One big Nordic ski day: Kaya Williams tackles Aspen Snowmass Nordic system | AspenTimes.com
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One big Nordic ski day: Kaya Williams tackles Aspen Snowmass Nordic system

How much of the Aspen Snowmass Nordic system can you ski in one day?

Kaya Williams skates along a cross-country ski trail near the Aspen Recreation Center with Pyramid Peak in the background on Friday, Jan. 28, 2022.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times Weekly

There usually comes a point in any feat of endurance when some combination of hunger and/or exhaustion of the spiritual and/or physical variety results in denial, anger, bargaining, depression and/or acceptance at some forlorn mile marker well past the point of no return.

I had figured and even expected that such a bell would toll for me when I set out to ski as much of the Aspen Snowmass Nordic Trail System as I could in a single day.

Surely there would be a time and place on the 60-plus miles of free groomed cross-country ski trails between Aspen and Emma that I would question my motives — some cursing moment I could mine for a clever little quip on the masochistic tendencies of Nordic skiers or an anecdote that would endear you with schadenfreude for my hubris and subsequent misfortune. When I pitched this story back in the fall, some deliberate self-sabotage was part of the hook.



But to write that story now would be disingenuous to myself, to the sport of cross-country skiing and to you, the reader, because the 49.75 miles I skied on a bluebird Friday on pristine corduroy was the most delightful and idyllic stretch of skiing I have ever relished in the two decades I’ve spent strapping sticks to my feet and gliding forward through the snow.

I say this with all earnestness, and as someone with a bar higher than most for such experiences. I grew up spoiled rotten on the 30-plus miles of deep-woods top-tier grooming at Tahoe XC. There is an intersection of three trails there — Gold, Bronze and Platinum — so transcendent in its solitude and blanketed scenery that I often imagine it is the first thing I will see when I pass to the Great Beyond.




So when I moved to Aspen last year, skiing past houses and crossing streets even in the more rural sections of the network took some getting used to.

I realize now that I was so fixated then on what it wasn’t that I couldn’t appreciate it for what it is, and for what it proved to be when I attempted to tackle as much of it as possible in a single day: a vast, expansive and free system of diverse terrain as rich in scenery as it is in camaraderie.

By nature of its structure, it connects the valley-wide Nordic community as much in a figurative sense — as a shared space of appreciation for the outdoors and our proximity to it — as a literal one, because the almost-contiguous network makes it possible to ski from Snowmass Village to Aspen and from Aspen to Woody Creek, Basalt or Emma.

ABOUT THE ROUTE

The Aspen-Snowmass Nordic system boasts more than 60 miles of groomed trails, almost all of them connected. But some of those trials come in the form of tight loops, shortcuts or concentric circles rather than point-to-point distance.

For the sake of goal-setting, I determined that skiing “as much of the Aspen-Snowmass Nordic system as possible” would be defined by as-the-crow-flies distance rather than miles logged on skis. A few semi-redundant trails on the core loops in Aspen got lopped off — hence the 49.75 miles logged rather than 60+ — to ensure I could still make it to Emma at a reasonable hour.

Here’s how I got there, with a lot of snack breaks, pit stops and photo ops to account for the discrepancies in moving and elapsed time.

Part 1: North Star Nature Preserve — 1.51 miles in a standalone loop located east of Aspen. Total moving time: 14 minutes, 23 seconds. Average moving pace: 9 minutes, 31 seconds per mile. Total Elapsed Time: 14 minutes, 39 seconds. Average elapsed pace: 9 minutes, 41 seconds per mile. Fastest mile split : 9 minutes, 27 seconds.

Part 2: Snowmass Village to Aspen — 28.39 miles starting at the Snowmass Golf Course and ending at the Aspen Golf Course. Total moving time: 4 hours, 34 minutes, 26 seconds. Average moving pace: 9 minutes, 40 seconds per mile. Total elapsed time: 5 hours, 50 minutes, 30 seconds. Average elapsed pace: 12 minutes, 21 seconds per mile. Fastest mile split: 6 minutes 7 seconds.

I started with the Snowmass Teaching Loop and nearby warm-up loop at Town Park, then hit Loop 64 to Loop 60 to Owl Creek Road. I backtracked on trails 62 and 61, hopped on Labrador Lane with a detour back onto Loop 60, then back to Lab Lane for a connection to the Owl Creek Trail.

After a quick clockwise loop on the Terminator off of Owl Creek, it was smooth sailing to the Aspen High School trails, followed by Aspen Loop 20 down to Marolt Open Space, back up Loop 20 and then to the Maroon Creek Club trail down to Aspen Golf Course. Finished with Aspen Golf Course Loop 10.

Part 3: The Rio Grande Trail — 19.85 miles from the Aspen Post Office to the Emma Schoolhouse in a straight shoot down the Rio Grande.

Total moving time: 2 hours, 18 minutes, 13 seconds. Average moving pace: 7 minutes, 1 second per mile. Total elapsed time: 2 hours, 33 minutes, 58 seconds. Average elapsed pace: 7 minutes, 45 seconds per mile. Fastest mile split: 6 minutes, 4 seconds.

I found myself in good company in this gratitude while chatting up some speedy longtimers on classic wood skis I had been leapfrogging with on the Snowmass trails during my Big Ski.

We caught up to each other at a perch above a meadow about halfway between Owl Creek Road and West Buttermilk where four Adirondack chairs serve as one of the finest lunching and sunbathing sites anywhere on the Owl Creek Trail that connects Snowmass Village and Aspen.

I had managed to stumble upon Paul Andersen, George Newman and Graeme Means, three friendly gents in their early 70s whose names ought to ring familiar if you’re a regular reader of the Aspen Times.

Andersen wrote a column for the Times for more than three and a half decades before retiring last year; Newman served three terms as a Pitkin County Commissioner before wrapping up his tenure last January; Means, a longtime architect and current member of the Pitkin County Open Space and Trails board, also happens to be married A Way Out’s Elizabeth Means, someone I’ve chatted with a couple of times on the mental health beat.

The cohort have been cross-country skiing for decades and remain committed to their vintage wooden classic ski setups that put my 10-year-old plastic skate skis to shame. (Classic skiing is defined by a kick and glide motion, often in set tracks and aided by waxes or textured surfaces on the base of the ski; skate skiing follows the same motions as ice skating and happens on skis with smooth bases, usually on a groomed corduroy surface.)

Andersen estimated he’s had the pair of wood skis he was skiing on that day for nearly 40 years and they still “ski like they’re brand new,” thanks to committed care and maintenance. Means estimated he has nine or 10 pairs (different styles serve different purposes) and feels a connection with them much like that I imagine I might feel with my own hands and feet.

“A wood ski is organic, it’s got a spirit,” Means said. “And so you can talk to it and it can talk to you and there’s an interplay there, and they’re lively, and they can jump and they can glide, and they can tell you what they want and you can really have a dialogue, which is difficult with a plastic ski.”

Paul Andersen's wood skis rest on the snow along the Owl Creek Trail on Friday, Jan. 28, 2022.
Kaya Williams/The Aspen Times Weekly

Their pitch for wood skis may well have been working on me, given my affinity for things from bygone decades and a ski with “spirit.” But I may not have even been out there were it not for the emergence of skate skiing back in the 1980s, when the legendary cross-country skier Bill Koch observed and then applied the technique to great success.

“It seems like when skating came into vogue in the 80s, that created a whole new generation of cross-country skiers,” Newman said. That generation includes my parents, who both classic and skate ski and instilled the love of the sport in me; it also includes me, who likes to pretend I’m Apollo Ohno when I’m skating down a gentle slope with a rush and rhythm I find hard to replicate any other way.

Kaya Williams cruises down a cross-country ski trail near the Aspen Recreation Center with Pyramid Peak in the background on Friday, Jan. 28, 2022.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times Weekly

Those skate skis certainly came in handy on the descents of my route, of which I had intentionally planned many for the sake of time and energy efficiency. Skiing from Snowmass Village to the core Aspen loops has a few steep climbs but far more cruise-y downhills than the other way around; the steady decline of the Rio Grande from Aspen to Emma allowed me to book it the final 19.85 miles into the sunset (and a little beyond it, making me grateful for my headlamp.)

I must give credit here where credit is due: to Mother Nature, who provided weather so nice and snow so fresh I could not have picked a better day if I tried, and to the people who care so deeply about the role of Nordic skiing in our community that they have dedicated their time, resources and hearts to this system’s success.

The Aspen/Snowmass Nordic Council is a volunteer advisory board whose members advocate for and oversee a cross-country ski system that connects (almost) contiguously the town centers of Aspen, Snowmass Village. Woody Creek, Basalt, and Emma.

It was the Nordic Council, sparked by former U.S. Ski Team member Craig Ward in the mid-1980s, who got to work ensuring that connectivity exists. They have negotiated easements with private homeowners, formed community partnerships with open space agencies and local municipalities and worked with businesses like Aspen Skiing Company, the Maroon Creek Club and the Snowmass Club to enable access to the diverse terrain covered by the trail system.

Those efforts meant I only had to stop and restart my Strava recording twice in the entire ski: once after completing a lap at the standalone loop at North Star Nature Preserve east of Aspen, and once to get from the Aspen Golf Course to the Rio Grande Trail. (The Cemetery Lane Bike Path connects the golf course to the Rio Grande but the path is plowed, not groomed, so it isn’t currently realistic to make the connection on skis.)

It’s thanks to those initiatives — and to Ward’s vision for communities linked by Nordic ski trails, much like he found them in Europe — that I was able to ski from Snowmass Village to Aspen across ski runs and through sugar-coated forests and in the heart of wide-open fields while only removing my skis to cross a couple of streets and driveways.

As for the grooming of those trails, the City of Aspen and Pitkin County both own grooming equipment that creates the pristine corduroy surface and classic tracks that I found on the trails last Friday.

DON’T TREAD ON ME


Footprints and pawprints leave a mark on a cross-country ski trail right past a sign informing people that the trail is only for skiing on Friday, Jan. 28, 2022. | Kaya Williams/The Aspen Times Weekly

It can take the better part of a day to groom the entire system, as crews did on the Friday that I embarked on my journey and found myself cutting fresh grooves in the nearly-untouched snow almost the entire time I was skiing.

I say “nearly” because though it takes hours to set the snow just right, it takes only a few minutes of someone walking on a skiing-and-snowshoeing-only trail to spoil the spoils of a groom well done.

Please, for the love of corduroy, do not walk on skiing-only trails. Pick up some snowshoes or hit up the pedestrian friendly trails: Labrador Lane in Snowmass, Bernese Boulevard in Aspen and the Rio Grande.

When I interviewed them on the Owl Creek Trail, Andersen, Means and Newman all shared their gratitude for that community commitment that has created such a rich, vibrant network in this valley that is not underappreciated but is perhaps underutilized.

“This is a world-class amenity that is probably one of the least used in the valley,” Andersen said.

It’s also one that we could all stand to use a bit more often, I think.

“It’s a physical enrichment, and then a spiritual and mental one,” Andersen said; to Means, Nordic skiing is like “therapy.” To me, it just might be the best thing in the whole wide world.


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