I’m not a downhill skier. I know what you’re thinking, and yes, I’ve tried it. I can rock hotdog and pizza, and I put the latter to especially good use for much of my childhood. My lack of love for the sport might have had something to do with the iffy, wet conditions I grew up on at Snoqualmie Pass in Washington State. Or it could have had to do with another fact. My Dad isn’t a downhiller. He’s a skate skier.
“A what?” “Oh, the one where you’ve got little skis, right?” “Wait, you go up the hill?” That’s the average response I get when I try to explain the activity of sliding around on skinny skis. I defend it to the end, but here in Colorado, it can be a daunting task to explain to someone that you don’t particularly enjoy ripping down a hill. Some people are simply endorphin junkies, not adrenalin.
I didn’t always love skating. As a matter of fact, I despised the sport and its awkward nature until I got a grasp on technique – a solid twelve years after my first attempt. But when your Dad’s a skate skier, there’s only so much you can do. As a matter of fact, the man believes he invented the sport. Apparently, it all began in the middle of Alaska one dark winter, forty-five years ago. He’d ride the snowmobile berm in his classic skis, sliding off either side to cover more ground. Eventually, Dad shaved the fish scales off the bottom to get an even sweeter ride. It’s a cool story, until he offers to sign people’s skis at the resort in a very misguided claim to fame. For the record, skating was officially invented sometime around ’84 when the marathon skate was becoming popular in long distance cross-country races. It was actually outlawed at first, as it posed a threat to the original sport. Apparently the governing body of Nordic skiing wasn’t quite as forward thinking as the guys leaving their kick wax at home. Now you know, Dad.
I’m not sure if it was sheer stubbornness or to maintain a sense of originality, but Dad fashioned me a pair of skaters the same way (a few decades later). They were roughly two feet too short and probably $20 at a ski swap with hand-shaved bottoms, but he always did a nice job with the wax. Unfortunately, Dad couldn’t do anything about that wet Snoqualmie slush.
I flailed. I wailed. I suffered in all manners possible on those skis. Dad would reassure me that, “We’ll turn back, just after the next corner.” Lies. All lies. Snacks on the trail consisted of half a miniature tangerine, roughly 12 calories. It was nothing short of torture as I watched my Dad have the time of his life, skating in smooth glory and at what seemed like 20 feet a glide on either foot. Push, glide, push, glide. Push, wobble, push, fall. Winters came and went with Dad dragging me out a handful of times each – fewer if I was lucky.
Puberty hit, and then a little wisdom. Something must’ve fallen on my head when I realized it would be smart to actually, seriously try to enjoy Dad’s true passion in life – skate skiing. Even at that time I could admit it’d be nice to glide along with him, flowing along majestically in purple spandex snow suits I still won’t be caught dead in. Only thing was, I couldn’t do it for the life of me. I was still flailing, falling over, and feeling that all too familiar embarrassment of the kid on the slopes doing pizza the whole way down.
Fast-forward a few years. Now my main purpose in life is the pursuit of endorphins, and I’m regularly mountain biking at 10,000 feet elevation every weekend in the Rocky Mountains. Dad also bought me a real pair of skate skis two winters ago. Whatever the reason, it clicked. Push, glide. I get it. Come to think of it, it’s probably because I started packing power bars instead of tangerines.
Even though I have finally come to enjoy it, skate skiing doesn’t get a lot of love. It’s not one of those epic sports you’ll see headlining the X Games or gracing the pages of your favorite gear guide. Aside from the famed Birkebeiner, there’s nothing very “epic” about it. But by complete accident, Dad and I did what we could to change that.
It all happened at the Maroon Bells. The famous, triangular peaks in Aspen, Colorado. During our annual skate trip in the Rocky Mountains last winter, we attempted to visit this iconic spot. The only problem was, we arrived at a locked gate piled with snow – seven miles from the photo op. So what did we do? Pulled our skinnies out of the truck and began the 1,200 foot elevation ascent on a more-or-less ungroomed road. Naturally, all we had was a tangerine.
Somewhere around mile five, things became brutal. My beloved boots had started to rub, and Dad was fading fast. One or two brave athletes charged past us, all making better time on foot. We looked blankly at the tangerine and began rationing the remaining bits. After a bit of walking, hobbling, and skating, we made it to the snow-covered parking lot. The peaks greeted us in absolute splendor, and so did a blue-eyed mountain man. He’d taken a snowmobile up earlier that day, and like something out of a dream, invited us into a windblown hut for hot chocolate. We were the only three people at our private “summit”, and it was everything a day on the mountain should be. Warmed to the core and ready for a five course meal, Dad and I took the obligatory photos and glided effortlessly, albeit exhaustedly, back down to the truck. It was pure magic, and if not an epic, I’m not sure what is.
This coming year? We’ve set our sights on somewhere in the middle of old Snoqualmie and the Maroon Bells – Utah, to be exact. With over 70 kilometers of groomed trails between Salt Lake and Park City, I may have finally found that rare, exceptional breed of person who doesn’t ask me “Skinny skis? What for?”
Now no matter how many Warren Miller films I kick back with a beer to ogle and enjoy, I’ll be a skate skier for life. It’s not just the feel-good of earning your après ski appetizers and drinks, although that definitely has something to do with it. It’s the freedom of movement and hard-earned capability. The freedom you feel flying along under the power of your own body, both up and down the hills. The enjoyment of a $12 ticket and a lift line that – oh wait, you’re the only one on the trail. No one is bombing for avalanches and gawking as you stumble around in your 40 lb ski boots. You can’t fit another guy in your ski jacket. You probably don’t even need a jacket. Skate skiing is everything the mountains should be. It’s why you’re there in the first place.
Dad still drives up from sea level, where he’s been training at good old Snoqualmie Pass, to meet me in the mountains. And what does he do? Flies by me so fast all I can see are grinning teeth and a blur of purple spandex. Sure, he gets winded on the hills. He’s 73 and we’re at 11,000 feet at Beaver Creek. But that’s my Dad, and he’ll always be a few 20-foot glides ahead of me.
Last winter, I convinced my boyfriend to go skate skiing (you already know he’s a keeper). With great skepticism he left his ski jacket in the car, and clipped into his rentals. Three minutes later he attempted to carve down a slight incline and flipped appropriately over the top of his skinnies. Looks like I’ll be packing power bars for one, for a while.