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Jaeger versus Cross Country Skiing

Started: 2008-02-04 20:08:34

Submitted: 2008-02-04 22:12:06

Visibility: World-readable

Yesterday I went cross country skiing for the first time in five years. After several years snowshoeing, I looked to skiing as an attractive way to go further and faster on flat terrain, which could come in handy if I want to reach the same places I reached on foot in the summer, without roads closed for the winter and without heavy snowshoes strapped to my feet.

Sometime in high school, my parents got my siblings and I cross country skis for Christmas. (I was not amused at the time.) This long-neglected equipment seems to no longer exist in storage at my parents' house, so yesterday I drove into Boulder to rent skis, then headed up Lefthand Canyon to Brainard Lake. (I ended up with 200 centimeter Fisher touring skis with Salomon SNS Profil bindings.) I arrived at noon, figured out how to use the fancy new system bindings (I had used only the older three-pin bindings before), and headed down the CMC ski trail.

A hundred meters down the trail, on a slight uphill, catastrophe struck: My right pole broke, splitting into carbon fiber shards that held together lengthwise but no longer held any compression strength. I decided I couldn't go forward on a dead pole, so I turned around and had to go down the slight ascents I had previously struggled up. This proved traumatic; I quickly remembered what I disliked about going downhill on cross country skis. My skis had no edges, and my detached heel made it more difficult to put my ski where I wanted it to be. I suffered two somewhat spectacular falls on minor hills before I made it back to Motoko. I was wearing gaiters to keep the snow out of my boots but forgot to bring waterproof pant shells (which date from high school and don't really fit anymore).

I had, in fact, come prepared for such a catastrophe to keep the day from becoming a complete loss: I brought my snowshoes and expandable trekking poles. I decided I needed to give skiing another chance, so I swapped the broken rental poles for my trusty aluminum poles. (I expanded the poles to 135 centimeters, ten centimeters longer than I usually use for snowshoeing, which seemed to work well.) From the winter trailhead, I headed north and then west on the Waldrop Trail, then turned north-west to join the South St. Vrain Trail, which took me to a very windy Mitchell Lake Trailhead. I headed towards Mitchell Lake but turned around after a few hundred meters. I headed south around Brainard Lake (my first and only glimpse of the lake itself) and returned east to the winter trailhead on the CMC ski trail. I ended up going 13 kilometers in just under four hours, which at least isn't any slower than I go on snowshoes. I learned some important things about skis: I don't think pure touring skis are appropriate for what I want to do; the terrain I'm interested in is more akin to backcountry, though without any downhill element. I don't think I had enough flotation on my thin touring skis, and I'd like to try waxless backcountry skis next time.

(Yeah, that means there will be a next time. I may even end up buying skis, though before I do anything quite that crazy I'll need to spend a lot more time on rental skis to get a good feeling for what I really should get.)

January was my month of snowshoeing; out of four weekends, I went snowshoeing three times. For Christmas, my parents gave me the Garmin MapSource maps I can download onto my GPS receiver for actual topographic goodness on my tiny, portable screen. The maps based on the USGS 24,000:1 covered only national parks, so on 6 January, I had to drive to Wild Basin in Rocky Mountain National Park to get coverage. I parked at the winter trailhead and snowshoed up the road to the summer trailhead and continued on the trail up the fork of the St. Vrain. I turned off the main trail at my first opportunity, just short of Calypso Cascades, and stayed on the north side of the creek. I had no trouble following the trail, thanks to earlier travelers, until they turned around and I had to break my own trail. That went well enough for a while until the trail seemed to turn up a snow-covered hill and I couldn't figure out where it emerged. (I later checked my track on Google Earth and discovered where I had gone wrong -- the trail continued up the hill for longer than I expected.) I quickly descended to the creek, carefully crossed, and picked my way up the opposite side of the valley until I found the main trail on the other side, which had been tracked recently enough that I could figure out where it was. I continued up the valley to the junction I was heading for as part of my lollypop loop and realized that the trail as indicated on my GPS receiver bore little resemblance to the actual trail on the ground. Since the other features seemed to be fairly well marked -- lakes, contour lines, and rivers -- I concluded that the trail registration on the original USGS quad was less than perfect. This was something of a disappointment, since I was hoping to use the map as a guide on trails I hadn't previously traveled. It started snowing as I turned around and headed down the valley.

Two weeks later, on 20 January, I visited Wild Basin again. This time, I parked at the (closed for the season) entrance station and headed up the north wall of the valley to Sandbeach Lake. At the appropriate junction, I considered turning north to climb Lookout Mountain, but the trail turned into a sheltered valley where I couldn't easily locate the trail, so I turned back to the easier-to-track main trail. As I gained elevation and left the exposed valley wall, the snow grew deeper and I had to break trail, though finding the trail was never difficult. As I approached the lake, I passed a snow camping group who had come up the day before, apparently before their tracks were covered by new snow. When I reached the lake, I was rewarded by a commanding view of the south face of Mount Meeker dominating the south face of Longs Peak. I took pictures of the frozen lake and the mountains but later discovered that my pictures also featured a fiber hovering over the mountains, thanks to debris in my camera.

My final snowshoe excursion in January was a week later, on 27 January. I visited Brainard Lake and snowshoed up the CMC snowshoe trail to the lake, across the frozen lake itself, up the Niwot Cutoff trail, and along the south edge of Long Lake before looping back, missing the trail to return to the (snowed-in) Long Lake Trailhead, relying on my GPS receiver to take me there, and ultimately returning to the winter trailhead on the snowshoe trail.