Cross country skiing — Pleasant walk in the park

Published: Thursday, Feb. 24 2005 12:00 a.m. MST

The trails at Soldier Hollow beckon cross country skiers of all ages and skill levels. Instruction in the world's oldest form of skiing is available at the park.

Tom Smart, Deseret Morning News

SOLDIER HOLLOW — It's a walk in the park. Or, in this case, and at this time, a ski in the Olympic Park in the winter.

Right foot forward and slide, then left and slide, right and slide and left . . . and so on.

The world's oldest form of skiing has found new roots in the world's newest Olympic cross country center — Soldier Hollow. And it is on the trails within the park that participants are finding there's good reason the sport has been around so long. Cross country skiing is active, healthy, invigorating and easy.

Howard Peterson, manager of the park, best described the art of nordic skiing as a "brisk walk."

Which, of course, would explain the growing popularity. Peterson said that since the Olympians have left, roughly 29,000 people have tried the sport for the first time, "and we're on track this year to introduce it to roughly 10,000 people for the first time."

About the only difference between cross country and walking is that there are 6-foot extensions of the feet and 4-foot poles connected to the hands.

And, participants can make it as easy or as physically demanding as they choose. Forbes Magazine lists cross country skiing at No. 5 in the top 10 most physically beneficial sports.

The sport itself is only distantly related to alpine skiing. The skis in cross country are much thinner and longer, and the boots much lighter and more comfortable. The newest boots, in fact, look and feel more like shoes.

Because of the constant movement involved in nordic skiing, the clothing tends to be lighter. Also, the equipment and clothing tend to be less expensive.

The introduction of the groom track in nordic skiing has been a big benefit to the sport. Custom-designed snowcats pack a wide swath over snowfields, eliminating the need for skiers, especially new and/or inexperienced skiers, to break trail through deep powder.

Groomers not only set two parallel tracks for the classical walking style of skiing but also smooth a wide patch for the more technical and newer skating style.

At Soldier Hollow, offered Peterson, "we pay special attention to grooming. Our groomers are out every night."

He also pointed out that since the Olympics, "we've redesigned the park. About half our trails are new and most are on more gentle, less challenging terrain. I'd say about two-thirds of our trails now are on flatter, gentler terrain, and the other third is still Olympic caliber."

There are 10 trails within the park that are groomed, for a total distance of 21 kilometers.

Cross country skiing starts, of course, with connecting the skis to the feet, which, for some can be challenging and why instruction starts on flat, level ground and with a little help from the instructor.

"The next step in learning is showing people how to stop," he added. "Knowing how to stop goes a long ways toward taking away any fears they may have."

With younger skiers, instructors then move into the natural form of walking, which in cross country is akin to people out on a "power walk." From there the students are given the freedom to explore.

With adults, the learning process is a little different.

"What we've found is that most adults are not anxious to go off on their own in the beginning, but want a little more instruction or a guide to help. So we'll just go out on a trail and in the process they learn the different techniques. At this point, instructors become more of a guiding force."

Since the Olympics, one of the main focuses at the park has been introducing the sport to youths.

On any given day, there will be between 65 and 70, or roughly 1,000 young skiers a week, most of school age, on the track.