Crash-country skiing: First timers enjoy learning the sport

Daily Sentinel features writer Melinda Mawdsley coasts along a cross-country ski trail on Grand Mesa. Cross-country skiing is often thought of as an easier sport than traditional downhill skiing, but it requires quite a bit of work and concentration. There are several trails right in our backyard that offer the opportunity to learn the sport.

Rachel Sauer crashes while cross-country skiing.



Several area stores that sell outdoors gear also rent cross-country ski packages — boots, poles and skis — some for as little as $12 per day.

The Grand Mesa Nordic Council occasionally offers cross-country skiing clinics. Go to for information. Otherwise, if it’s your first time, go with someone who knows what they are doing.

The Skyway Trail System on top of Grand Mesa is a good place to start, with trails of varying lengths and for different ability levels.


Cross-country skiing is not as easy as it looks, at least not for some (me, Melinda Mawdsley, being one). With that said, however, it’s an iconic winter adventure in Colorado. Here are some things for beginners to know before they go.

1. You probably won’t be good. I speak in general terms. Some — avid downhill skiers — may pick it up quickly because of their pre-existing comfort on skis. Others (me) will struggle and may never feel stable that first time. I’m not saying this to discourage you. I’m saying this so you won’t get frustrated and instead will marvel in your courage to try something new.

2. Make sure your boots fit. Take the socks you plan on skiing in with you to the rental place. Try on multiple boot sizes until you find the right fit — a little loose in the toes but snug everywhere else for stability and to avoid blisters on your feet from moving them around every time you take a step. (My left boot was too big, so my ankle and foot kept moving around in my boot. It was annoying and caused some pain.)

3. Take plenty of water and a snack. Cross-country skiing is a lot of work, particularly if you (and me) repeatedly have to push yourself up after falling. Put a snack in your coat pocket and wear a backpack or something that holds water. (Eating snow is not the same as drinking water.)

4. Dress warm. Layer because temperatures fluctuate. You can always take a hat or neck gaiter off. (It was snowing when we started, but it was a blizzard by the end. I’m glad I was dressed appropriately. It’s the only thing I did well, other than snacks.)

5. Take a map. If you’re heading to an unfamiliar place, take a map or go with someone who knows where to go and is just like a map. The Grand Mesa Nordic Council maintains numerous trails on Grand Mesa and has a map on its site,

6. Be patient. This trait is essential for the beginner and anyone going with a beginner. Unless you’re vying for a spot on the U.S. Olympic Team, relax and enjoy the day.

— Melinda Mawdsley

The woods in winter! Downy snow falling gentle as a whisper! O! The bliss!

Wendell Berry’s thoughts on the woods came to mind, “for only there can a man encounter the silence and the darkness of his own absence. Only in this silence and darkness can he recover the sense of the world’s longevity, of its ability to thrive without him, of his inferiority to it and his dependence on it. Perhaps then, having heard that silence and seen that darkness, he will grow humble before the place and begin to take it in — to learn from it what it is.”

Indeed! I beamed ecstatically, on the very verge of a rapturous swoon. Meanwhile, about 20 feet ahead of me, there was what appeared to be a grouchy baby bird hatching from a snow egg. There was flailing. And growling?

“Did you just growl?” I asked fellow features writer Melinda Mawdsley.

She heaved herself back to her feet with a much-affronted huff and a mighty scowl, covered in snow. I wobbled forward to offer sympathy and ended up falling down, too.

Ugh. The woods. Thbbbtttt.

Cross-country skiing, it turns out, isn’t just like walking. As performed by Melinda and me, it’s a series of lurching forward spasms punctuated by tumbles down the slightest of slopes. However, before heading up to Grand Mesa with outdoors teacher extraordinaire Doug Freed on a recent Thursday, we assured each other it would merely be a strenuous walk. Neither of us had tried it before.

O, it is to laugh! Silly Melinda and Rachel.

“I feel like I should genetically be good at this,” Melinda said. “I’m part Norwegian.”

Heredity failed her, though, from about the minute we clicked into our skis. I mean, whoa. They’re so ... narrow. Are they supposed to be that narrow? Doug assured us they are.

Then, giving us an almost comical amount of credit, he tried leading us up a tiny, tiny incline not 20 feet from where he’d parked at the trail head for the Skyway Trail System. I followed Doug and Melinda followed me, and suddenly I was heading backward.

“Stop,” Melinda said.

“I can’t,” I informed her.

“Stop!” Melinda said.

Crash, I said — or did, rather. There’s a trick to going up hills, tiny or otherwise, on cross-country skis, and I had time to contemplate it while Doug untangled Melinda and me and heaved us back to our unsteady feet.

Reconsidering his methods, Doug took us for a practice loop on a flat stretch nearby, where we began learning the schussing rhythms of cross-country skiing. In the fumble of our lurching spasms, we could begin to see how the Hans Brinker glide would develop — the quiet poetry of minimal, fluid motion.

But in the meantime, we Frankenstein shambled after Doug as he led us up the 1.6-mile Sunset Trail. What had begun as a light snow grew more insistent, drifting into the forest of towering Ponderosa pines through which we skied. Except for our breaths and the tiny-bird squeaks of our poles plunging into the snow beside us, it was perfect stillness and silence. It was, at the risk of sounding florid, holy.

But then Doug would lead us down a small hill and never mind all that preening “poetry of the woods” business. It was time to fall down. Poor Melinda. Every single time. I think her boots didn’t fit right, on account of the European sizing.

“No!” she started saying before landing on her bum yet again in the soft powder.

“Who are you saying no to?” I wondered. “Sir Isaac Newton?”

How obnoxious. She should have shoved my head in the snow. But she would have fallen down before she could get to me.

It’s really easy to catch an edge on those narrow skis, it turns out.

Heading back on the Winslow Trail, a little more than half a mile, we briefly left the shelter of trees for a wide open expanse of snowy field. It was snowing really hard and the wind was blowing, attacking our exposed faces with mean little pellets driven sideways on what felt like a gale.

“I’m done,” Melinda said, and I agreed that the blizzard lite did feel terrible.

But ... it was so beautiful. The crystals clinging to my eyelashes lent a dreamy cast to the crazy tumble of falling flakes, to the frosted fields and trees, to the sleepy expanse of horizon. It was magical.

And then I fell down.



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