Joe made it look so easy. His heels didn’t seem to be slipping off the sides of his slender skis. He didn’t look at all off-balance. Hell, he could actually do it backward. Of course, it made sense that Joe was a good skate skier; he was, after all, a professional ski instructor at Devil’s Thumb Ranch in Tabernash. His task on that early March day was to teach me to be good at it, too.

OK, good might’ve been a stretch. Competent was probably a better goal—yet even that didn’t seem within reach during the first five minutes of the lesson. I’d fallen twice—while mostly standing still.

I had scheduled the hourlong private instruction because, in truth, I’d never really liked Nordic skiing. The classic version had always felt more like trudging than skiing to me; there was no flow. It was entirely possible I simply wasn’t doing it right, but I felt like I was missing something. Turns out, I was right: I’d been craving the dynamic movement of skate skiing.

That didn’t mean I was going to be great at it, but after roughly 20 minutes of guidance, I started getting into a rhythm. First, Joe had explained that the motion was more like ice skating. Forward locomotion comes from a leg push that goes out to the side, instead of the straight-back kick in classic XC. He also had me practice the stride without poles at first. This teaching method is widely used—experts say it helps with setting up good fundamentals—but adding the poles aided my balance and somehow helped me grasp the cadence. I surprised myself when I was able to ski approximately 150 feet without too many balance checks—and without crashing—by midway through the lesson. Joe was surprised, too, letting out an audible whooooop! and then yelling, “She’s got it!”

I promptly fell, but I blamed the slight downhill I’d encountered and gave Joe a good-natured ribbing for not yet having taught me how to stop. (Quick tip: It’s a modified snow plow.) Even though I was dusting snow off my rear end again, I knew this iteration of Nordic was more my speed—literally. Yes, it’s a more challenging—borderline anaerobic—way to slide across snow, but the brisk pace and unfettered movement felt more natural to me. The drudgery was gone; I was floating. By the end of the hour, Joe had taught me different poling techniques, showed me a trick for strengthening my weaker side (place your strong leg in the parallel track, then skate using only your weaker leg), and demonstrated the best way to tackle a steep uphill section.

Then it was Joe’s turn to surprise me: “I think you should hit the trails. You’re good to go.” I know he wasn’t actually telling me I was good, but that’s exactly what I heard.

Classic Ski 101

Hennie Kashiwa of Boulder Nordic Sport. Photo courtesy of Tobias Albrigtsen.

From expert Hennie Kashiwa, Boulder Nordic Sport:
“Although it’s often described as a powerful walk, classic skiing is so much more than walking or running on skis. The ultimate goal of the classic technique—called the diagonal stride—is to have a powerful kick from one leg that allows the skier to glide for a few seconds on the other leg between strides. Take time to practice skiing without poles at first to get a good feel for how to get the most out of kicking and gliding. Shuffle a few steps, and then glide on one foot. Shuffle again, and then glide on the other foot. It takes time to perfect it, and it’s actually less intuitive than it looks; lessons can be the best way to make sure you have fun.”