The fifth mountain: Nordic skiing met with passion, compassion in Snowmass

Crunch-swoosh, crunch-swoosh, crunch-swoosh, crunch-swoosh.

That was the sound most audible with each left and right stride of the Nordic skis across the Snowmass Cross Country Center’s Trail 64 on a recent morning.

The sound of the nearby traffic and aquatic wildlife seemed to blend in as the handful of cross-country skiers shuffled and skated along the track. But right up there with the crunch-and-glide was the voice of instructor Patty Lecht, loud with encouragement of each movement and the feeling that came with them.

“Can you feel the snow under your feet and how your skis are moving across it?” Lecht asked as she made her way along Trail 64. “Now stop and close your eyes for a moment so you can really feel everything.”

To say Lecht is passionate about Nordic skiing is an understatement. As she shuffled along the Snowmass loop Jan. 3, Lecht worked to connect the cross-country ski movements to the natural rhythms of the body and surrounding ecosystem — and to focus on creating a playful environment.

“One of the philosophies I like to carry while we’re teaching people to ski is it’s all about fun and play,” Lecht said. “To give joy, environment, kindness and understanding is right action. … This whole operation is so steeped in people of real compassion. Everyone here is deeply, deeply passionate and compassionate.”

For over seven years, Lecht has taught visitors and locals how to Nordic ski at the Snowmass Cross Country Center, which is run by Ute Mountaineer and headquartered at the Snowmass Club golf course.

The center has been offering Nordic ski lessons and rentals for decades and is surrounded by more than 6 miles of trail in the golf course area, along with trails that lead from the center to Snowmass Mountain and Aspen, according to its website.

“For me and a lot of us, we just love Nordic skiing and being able to get out on the free trail system,” said Scott Nelson, manager of the Snowmass Cross Country Center. “That’s just the main thing, we love doing it and helping people get into the sport because it’s a great sport to get into.”

A longtime local, Nelson said he got into Nordic skiing through his wife and was drawn to the sport for its aerobic and fitness benefits.

After working at the Aspen Cross Country Center for roughly eight seasons and taking a short hiatus, he decided to move back into the local Nordic skiing center sphere this season as the manager in Snowmass, taking over for Mark Kincheloe.

Kincheloe, who worked at the Snowmass center for over 10 years, is the manager at the Aspen Cross Country Center, which he said is much busier but doesn’t have the same, diverse terrain the Snowmass area has to offer.

He said he began Nordic skiing in the early ’80s, and that over the years he’s been racing and teaching the sport, he’s continued to learn and watch it grow as a part of the Snowmass community.

“It’s really hard to put your finger on how many people use the system, but just going out and seeing the same faces year after year shows that the sport is a real integral part of the community in Snowmass,” Kincheloe said.

From the Owl Creek trail connector between Snowmass and Aspen, to the Rio Grande Trail that runs from Aspen to Basalt, there are 90 kilometers (over 60 miles) of groomed multi-use and Nordic skiing-only trails in the upper valley free to locals and visitors.

According to John Wilkinson, president of the Aspen/Snowmass Nordic Council, the current free trail system is the product of over 20 years of collaboration between Aspen, Snowmass and Pitkin County to continually improve the Nordic skiing experience in the valley.

Money to maintain the local trails comes from the Pitkin County Open Space tax, Wilkinson explained, and the trails are groomed almost daily. He said the local Nordic council’s role is to continue to advocate for cross-country skiing access in the valley.

Moving forward, Wilkinson said the Nordic council is working to better educate locals and tourists in Snowmass especially about which trails are multi-use and which are Nordic-skiing only, and are looking ahead to ensure the local cross-country trail system rises above the negative impacts of climate change.

Wilkinson said the council is already testing out snowmaking at Aspen High School, with a one-kilometer loop for the high school Nordic athletes to use from as early as November to as late as April, and said there has even been talk of creating a Nordic trail system on Aspen Mountain if temperatures in the valley grow too warm to maintain the current tracks.

“We like to think of it as the fifth mountain,” Wilkinson said of the Aspen Snowmass Nordic trail system. “It gives people the opportunity to do something other than alpine skiing but still stay on skis.”

For Paul Perley, general manager of Ute Mountaineer in Aspen, the main focuses ahead to ensuring the local Nordic trail system thrives into the future include maintaining positive relationships with the local governments and golf courses who make the Aspen and Snowmass cross-country centers possible, and working to attract and maintain good, passionate employees.

“This year it’s been very difficult to get good, qualified employees,” Perley said, noting that the Snowmass Cross Country Center has had to bump down to operating six days a week. “Like with anything, it’s hard to find people who can find housing and afford to live here, … but we’re lucky to have a lot of people who have been at the Aspen and Snowmass centers for years and years.”

The longstanding tradition of Nordic skiing in the Aspen-Snowmass area and the locals who continue to be a passionate part of it are what Perley and Nelson believe will help the sport continue as a relatively low cost, winter recreation alternative into the future.

Although the centers themselves mostly deal with visitors, Nelson said his mission is to ensure everyone he and his staff interact with at the Snowmass Cross Country Center goes away with a positive Nordic experience.

“It starts with us. If we’re passionate about what we know and getting people started, hopefully that rubs off,” Nelson said. “Whoever walks in the door, whether it’s a beginner or an elite skier, we want them to have a good time here and to leave wanting to do it again.”