Skis + trains

Some people love trains. Some people love skiing. Two great experiences that go great together, like the taste of peanut butter and chocolate (or Oreos). In the US, there’s a just a few train routes that go from city to slope. And while they exist to serve the downhill skier/rider market, in some cases they help both.

The good 'ol ski train days
The good ‘ol ski train days (from Seniorsskiing.com)

The Denver-Winter Park train resumed a few years ago and has gotten some press because it stops close to the slope as it gets. There’s another Amtrak train from Seattle to Leavenworth, with a shuttle from there to Stevens pass. There are cross-country ski trails right in Leavenworth, so this is actually one ski train for Seattleite cross-country skiers.

Leavenworth itself has 26k of ski trails, and more in parks and other areas a driveable distance away, like Lake Wenatchee state park and Plain valley, Methow valley, Stevens Pass, and Snoqualmie pass.

Winter Park resort in Colorado has some cross-country skiing, with more available in the Fraser valley near Granby, like Snow Mountain ranch and Devil’s Thumb ranch. You’ll need some wheels to get around though.

The options above appear in Choo! Choo! Your Way To The Slopes. Two other areas in the article, Smuggler’s Notch VT and Squaw Valley CA, are so distant from the nearest train station that I wouldn’t call them ‘accessible’.

OK Boomer

With their (our) creaky joints, need for frequent rest stops, and declining night vision, older folk like to ride rather than drive when they (we) can. The Ski Trains Return! lists some trains for Alpine skiers; I reviewed and altered the options to suit Nordic skiing.

In Utah, UTA Frontrunner regional rail service gets you from Salt Lake City to Provo (with a UTA ski shuttle bus to Sundance Mtn resort). For these other cases you need to get a ride from an Amtrak station: Shuttle from Portland ME station to Bethel Inn (some trails in Bethel itself); North Creek Snow Train runs from Saratoga Springs to North Creek (RIP: ceased operation ca. 2016-2018); MOOver shuttle bus (you gotta know it’s Vermont) from Brattleboro to Timber Creek); and the Killington shuttle (alternatively the aptly named Gramp’s Shuttle) from Rutland Amtrak station (Mountain Meadows is across the road from Killington).

Bah Humbug. Enough with the small-bore train accommodations to skiing. For about the same cost and time required to take Amtrak from New York to Montreal, Eurostar trains whisk weekenders overnight from London, direct to the French Alps. Now that’s a ski train!

Eurostar train in terminal
The lucky ducks in London get to ride this all the way to the Alps

Mind the gap

And that brings me to the ‘last mile’ problem (more like the ‘last twenty miles’). In the old photo above, some skiers departing the train in North Conway are probably walking to Mount Cranmore, literally just a mile away.

Even in Europe ski areas aren’t known for being right next to train stations (Åre Sweden and Geilo Norway being a couple of exceptions). Let’s also not talk about Oslo, from which 1600k of hiking and cross-country trails are accessible, starting with a 30-minute tram ride from downtown, or via regional train to satellite towns.

In North America, commerce, nightlife, and lodging are dispersed, courtesy of highway funding and local zoning. The economic model for a cross-country ski center isn’t compatible with proximity to population hubs or traffic corridors without the resolve of government to set land aside and fund outdoor activities. For example, Hennepin and Ramsey county parks (encompassing the Minneapolis and St. Paul area) have groomed and lit trails; Theodore Wirth park has snowmaking as well.

In tech, the ‘last-mile problem’ is a holdover term regarding the cost to wire individual homes or remote locations off of trunk lines carrying high-speed internet. An outdoors venturer using mass transit in the USA remains highly dependent on taxis and Uber/Lyft to get to and from the trailhead, which tend to be many miles from the closest regional train or bus station. But even from the limited examples in the US, we see that tying the ‘last-mile problem’ to individuals in the name of choice isn’t the only way to go.

Caution: writers earning a living

Akin to an adage that people only think about skiing when they see snow, early season snowstorms prompted writers (or their publications) to produce stories about cross-country skiing.

PR blitz

Independently but coincidentally, ‘uphill skiing’ is striving to become a Thing. I’ve noticed articles in multiple outlets in the last few weeks. Even the New York Times has an article. Uphill skiing seems related to Alpine Touring or Randonée in the way that sport climbing is related to doing a big wall; a way to hone skills in a setting that removes objective hazards.

The news

The local paper in St. Cloud MN, where apparently not everybody skis cross-country already, felt the need to explain the sport in an article in the SC Times

NPR’s All Things Considered had a short segment on the Thanksgiving ski festival in West Yellowstone, and Forbes has a piece titled ‘Why You Should Consider A Cross Country Ski Vacation This Winter‘.

But really, isn’t the question actually: why should you consider any other kind of vacation in winter? If you want to have a little outdoors adventure experience in the off-season, National Parks Traveler has a list of some well-known and lesser-known places that are accessible to XC skiers in winter.

The winner of the ‘let’s make the most of this opportunity’ award goes to Denver’s 5280 magazine, which must have created a special section for the ten articles whose titles start off with ‘Cross-Country Skiing in Colorado’. The storm that dumped on Denver just before T-day must have been Mother Nature herself blessing the initiative of the magazine’s management. It does sound like there’s some great spots and resorts out that way though.

Articles in 5280 magazine’s Adventure section, late November-early December:

The story in ‘Passing on the Cross-Country Skiing Gene’ has a couple of nice passages in it, including this one:

The benefit of Scout’s teenage-onset obsession with my favorite winter sport was that it brought us together for extended periods of time in some of Colorado’s most majestic and remote (read: cell-service-less) places. There was no texting. No Instagram. No distractions. It was just us. And I loved it.

Tracy Ross, 5280 magazine

And some thnly-veiled snark in ‘Falling in Love With Skate Skiing’, about what the author was ‘missing’ in experiencing classic technique inspired a sidebar response:

The ultimate goal of the classic technique—called the diagonal stride—is to have a powerful kick from one leg that allows the skier to glide for a few seconds on the other leg between strides… It takes time to perfect it, and it’s actually less intuitive than it looks; lessons can be the best way to make sure you have fun.

Hennie Kashiwa, Boulder Nordic Sport

Are we missing anyone?

Finally- a side note from browsing the photos of the 5280 Adventure section: does Denver have any people of color doing winter sports? Like, any? I know the demographic in cross-country skiing skews caucasian, but there’s a lot of people who live there, and in the end a publication chooses which ones to include.

You’ll never get what you don’t recognize. Just sayin’.

Making snow green(ish)

The featured image for this entry is a map of locations in the US and Europe that store snow. Craftsbury is the lowest in both latitude and elevation, making if a challenging test. Read more in the article at FasterSkier. I was at Craftsbury early last season as they were beginning to store snow.

Photo of snow being added to Craftsbury snow store
Adding snow to Craftsbury snow store last winter

Among the challenges:

  • Melt-off during summer
  • Limits on use of water at Craftsbury
  • Energy use of machinery to make and store snow
  • Heavy equipment required
  • Craftsbury commitment to sustainability and the environment
  • Manpower and other resource needs for covering snow

The quotes below are all from the article “Innovation and the Science of Over Summer Snow Storage at the Craftsbury Outdoor Center” by Rachel Perkins:

COC has partnered with the University of Vermont (UVM) on a project to develop an innovative over summer snow storage system. The system aims to guarantee one to three kilometers of skiable snow by Thanksgiving each year. 

Paul Bierman, professor of Geology and Natural Resources at UVM explains that the project is unique because Craftsbury is the lowest in latitude and elevation of any snow storage site. The majority of cross-country venues with snow storage systems are located in high latitude Scandinavia or in mountainous high altitude areas in Central Europe.

Prof. Bierman and his team started doing tests two years ago, which determined the optimal ways to store quantities of snow through the summer months. In the pilot that took place this year, they found they could hold onto nearly two-thirds of the stored snow volume, comparable to snow storage at higher latitudes.

If you want to read all about it, check out the project site at the University of Vermont

Not a big surprise, Prof. Bierman is a cross-country skier. What an idea for mitigating some of the consequences of global warming: let’s science the s**t out of it.