Like a lot of people in the late '90s, I moved to Whistler to snowboard. There were other reasons, but dragging knuckles through powder was pretty much the biggest draw. It's why I left a relatively high-paying job in Toronto and moved into a boot room all of 70 square feet in size.
I hit the mountains every chance I got—three or four days a week on average if I could sneak a morning off work and make up the time later. I never slept in on a Saturday or Sunday, or took a day off unless the conditions were horrible. And even then, they had to be really horrible—I used to love having the runs to myself on those rainy days where you need a thumb squeegee and garbage bag to be comfortable.
I still love it, although I've had to grudgingly admit to myself that it's not the friendliest sport for a middle-aged guy with bad knees and a compressed disk. The half-twisted stance is murder after a long day, and clearly not the healthiest thing for my aging, yoga-averse physique.
After 20 seasons, a guy can also get tired of waking up an hour before the sun to beat the crowd to the parking lot and lift line. As well, having the misfortune to have weekends off means sharing the mountains with 20,000 other people, and packing it in early enough on Sunday to beat the creeping southbound traffic.
It was time for a change. A radical one.
My snowpants just got a whole lot tighter ...
This season, I've happily joined the ranks of "skinny" skiers, investing in a pair of classic country skis to get started. Skate skis are in my future as well.
And I love it. I love the fact that I'm finally getting some good cardio exercise between the months of November and April, something that's been missing from life. My first trail runs every year always feel like my first run ever, legs and lungs burning in equal measure while my body sheds six months of backed up sweat.
I also love the rhythm of skinny skiing, the "zone" you get into when everything's clicking/lopping along. I love the beauty of the forest, the sound of my skis zipping on the snow, the speed that comes with technique (thanks for the tips, Munny!), the encouraging smiles of my fellow skinny skiers who can see my technique clearly isn't all that great, and the slow burn of a hundred neglected muscle groups.
I love facing forward instead of partially sideways, as does my body. I love driving against the traffic on a Sunday afternoon, and pulling into the day skier lots after 5 p.m. to park for free while I go for a ski under the lights.
The thrill of snowboarding through tight trees or steep slopes has been augmented by the thrill of descending even the gentlest of slopes on skis that don't have any edges. If I've lost any weight so far—and cross-country is an amazing workout when you do it properly—it's probably through sheer terror from the downhill.
It turns out that going downhill on cross-country skis is a serious challenge for my now permanently ingrained snowboarder "duck" stance—I can barely turn my legs in enough to hold any kind of snow plow to control my speed. I also don't have the skill to do those downhill step turns you see in the Olympics, which means I'm fully out of control most of the time.
You'd think that a beginner could just cruise down the preset classic tracks, but the length of my skis and the angle of the curve are often incompatible. This sometimes results in me popping out of the tracks and falling down hard. Luckily, I haven't gone over the side of the trail, but with the tracks usually set less than a metre from the edge, it's really only a matter of time.
The crashes are not like snowboard crashes either—they happen fast and you go down hard. It's like slipping on a banana peel every single time, the least graceful of falls you can imagine—and that's coming from someone who cartwheeled off a cat track a few years ago on a snowboard and wrapped myself around a tree.
And yet, despite the crashes, and the indignity of struggling to stand up again after, I'm enjoying myself thoroughly. I will happily take my lumps—and there have been many—while I figure this out. It's worth it.
There are a lot of other reasons to like skinny skiing. It's a social sport—there's no cross-equivalent to "no friends on a powder day" that I know of. It's affordable as well, which is probably why so many families do it together. And don't underestimate the value of novelty—it was definitely time to try something new.
I will always love snowboarding and can't imagine a powder day when I won't want to go. But the winters here are more than long enough to love two things.
If you haven't tried it yet, get out there while there's still time—just do yourself a favour and step out of the tracks before you head downhill.