in the mountains.  This isn't flat skiing around a lake my friends.  Falls can spell injury.  Not making a turn can mean hitting a tree.  Going off trail on non-groomed trails often requires avalanche training.  Backcountry cabins await all over the Rockies for the adventurous skier to find.

Ski touring in Paradise Valley at Lake Louise and not a ski lift in sight.
The Tonquin Valley, Jasper National Park (a 3 day ski tour in complete backcountry isolation)
Skiing over Deception Pass on the way out from a night at Skoki Lodge (-30C, and a 12km ski to reach the backcountry lodge)
Lake O'Hara in winter (want to stay here?  Strap on your cross country skis for the 12km journey in with your overnight pack)
Skiing at Lake O'Hara (where's all the people?  Hmm...)
Another classic view of real skiing (you don't need a ski hill to find powder)
I have truly found my niche in cross country skiing.  With downhill skiing I was always scared, on edge, and nervous.  I'd feel terror in my stomach as we arrived at the ski hill and I don't know how many times I had to count to three as I went down more difficult runs, telling myself that on three, I would take the leap of faith to link my next turn.  From the photos above though, you can hopefully see that I feel no such fear with cross country skiing.  If I can't safely get down a steep hill on an overnight ski trip, I at least have the option of leaving my climbing skins on and problem solved; no speed.  We venture into all kinds of terrain on our cross country touring skis designed with metal edges and I like powder.  I can't stand cross country skiing on corduroy.  I choose my loops based on which direction will give us the biggest baddest hills in the downhill direction.  I'm certainly not somebody living in fear anymore.  I've found complete and utter freedom on my cross country skis.

My friend Jorge convinced me to write this story because he said I needed to urge more families to take up cross country skiing.  Understand, that Jorge doesn't even have kids but he's looked around on the trails and has noticed that they are sadly lacking families.  What he especially noticed was that there were no teenagers.  Jorge and his wife want to have children soon and are hoping that they will be able to share this wonderful sport with them.  We too plan to pursue cross country skiing with our son instead of the more popular downhill skiing option.  I'll finish this story with a few reasons why I think it's important for families to reconsider which kind of ski lessons they enroll their kids in.

One - We live in a society facing a real Nature Deficit Disorder.    Our children would prefer to stay indoors and play video games than to go to the mountains or even go into their backyard and play.  Sadly, I'm not sure downhill skiing does anything to solve this problem.  I see little nature when I go downhill skiing.  What I do see are man-made structures, technology at work to haul our lazy butts up a mountain so we don't have to climb it ourselves, and a society that is plugged in to their i phones, i-pods, and other electronic devices even while playing in the mountains.  I can count on one hand the times I've seen somebody listening to music while cross country skiing.  I myself have only ever done it once and it was on a particularly long ski trip into a backcountry hut where I was seriously struggling with energy levels and motivation.  Do people struggle with energy to get down a ski hill?  Is that why they are plugged into their favorite tunes instead of listening to the birds and sounds of nature?  Or wait, have you ever heard a bird on a ski hill?  Point made if you haven't.

Introducing our son to xc skiing at a young age

Two -  Cross country skiing teaches unique skills that only other endurance sports can teach our children.  When I was young, I dropped out of every sport and activity I was introduced to.  Ballet wasn't fun enough and so I quit three quarters of the way through the year.  It wasn't until I started hiking and climbing that I learned perseverance.  Endurance sports teach us to keep going when life isn't easy.  They teach us to continue on when we really long to quit something.  They teach us how to be strong people of character and integrity.  I'm not sure what downhill skiing has to teach us because it's honestly too much fun.  Now don't get me wrong, I think having fun is a great thing, but I also think we should have to work for it.   The fun is fast and easy at a ski resort.  When you go cross country skiing, you slog up the hills, you push, you work, and you  build strength.  Then you get to the top and that delayed gratification is oh so sweet when you get to go down the big hill on the other side; the hill that you worked so hard to get up.  We live in a society that is obsessed with quick fixes and a fast food mentality.  Cross country skiing teaches us to slow down, to savor life and to appreciate those moments of fun.

Chariots and Ski Pulks are a great way to get out together as a family (harder to go downhill skiing with a baby)

Three - 59% of Canadian adults are currently overweight or struggling with obesity.  26% of children are also overweight and that number isn't going to go down if they are following the patterns of the overweight adults in their family.  I got these statistics from the Childhood Obesity Foundation.  Another interesting website I found is the Live Strong site.  It had the following to say about the benefits of cross country skiing:
An individual who weighs 130 pounds burns, on average, 413 to 472 calories per hour cross-country skiing at a slow to moderate pace, according to NutriStrategy. An individual performing the same activity who weighs 180 pounds may burn, on average, 572 to 654 calories per hour. Cross-country skiing uphill expends twice as many calories per hour, or roughly 975 and 1,350 for an individual weighing 130 and 180 pounds, respectively.
Downhill skiing burns calories too and it's still an active way to get out and spend the day but you'll spend as much time sitting on lifts as you will skiing and that's where cross country skiing takes the biggest advantage.  If you go cross country skiing for four hours, you will spend that whole time actually skiing.  You won't be waiting in lines or sitting on a chair lift for 20 minutes between runs.  Fitness is very important in our family and it's one of the biggest reasons we choose to go skiing and hiking every weekend.  It's doubtful that with our example to follow, our son will grow up struggling with obesity.

Our son follows us on most of our ski adventures.

If your family enjoys downhill skiing I commend you for choosing a family sport that gets your kids into the mountains.  I think it's awesome that you get outside period!  Many families don't even do that.  I do encourage you though to consider adding cross country skiing to your weekend routine.  We used to alternate between the two kinds of skiing before we had our son.  If we went to a resort one weekend, we'd go into nature the next.  It was a nice balance for us.

I'd also urge you to consider taking up backcountry skiing if you have teenagers. Backcountry skiing is similar to resort skiing but with all the added  benefits of cross country skiing; you work to get up the hills, there are no ski lifts, you are surrounded by pristine nature and untouched snow, you'll burn an insane amount of calories, and you still get to enjoy the wild ski down.  You'll find more powder than at resorts and it's a sport that will appeal to thrill seekers as well as teens that think spending time with mom and dad is boring. 

For cross country lessons, check out Canada Olympic Park, the University of Calgary Outdoor Centre or the Canmore Nordic Centre.
For backcountry lessons, check out the University of Calgary Outdoor Centre or Yamuska.  (Both the Outdoor Centre and Yamnuska offer avalanche courses too to complement your backcountry ski training)


  1. Another place to get kids introduced to cross country skiing is a group called Jackrabbits. I don't know much about the calgary group, but I grew up in Red Deer and belonged to the Jackrabbits for a long time and enjoyed skiing with other kids my age and ability. Their website is

    1. Yes, COP has a great Jackrabbit program. The kids take lessons together, race against each other and have fun with their peers. The Foothills Nordic Ski Club and the Calgary Ski Club are both supposed to be amazing groups. They organize ski trips on weekends for families, bbqs in summer and even hiking trips in summer. (there's the link to all the ski clubs in Canada)

  2. Great Post Tanya! I'm so glad our chat about XC skiing prompted you to write this post.
    As you mentioned above, XC skiing is a fun way to lose a lot of calories. And, compared to running, XC skiing improves cardiovascular capacity with minimal impact to the joints (except if you are someone like me who falls in every sharp turn after a downhill, LOL!)
    And after seeing those great pics you posted above, who can say XC skiing is boring?


  3. Glad you liked the post Jorge. Looking forward to skiing more with you and Patricia.