We went cross-country skiing in north central Washington over the Christmas holidays. It was a welcome respite from the Seattle rain, and the depressing news of the final months of 2015.
We battled driving snow, white-out conditions, ice, and unplowed roads for most of the long drive to Methow Valley.
Getting there took over 6 hours of white-knuckled driving, often at 35 MPH or less. Driving through the snowstorm was worth it, because we had the prospect of perfect conditions for our ski getaway in Methow Valley.
Arrival: Methow Valley
We arrived in time for a glass of wine, and the sunset alpenglow over the snowcapped Cascades — the snow was tinged with a million shades of pink, salmon and gold.
We were looking forward to the prospect of skiing on freshly fallen powder snow and lots of sunshine for the next 4–5 days.
The Methow Valley is justly famous for cross-country skiing, thanks to 120 miles of groomed trails. It offers a wide choice of terrains and conditions to practice cross-country skiing.
While there, we hoped to brush up on our rusty classic XC touring skills, learned years ago in the snowy meadows and woodlands of Vermont and New Hampshire.
Shop for New Skis
But first: we had to equip ourselves for cross-country skiing, and ensure our gear could withstand Methow’s below zero temperatures. We had thrown out my 20-year-old skis during last summer’s decluttering, so my XC boots would work only if we could buy skis with matching 3-pin bindings… And until we started shopping, we were unaware of how obsolete that binding system had become.
My husband gave me a poem for Christmas, in the form of a promise to take me shopping so we could replace my XC skis and boots, if need be.
We knew that Winthrop was home to several ski outfitters, an ideal place to shop and try out different options for Nordic skiing. Local friends advised us to shop at Winthrop Mountain Sports and the ski shop at Sun Mountain Lodge.
Although we tried several places, we ultimately focused on Winthrop Mountain Sports — a wise decision. They offer a wider selection of XC brands and choices, and co-owner Rita promised we’d be delighted with our eventual choices. (She was right.)
That said, we were shopping between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, at the height of Methow’s winter season, and inventories were depleting fast…
Discovery #1: our 3-pin bindings were obsolete, so we could no longer match skis and boots unless we shopped online for used gear, and took our chances on fit and quality… So we faced the need to buy a complete set of skis and boots.
Discovery #2: we’d have to adjust our technique to the new advances in ski engineering.
Day 1: Choose the Right Boots
Decision #1: which style do you prefer, skate skiing or classic? Answer: classic, AKA Nordic or cross country. (We had to update our vocabulary from “cross country” to “classic.”)
Decision #2: which boots?
Decision #3: which skis?
As experienced (albeit out-of-practice) skiers, we know that everything starts with the boots. Which boots you choose will determine your overall comfort level — and constrain your options when it comes to selecting skis and bindings.
The right boots offer support where you need it, fit comfortably, and provide enough room in the toe box so your feet stay warm despite bitter cold conditions.
After trying a half dozen boots, I found a great pair of XC boots from Fischer. Sadly, they’re a half size too big, but Fischer’s boots only come in whole metric sizes. My new boots strike a good balance between comfort and stability, a big improvement over my prior boots.
Fortunately, the sizing problem is solved by wearing thick hiking socks and tightening the laces every 30 minutes or so. The side benefit of wearing overly big boots is that your toes aren’t cramped, so it’s easier for your feet to stay warm. That was a a huge benefit last week, when skiing in below zero conditions! My ski companions were less comfortable.
We grew up skiing on classic XC skis (Bonna 2000’s), flexible wooden skis that need a fresh coating of pine tar at least once a season, plus scraping and fresh waxing for every outing. When you know how, and which wax combinations to apply given the conditions, nothing beats freshly waxed skis.
My husband broke his Bonnas years ago; mine are in a closet in New England.
Remembering what it was like to ski on Bonnas in Vermont defined our expectations for the best that XC skiing could offer. An impossible standard of excellence; it was clear we’d need to compromise when shopping in Methow Valley.
The sales rep promoted Salomon’s “skis with skins” as the best alternative for people who want fast skis with lots of kick. She then steered us away once I’d chosen a different brand for my boots, due to incompatible binding systems.
We discovered that there is less standardization in ski binding technologies than there used to be. Today’s ski brands pursue lock-in strategies — designing proprietary systems of boots and styles matched to specific ski bindings, so consumers end up with fewer choices across brands. There are some normative binding standards, but the reality for consumers is one of incompatibility across the major brands.
Net net: If you buy Fischer boots, you buy Fischer skis; the same goes for Salomon.
Days 1–4: Find Skis to Match the Boots
Having chosen Fischer boots, I spent the next 3 days experimenting with different models of Fischer skis, trying to find the right balance between kick and glide. It took a lot more work than I’d expected.
My first choice, a mid-level Fischer Crown at 197cm, proved to be all glide, no kick — I flew like a bat out of hell, but only thanks to continuous momentum, great balance and skillful weight transfers. The skis were so fast that I kept running over the backs of my husband’s skis — a novel experience for both of us.
Whenever I tried to put a kick into my stride, the skis would slip out from under me. Striding was an exercise in constant slipping. It took a comically exaggerated movement for me to get any traction under the foot. Climbing hills was out-of-the-question. Overall I found those skis exhilarating, but exhausting.
But I wasn’t quite ready to give up on them…
Match Skis to Your Ski Style and Ability
Before ruling out those fast skis, we decided to take a refresher ski lesson the following day. We theorized that my lack of kick might be caused by an XC technique that wasn’t matched to today’s no-wax technologies, so we signed up for a semi-private ski lesson at Sun Mountain Lodge. We told the instructor what we hoped to learn, and the decision we were trying to make about the skis.
That ski lesson was very instructive, a valuable refresher on theory and technique. We learned how to adjust our style and stance, given the technical advances in ski engineering since the days of our early model no-wax skis.
Our instructor prompted us to lean forward more aggressively — as if we were falling forward or skiing into gale-force winds; to hunch our shoulders, and assume “the athletic position.” He coached us on weight and balance transfers while keeping the forward knee bent. We both improved very quickly.
As a yoga practitioner, I was amused by the differences between XC’s version of the “athletic position” and the basic posture for yoga — quite different when it comes to positioning the upper torso, collarbones and shoulder rotation.
The ski lesson revealed that I was indeed equipped with the wrong skis. The instructor hinted that Fischer skis are tricky to fit, but delightful once you find the right pair… We talked about “skins” versus “fish scales” — the buzz among serious XC skiers seems to be in favor of skins.
After our lesson we rushed down the mountain to reach Winthrop Mountain Sports before closing time. As hoped, we swapped out the fast all-glide skis for a model that promised to offer better traction under the foot. Given my choice of the Fischer boots (and inventory shortages at the shop), I was advised to switch to a shorter and more flexible ski (5 CM shorter, a less advanced model). Skins were not on offer.
Day 3: Out we went into the bitter cold, equipped with shorter skis for a long afternoon of skiing. I got plenty of kick, but sadly, no glide… My skis kept sticking to the snow, in sunshine and shade.
Despite my excessive traction on Day 3, we skied for several hours, relishing the perfect snow conditions. It was loads of fun, but not a wise decision because those skis proved to be even less well matched to my skill level than my original choice. (Perhaps I was too experienced for them.)
At one point I fell face forward while skiing down a very small hill because my body was moving faster than the skis — a humiliating reminder of the need to find the right balance between kick and glide.
After skiing for several hours, making exaggerated moves in a desperate quest for some glide, I ended up over-taxing my knees and injuring the soft tissue.
At day’s end we limped into the shop to swap out those disappointing skis. Rita, the shop owner, promised to prepare two more models for me to try the following morning. She was pretty confident that one of them would be just right. She proposed I try the top-of-the-line recreational XC model from Fischer, and Fischer’s entry-level racing model (confirming my suspicion that I’d been fighting with beginner level skis).
Day 4: We hit the trails early that morning with both sets of skis. It was twelve below zero over breakfast, and about six below when we arrived at Big Valley. Prudent skiers might have waited until afternoon for warmer conditions, but we couldn’t wait to try the new skis…
At Last, the Right Skis
I stepped into the high-performance Fischer touring skis, got off to a fast start on freshly groomed trails, and it was love at first sight.
I also tried the racing skis, but it took only 50 yards to reveal that the high-performance touring skis were a better fit for my style and ability than the racers. The racing skis went back into the Prius, ready to return to the shop.
After 4 days of shopping, I eventually chose to buy Fischer’s Superlite Crown model. (The sad irony is that my husband has been skiing this model for the past 5 years or more — if only we had started here for me!)
Knowing that we’d finally found the right skis, I stepped back into the Superlites and we went out for a 90-minute cruise. Given the cold, there was hardly anyone else skiing Big Valley. Hurray! New skis and fabulous conditions for ski touring, even better once the sun warmed the valley to a balmy nine degrees.
The sad irony: my knees were shot from three prior days of trying out skis that didn’t fit. Despite a lovely cruise in perfect conditions, my injured knees prevented me from fully enjoying my new skis on our last day in Winthrop.
Once my knees recover, I look forward to future outings on these brand new skis — in the Methow Valley or closer venues in the Cascades like Hyack.
In the meantime I’m grateful to my husband for such a generous Christmas gift. We’re both grateful to the owner of Winthrop Mountain Sports, for working so carefully to ensure we found just the right skis and boots for me.
Skis and Boots for Bruce?
And as a final irony: my husband went skiing with friends on our last afternoon in Winthrop, and may now be facing a shopping trip to replace his failing equipment.
The temperatures were so cold that the glue on his ski boots failed. As a result the soles, with their integral 3-pin bindings, separated from the boots. He’s going to try to glue boots and soles back together, but if that fails, we’re facing another shopping trip.
He has 3-pin bindings on his Superlite Crown skis, and may not be able to keep his beloved skis unless he can find someone willing to install more modern bindings on them. We’ll see what happens…