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Big storms bring rare treat for Nordic skiiers

January 22, 2015 Updated: January 22, 2015 at 9:00 am
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photo - Carson Black cross country skis in Thorndale Park, off Uintah Street Monday Jan. 12, 2015. Black says he likes to get out and ski if there's enough snow for a base. He lives nearby.
 Carol Lawrence/The Gazette
Carson Black cross country skis in Thorndale Park, off Uintah Street Monday Jan. 12, 2015. Black says he likes to get out and ski if there's enough snow for a base. He lives nearby. Carol Lawrence/The Gazette  

Snow still was piled on tree branches the morning Carson Black sighted his quarry: a prime cross-country ski spot smack in the middle of Colorado Springs.

"It doesn't happen a lot - maybe three or four times a year," said Black, a retired dentist who made the best of a storm that dumped several inches across the region by heading to an idyllic Thorndale Park on the city's west side to ski laps under frozen boughs.

In the Springs, such opportunities are rare - and fans of the elegant, demanding sport must leap into action to seize them.

Cross-country skiing, also known as Nordic skiing - a sport thought to be thousands of years old - involves propelling through the snow on long, narrow skis with the help of poles.

It's an incredible workout, and while the sport requires lots of practice - it rewards physical grace and efficiency of movement, which develop over time - it can be picked up quickly with the help of lessons or an experienced friend.

Skiing in the backcountry generally requires heavy accumulation to cover roots and rocks in trails and prevent damage to skis.

In grassy parks, however, a few inches suffice for a memorable morning of outdoor reflection and exercise, enthusiasts say.

A variant of the sport, skate skiing, began growing in popularity in the 1980s and requires more snow and the right conditions, drawing devotees to Colorado's many Nordic ski centers.

Lee Milner of Colorado Springs, a longtime skier, says he carefully watches the weather in the Pikes Peak region with hopes of finding the rare intersection of good snow and a free morning. His favorite route begins at upper High Drive gate and spans several miles to the bottom of the hill - all on a nice, wide road to allow room for error while executing turns.

"If you get 6 to 8 inches of snow up there, it's just perfect," he said.

High Drive, which is undergoing flood repairs, is open to nonmotorized users on weekends and during the week if snow and ice have canceled construction work, according to Colorado Springs Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services.

A real estate agent and longtime trails and open space advocate, Milner is working on getting the city to open the Pikes Peak North Slope Recreation Area for winter activities in hopes of expanding skiable terrain.

The North Slope, encompassing three reservoirs and 2,300 acres and accessible via the Pikes Peak Highway, is closed between mid-April and mid-October.

Winter access would complement other popular spots in the region, such as Mueller State Park and Teller County Road 62 en route to Crags Campground. But for a reliable source of snow, there's only one solution, observers say: Make like downhill skiers and head to higher ground.

"The action is up in Summit County, two hours away," said Matt Chmielarczyk of Mountain Chalet, one of the few businesses in the Springs that offer cross-country ski rentals.

Cross-country skiers can opt to ski for free on trails on Forest Service land or pay a fee to ski at the groomed trails at Nordic centers, which generally offer lessons, rentals and food.

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