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Amy Donaldson
The cross-country ski trail at Soldier Hollow.
I think it's surpassed everybody's expectations. Seeing all of these junior skiers here, the families, the charter school, the children who ski four times a week — it's a happy noise. —Howard Peterson, the general manager of Soldier Hollow

MIDWAY — As we glided toward the stadium where world champions won Olympic glory just a decade ago, I felt exhilarated.

What I didn't know as I pointed out to fellow skiers the biathlon targets, the competition center and the charter school is that my Nordic ski trip to Soldier Hollow might never have happened were it not for the vision of local ski enthusiasts and U.S. Ski officials.

But before I recount the story of how Soldier Hollow came to be a world-renowned Nordic Ski center, it's important to understand how I came to be skate skiing at the Midway resort last week.

My affinity for attempting activities at which I am not talented is well documented. So when my friend and fellow outdoor writer Lori Lee suggested we join in Ski Utah's trip to Soldier Hollow I only asked one question:

"It's cool if we're no good, right?"

Lee assured me that beginners were welcome and, in fact, expected for this excursion.

My first cross-country ski experience was less than satisfying.

As a high school student in Anchorage, Alaska, I let my sister talk me into giving the sport a try. Frustrating doesn't even begin to describe my first day in Nordic gear. Some of the details are now hazy, but one thing stands out in my mind, crystal clear: Attempting a kick turn nearly finished me.

I'd been shown a variety of ways to turn on cross-country skis. The kick turn, my teacher said, was most useful in deeper snow when a skier preferred to return the way she came.

That was me. Not only am I athletically average, I am also directionally challenged. So rather than get lost in the foothills around my high school, I opted to throw down a kick turn and go back to the school the way I came.

Getting far enough away from the school that I didn't feel like this entire proposition was a complete waste of time was agonizing. I couldn't move more than three or four kicks before I tipped over. I started wondering if there was something wrong with my equilibrium.

As I fought off frustration, fatigue and the pitfalls of inadequate winter clothing, I thought almost constantly about giving up. For some reason, getting to my feet made me feel like a pregnant penguin. I grunted, groaned and basically pole vaulted back to my feet over and over.

I was breathing hard when I decided I had skied a respectable distance from the school. I swung my leg into the air and my ski caught on the deeper snow. When it became stuck (at a 90-degree angle to my other ski), I fell onto my back.

This scenario repeated itself until I laid in the snow, crying, wondering if freezing to death really was as painful as it sounded.

Last Wednesday, the small group assembled briefly before being fitted for skate skis. The Nordic boots were so comfortable and the skis were unbelievably light. I could kick turn all day long in these babies! We went outside for a quick lesson with Diana Burnett, who started working at Soldier Hollow a few years ago. It was enrolling one of her children at the charter school that began her trip into Nordic skiing.

Now she teaches lessons, offers tours, rents equipment and, of course, keeps the more than 25 kilometers of trail in good working condition.

"It's so peaceful and quiet," she said of skiing through the hills that frame the town of Midway in the Heber Valley. And then she grins as she says sarcastically, "First thing in the morning, when the snow is sparkling and fresh, it's so difficult to go get first tracks."

After our 10-minute lesson, in which it became obvious that the group had a wide variety of skill levels, we set out. We had a plan to all ski the same loop, but that quickly fell apart as some skiers adapted quickly and others struggled with the heel movement, lack of edge and the technique of trying to move on skis the way one moves on skates.

Getting my glide on, as Lee and I joked, was actually pretty easy to pick up. That is, until I hit a pretty steep hill. Then I reverted to the "granny glide," which is much slower and not nearly as attractive or enjoyable, but I was moving forward.

The scenery was stunning, which would have made even the worst ski trip bearable. But skate skiing was a blast.

In fact, I had moments of feeling actually athletic, and then I saw members of the U.S. Nordic Combined team flying around the track and realized that I was letting the joy get the best of me.

But I wasn't the only one left wondering if I'd found a new passion. Snowboarder and Planet Gear employee Christopher Meves said he would give cross-country skiing another try.

"It actually feels like a nice alternative to running, very refreshing," he said smiling. "And I feel like a trooper because I didn't leave first."

Ben Napolitano with Wasatch Powder Bird Guides said he enjoyed it in large part because of the extensive cardio workout it provides.

One of the most attractive aspects of Soldier Hollow is that one can be clueless and still have an excellent time. Soldier Hollow is a Rossignol demo center, so the equipment is new and state-of-the art. And a day of skiing, including equipment rental, costs $37. It's only $9 for a trail pass for children, and a season pass for adults is just $225. Children ages 7-17 can ski for the season for $75. Soldier Hollow also has punch passes.

So it's much easier than I thought, cheaper than I imagined and offers just about the most beautiful scenery around.

Howard Peterson, the general manager of Soldier Hollow, was one of those who made sure Utah had a Nordic legacy. Originally, Salt Lake officials hoped to host the Nordic events at Little Dell.

"But that would have been temporary," said Peterson, who was in the midst of hosting a Nordic junior competition involving 600 youngsters from around the country. "That sort of defeats the purpose. We all wanted venues built that can have a lasting impact on the community."

Peterson was retired when a friend approached him and suggested he consider coming out of retirement in to help gain a permanent cross-country site. A life-long ski lover, Peterson was an easy sell.

The group met with then-Salt Lake Mayor Deedee Corradini, who agreed with the idea of finding a permanent site. At the time, Soldier Hollow was part of the Wasatch Mountain State Park, although a private developer had inquired about building a golf course.

When the group met with the Heber Valley community, the plan to build and sustain Soldier Hollow was met with "almost unanimous" approval.

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A decade after hosting the 2002 cross country, Nordic combined and biathlon events, Soldier Hollow is home to world-class events year round. Peterson said they've tried to offer "something for everyone" from sheep dog competitions and the Dirty Dash running race, to tubing to biathlon and cross-country ski events.

"I think it's surpassed everybody's expectations," he said. "Seeing all of these junior skiers here, the families, the charter school, the children who ski four times a week — it's a happy noise."

Twitter: adonsports

email: adonaldson@desnews.com