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If Downhill's a Drag – XC Skiing, Snowmobiles Give Winter Enthusiasts Welcome Options

Dec 24, 2012 09:47AM ● By Scott Blackwell

Set and flat track covers some of Valles Caldera National Preserve, but skiers are also allowed to break their own trails across 6,000 acres on weekends and holidays.

Downhill skiing got you down? If it’s not so much the cold, but lift lines and crowded
parking lots that sink your winter spirits, then you might want to give some alternative snow sports a try.
They might be aesthetic opposites, but snowmobiling and cross-country (or x-c) skiing are gaining popularity because even first-timers can get comfortably competent in a single day. So go ahead – try something different this year – it doesn’t matter whether you’re roaring across a frozen field at 30 mph or gliding silently through a white forest.

White Hot

There’s no need for ATV and dirt-bike fans to take a break when the snow flies. Often described as a motorcycle on skis, this powerful machine lets riders tackle snow-covered terrain with the ease of traveling a groomed trail. For ski resorts and some isolated communities, the snowmobile is an essential transportation device – for the rest of us, it’s just plain fun.
In most mountain communities, snowmobiles are available for rent within guided tours. Tours are popular because they provide an opportunity for visitors to try some of the area’s best snowmobiling trails with the help of a guide. Taos, Sipapu, Red River and Angel Fire ski areas are adjacent to Carson National Forest, an area known for its excellent snowmobile and cross-country skiing trails.
Other snowmobile businesses near Pagosa Springs, CO, offer high-country tours. Snow Country Adventure Tours (970-219-7523) takes customers on miles of trails in the San Juan National Forest and Wolf Creek Pass.
Properly dressed and helmeted, snowmobiling is surprisingly warmer than first-timers imagine. A windshield blocks the breeze, heat from the motor drifts back toward the rider, palm and thumb warmers are built into the handlebars and thick seats all make for a comfortable ride.
Still, snowmobiling takes a little more balance than a 4-wheeler on dry dirt. Just ask Jack Wyatt and Ness Martinez of Lone Pine Outfitters in Chama (575-756-2992).
“Most of our first-timers have trouble remembering you need to lean into the turns,” Jack says, “even if that means sliding off the side of your seat some.”
And traction on a snowmobile isn’t the same as on wheeled vehicles. “You have to goose it a little when starting from a dead stop. And we tell them to never stop while going uphill or they’re not likely to get moving again. If you stop in untracked, fresh snow, we’re going to have to help you out.”
Lone Pine takes customers to private land about half an hour’s drive outside of Chama on Hwy. 64. While most outfitters will allow their customers to ride up to 30 mph occasionally in a supervised meadow as part of the tour, don’t expect them to just hand you the keys and tell you to return in a couple of hours.
Rates for most snowmobile tours start at about $80 per hour per person. A passenger can save some money if splitting the cost, but it takes a little extra skill to handle the snowmobile. It’s kind of like riding a tandem bicycle. Make sure helmets and outerwear are included in the price.
A snowmobile guide or outfitter will offer plenty of guidelines and tips:
❆ Look out for others on the trail. Be alert for cross-country skiers who might be maneuvering tree-lined runs.
❆ Never operate a snowmobile if you’ve been drinking or taking drugs.
❆ Don’t go out alone. Always snowmobile with a friend or as part of a tour. Tell someone where you’ll be and when you’ll return.
❆ Obey the signs. Note that some trails are designated for all recreational uses, while others might be for cross-country skiing only or for snowmobiling only.
❆ Protect yourself from avalanches. Stay away from mountainous terrain after heavy snowfalls or when there are high winds; ride only on the windblown side of ridges. Try not to cross steep side hills or ride through steep or narrow canyon trails.
❆ Dress appropriately for the weather. Wear layers and a waterproof outer layer. Don’t wear cotton next to your body because it holds perspiration and cools the skin. Hypothermia is the leading cause of accidental death among outdoor enthusiasts.
❆ Carry food and water. Candy or protein/energy bars are good. And realize drinkable water is hard to find. Your body can lose as much as 4 quarts of water a day during exertion, regardless of the
❆ Observe wildlife from a distance. It’s safer for both of you.
❆ Avoid excessive speed. Don’t push beyond your or the machine’s abilities.
❆ Be familiar with the trails. Get a map, talk to locals and snowmobile renters.
❆ Be careful when crossing any kind of road. Come to a complete stop first, then cross at a right angle to traffic.
❆ Wear a safety-certified, properly fitted helmet with a visor and secure chin strap.
❆ Know the hand signals: left arm straight out for left turn; left arm straight out with the forearm raised to a 90-degree angle for a right turn; left arm raised straight up for a stop; left arm out and angled toward the ground to signal slow.
❆ Never cross frozen lakes or rivers.
❆ Carry essentials like a flashlight, first-aid kit, an extra key, fire-starting equipment, tools, flares and a cell phone or radio.
Riders are urged to take care of the landscape by not leaving behind litter and caring for the trail by riding only where snow has sufficiently covered vegetation.

Light & Simple

If expensive, noisy and dangerous are some of the words you use to describe skiing, you haven’t tried cross-country skiing.
Although the sport’s not quite as easy as walking, Enchanted Forest Cross Country Ski Area outside Red River (575-754-6112, isn’t afraid to teach kids as young as 3 years old. If you can physically handle a brisk walk, you’re in good enough shape to give XC a try.
Most beginners can cover one of area’s easiest 4-kilometer loops within two hours. And unlike downhill, x-c skiers can simply turn around if they don’t like where they’re heading. It’s not unusual for a beginner to enjoy an intermediate trail by their second day.
Trail use fees are $15 for adults, $12 for teens and $7 for kids. Compared to downhill footwear, x-c boots, sometimes even shoes, feel like slippers. And the whole package (boots, bindings, skis and poles) is lighter than a pair of downhill boots alone.
The financial burden is considerably lighter, too: a 90-minute lesson and trail pass with all the gear thrown in for the day is still less than a lift ticket at any downhill area.
Like the Nordic lifestyle so much you don’t want to leave? Then rent Enchanted Forest’s yurt for an overnighter. This part-house/part-tent of Asian descent comes with bunks and wood stove.
At Angel Fire, the resort is opening a new Nordic Center at the country club with 10 kilometers of trails and rentals, too.
While everything about x-c seems a lot simpler than downhill, think twice about just pulling off to the side of a snowy road and striking out across a white blanketed field or forest. Breaking a trail in even a few inches of snow is hard work.
Enchanted Forest skiers glide across mountain vistas or meander through forest trails for that back country feel without the insecurity of getting lost – routes are groomed and patrolled.

Live & Let Ski

Bob and Missy Porter of Chama Ski Services, off Hwy. 17 in Chama (575-756-2492), have more of a laissez faire attitude. They rent equipment, then hand out maps of the area customized for all levels of skiers. A lot of people want to go out on their own, but still feel safe,” Missy says. So, the areas on the Porters’ maps are easy to reach. Many trails even remain within sight of skiers’ cars.
“Many of our customers have skied before,” Missy says, “but they’ll often bring a first-timer with them.” She agreed that trudging through untracked snow is difficult, but “unless you’re out at dawn after fresh snow at these areas, the trail’s already broken (by someone else).”
Some suggested routes around Chama are 4WD roads in warmer seasons. Hiking trails and areas adjacent to railroad tracks are on the maps, too. Among the Porters’ favorites are Cumbres Pass about 10 miles north of town and the Sergeants Wildlife Area, just a mile outside of town.

Get Away ...

Those seeking the ultimate getaway will be heading to Valles Caldera National Preserve (661-3333, near Los Alamos. Off limits for decades to all recreation, a board of trustees is slowly developing the pristine area for the public. Set and flat track covers some of the preserve, but skiers will also be allowed to break their own trails across 6,000 acres on weekends and most holidays beginning Dec. 22.
Skiing on Coyote Call trail, is free. But elsewhere on the preserve, adults pay $10; youths 4-14 and seniors 62 and older pay $8. For the especially hardy, try moonlight skiing on Dec. 31, Jan. 7, Feb. 4 & Mar. 3.

Late & Lovin’ It

Procrastinators might benefit in x-c skiing, Missy Porter says, because spring is the best time to hit the snow. The constant freezing/thawing cycle helps the snow “set up.” By mid-day in the spring, the snow turns to a granular “corn.”
“Corn snow is much easier to ski on. It’s fast, almost like skating, and it’s easier to turn, too,” she says.
Many trails are skiable into May.