Climbing skins are smooth in one direction to allow skiers to slide forward, but rough in the other direction to prevent them from sliding backward.
By Lawrence Walsh / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Cross-country skiers sliding and gliding across relatively level terrain usually have two choices when they encounter a hill and don’t want to turn around: Sidestepping or herringboning.
Sidestepping is climbing sideways up the hill, with both skis pointing in the same direction. With the other method they place the right ski at 2 o’clock, the left ski at 10 o’clock and alternate the skis while transferring their weight like a metronome. It’s called herringboning because that’s the pattern it leaves in the snow.
Both techniques can be exhausting and a bit of a balancing act, especially if the hill is long and steep.
Climbing straight up the hill usually isn’t an option because gravity rules. Unless, of course, the skiers have a pair of climbing skins.
The skins, once fashioned from seal skins and now made of mohair and/or nylon, have a metal loop that fits over the front of the ski, an adjustable strap and clasp that fastens the end of the skin to the tail of the ski and a treated surface that adheres them to the skis.
Skins range in price from $75 to $135, depending on width, material and the type of tip/tail kit that comes with them. They are trimmed to fit.
I sampled a pair of skins last month at the White Grass Ski Touring Center near Davis, W.Va. It is situated on more than 2,500 acres of private, state and federal land within the Cabin Mountain Range of the Allegheny Mountains.
The center is about 150 miles from Pittsburgh, between the Canaan Valley and Timberline ski/snowboard resorts, and backs up against the Dolly Sods Wilderness.
It offers groomed cross-country trails, complete sets of rental equipment, clinics, guided backcountry tours and snowshoeing.
Tony Barnes, a certified cross-country instructor, brought out a box filled with skins of various colors, widths and lengths. An orange pair fit the cross-country skis I was using.
Chip Chase, the enthusiastic general manager and co-owner of the center who appears to know everyone who walks in the door, quickly fit them on my skis.
The skins are smooth in one direction to allow skiers to slide forward but rough in the other direction to prevent them from sliding backward. They’re easy to remove, leave no residue on the skis and easily fold up to put in your pack or jacket.
After a brief warm-up outside the center’s retro one-story wood lodge, I followed Chip — “everyone calls me Chip” — up the lower section of Weiss Knob slope.
It was an invigorating experience. The skins helped me to maintain a firm grip on the snow when we stopped. There was no backsliding.
As we continued up the slope, Chip occasionally zigzagged to the left or right to pick up small branches that had come down during a recent storm. He then tossed them into the woods.
We paused part way up to turn around and look across Canaan Valley.
“How’s that for a view?” Chip asked.
We resumed climbing. Chip demonstrated how to turn around in one smooth motion. He then danced around by rapidly changing direction. Not bad for a 61-year-old who looks a decade younger and skis like a 21-year-old.
When the slope leveled off, we skied to the left and took a break by rusty machinery under a wooden roof that once operated a rope tow when the terrain was known as the Weiss Knob Ski Area.
Chip removed my orange skins and we skied on to Barton’s Bend, a 1.4-mile intermediate/advanced trail through the woods that led back to the lodge. He demonstrated various ways of slowing down, including dragging the poles between the legs or off to one side, and the snowplow technique where the skis are angled like an upside down V.
We were in a winter wonderland. Snow clung to every tree branch. I slowed down by snowplowing or dragging my poles about one foot outside of my left ski. I leaned over too far a few times and was reintroduced to gravity.
I removed the skis to walk down the steepest part of the trail and then put them back on to follow Chip back to the lodge. A veritable United Nations of flags on makeshift wooden posts snapped in the breeze as we approached the lodge. A 60-member group of Special Olympians skied along one of numerous fences set up to capture and hold wind-blown snow.
Chip talked about the “wow!” experience he had when he first visited Canaan Valley as we devoured brimming bowls of delicious homemade chorizo soup with black beans and kale. It was prepared by his wife, Laurie Little, who has co-authored two cookbooks.
The lodge’s cafe is open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily. The food is so good that nonskiers stop in for the soups, Panini sandwiches and desserts. Beers on tap include Mountain State, Greenbrier River Valley and Big Timber.
Two wood-burning stoves heat the full-service lodge, one of which keeps a kettle of free chaga tea ready to warm up skiers, snowshoers and visitors.
White Grass, with a 1,200-foot vertical drop and average snowfall each season of 160 inches, offers 32 miles of well-marked trails, 22 miles of which are groomed. They are suitable for all ages and abilities — from beginner and novice to intermediate and advanced.
A complete set of cross-country rental equipment — skis, boots and poles — costs $20 for adults, $5 for children. A group lesson is $15; a mini-lesson is $6. Snowshoe rentals are $15 for adults, $5 for children. Back-country equipment is $30; telemark gear is $38. The trail fee is $20 for adults, $5 for children.
“Cross-country skiing is easier, cheaper, safer, simpler and less crowded than downhill skiing,” Chip said. Anyone can do it. It’s a great family activity. Look how much fun those Special Olympians are having.”
Information: www.whitegrass.com (1-304-866-4114).
Lawrence Walsh writes about recreational snow sports for the Post-Gazette.
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